The roots of Black Gospel music trace back to the spirituals once sung by slaves as they worked in the fields. The slaves were not allowed to speak their native language. They were not allowed to read or write. Of the few things they were allowed – singing was one of them.
Robert Darden, a Baylor University professor of journalism, public relations and new media, will speak at St. Mark’s Episcopal Bookstore luncheon on Friday. He’s the author of “Nothing but Love in God’s Water: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement.”
“The slave owners believed it allowed them to work faster and better,” Darden said in a recent phone interview.
Spirituals had an obvious religious message about heaven and getting into heaven. But of the many thousands of known spirituals, many of them also had a message that only the slaves themselves understood. The songs could be used to inform slaves on various topics ranging from accounting, to the months of the year, to which slaves made it to freedom, and which routes to take.
“They used these songs that had what we called a ‘double-voicedness,” Darden said. “And they could be sung right under the noses of the overseers who thought they were either nonsense words or they were just their versions of white hymns, but in fact, it was an extraordinary collection and language that was wholly created by the slaves to educate, and inform, and inflate people.”
This “double-voicedness” in black music continued into the 20th century.
As cofounder and director of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project at Baylor University, Darden discovered that the reverse side to many black gospel singles in the ’60s, most of which are 45-rpm recordings, often featured politically engaged songs aimed to encourage and galvanize civil rights supporters. It was dangerous to be politically active during the civil rights movement. Because only black people would listen to the b-sides, the performers of the music could go relatively unnoticed by the white population. Darden credits this music as having a significant impact on the civil rights movement.
His research on the subject over a period of seven years has resulted in the two-volume project, “Nothing but Love in Gods Water.” The first volume was released last October.
“I believe that while every other facet of the civil rights movement has been well documented – the politics, the personalities, the laws, the financial side, the gender side – most scholars, particularly white scholars, but all scholars to a degree, have never spent a lot of time trying to determine or quantify how this music helped change the world,” Darden said.
The music of the civil rights movement served many functions.
“There were times songs were sung to calm young angry black men down who were just beaten and had the dogs turned on them,” he said. “And there were times songs were used to lift them back up when they were depressed. There were songs of defiance. There were songs that were used for humor – to diffuse an angry situation. There were songs that were used to recruit. And sometimes, there were songs that were used just to pass the time. So they were used in every possible way. And of the hundreds of people that I interviewed, they gave me the same thing over and over again – that this music provided the fuel that ran the engine of the civil rights movement.”
Of the thousands of Gospel songs that have been recorded, Darden cites one song as possibly the most recognized, and one that transcends racial barriers and circumstances – “We Shall Overcome.”
“It’s still sung today, Darden said. “And in the last few years I have heard it sung by people who are not black and are not Christian. The song still has the same power it did during the civil rights movement. If you go listen to any of the funerals of any of the young black men who’ve been killed by police in the last year – it’s always sung at the funerals and always sung by the mourners on the way to the funeral.
“It’s always a unifying song. It was sung at Martin Luther King’s funeral. It was sung in Birmingham. It was sung in Selma. And it was sung in Montgomery. I believe it will always be sung because it has this resonance to oppressed peoples everywhere.”
The Black Gospel Restoration Project, which holds the largest digitized collection of Black Gospel music in the world, will become a permanent feature of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture when it opens later this year at the National Mall in Washington DC.
“Nothing but Love in God’s Water” takes its name from a line in the song “The Old Ship of Zion”, recorded sometime in the late ’60s or early ’70s by an obscure Maryland group called The Mighty Wonders. The second volume of “Nothing but Love in God’s Water” will be released in 2016.
Robert Darden will play music from the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project at 11 a.m. and will speak from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Reservations are not required for his talk and music, but the luncheon afterwards is $25 by advance reservations.
For reservations call Karen Paretta at (210) 509-6055 or the church at (210) 226-2426. St. Mark’s Episcopal Church is located at 315 E. Pecan St.
*Featured/top image: Cover of the book “Nothing but Love in Gods Water: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement.” Courtesy image.