Cover image for Nothing but Love in God's Water: Volume 1: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement By Robert Darden

Nothing but Love in God's Water

Volume 1: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement

Robert Darden


$34.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05084-3

Available as an e-book

224 pages
7" × 10"
7 b&w illustrations

Nothing but Love in God's Water

Volume 1: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement

Robert Darden

Nothing but Love in God’s Water, volume 1, fills a significant niche in the already-voluminous library of the civil rights movement. While previous Pulitzer Prize–winning books have definitively covered the movement’s leaders, politics, strategies, philosophy, and impact, the literature related to the influence—actually, the importance—of the music to the movement has barely been addressed in meaningful, systematic fashion. Nothing but Love in God's Water does that and more.”


  • Media
  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects

Watch a discussion with Robert Darden about Nothing But Love in God’s Water on CSPAN’s BookTV here.

To view the source materials from the book and learn more about the project, go to the Fulcrum website.

The first of two volumes chronicling the history and role of music in the African American experience, Nothing but Love in God’s Water explores how songs and singers helped African Americans challenge and overcome slavery, subjugation, and suppression. From the spirituals of southern fields and the ringing chords of black gospel to the protest songs that changed the landscape of labor and the cadences sung before dogs and water cannons in Birmingham, sacred song has stood center stage in the African American drama. Myriad interviews, one-of-a-kind sources, and rare or lost recordings are used to examine this enormously persuasive facet of the movement. Nothing but Love in God’s Water explains the historical significance of song and helps us understand how music enabled the civil rights movement to challenge the most powerful nation on the planet.
Nothing but Love in God’s Water, volume 1, fills a significant niche in the already-voluminous library of the civil rights movement. While previous Pulitzer Prize–winning books have definitively covered the movement’s leaders, politics, strategies, philosophy, and impact, the literature related to the influence—actually, the importance—of the music to the movement has barely been addressed in meaningful, systematic fashion. Nothing but Love in God's Water does that and more.”
“The African American spiritual tradition long ago overflowed its cultural banks to become a wellspring for quintessentially American sacred and secular music. In Nothing but Love in God’s Water, Robert Darden meticulously and mellifluously charts that flow from the origins of the spiritual as a balm against the pain of slavery to adaptation and repurposing as a means of empowering, uniting, and persevering in the struggle for civil rights. Darden offers an essential guide to the evolution of a tradition, the myriad springs, eddies, and crosscurrents that over centuries fed into the enduring river that is the legacy of African American sacred song.”
“This book is absolutely brilliant! Part social history, part investigative reporting, and a lot of sound cultural analysis with a touch of theological reflection, this magnum opus illuminates the importance of black sacred music within the civil rights movement. Nothing but Love in God’s Water reveals black sacred music as a liberating expression, a tool for liberation, and the most important chronicle of the liberation experience. Robert Darden’s tome is accurate, well written, captivating, and full of insightful interpretations of the power of music within the African American experience.”
“As Americans take to the streets in protest over the loss of African American lives in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York, and elsewhere, the power of the singing army cannot be overestimated. Although decades have passed since the Civil Rights movement of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. era, protesters are not turning to today’s popular song canon to set their marching cadence. They are still singing the old standards, such as ‘I Shall Not Be Moved,’ and ‘We Shall Overcome.’ Like previous generations, they are harnessing the power of black sacred song to lift the spirit of the oppressed and turn the heart of the oppressor. Darden’s book provides an eminently readable and consistently fascinating history of how this came to be.”
“In this first volume of a projected two, Darden . . . gets immediately to the heart of his subject: music validates the African rites of passage and while continuing that role in African American history provides the commentary and response to all subsequent aspects of black life and society. Alert to the church as the haven for more than worship, the author illustrates this manifested from the plantations to the Fisk Jubilee Singers to the gospel music of Thomas Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson. Seeing the cultural fabric as a unit, Darden looks at the protests and responses within blues and jazz as well as in the sacred. The author is knowledgeable about the literature on the subject and has produced a work that will be useful to a broad audience. Scholarly readers will find the expansive bibliography and 26 pages of endnotes of particular value.”
“The first volume of Robert Darden’s timely and readable book, Nothing but Love in God’s Water, offers a well researched, notated and indexed lens through which to focus an evaluation of protest music based on African-American sacred song.”
“African-American music and its revolutionary potential, whether in the form of slave spirituals or the protest songs of the Civil Rights Movement, is relatively well-trodden ground amongst scholars. Where Robert Darden diverts from, and adds to this historiography, is in highlighting the reach and impact of black musical forms within sections of white American society. . . . Darden presents a compelling study of the impact of African-American music, making excellent use of both the rich historiography, and the various black musical genres.”

Robert Darden is Professor of Journalism, Public Relations, and New Media at Baylor University. He is a former gospel music editor for Billboard magazine.




Chapter 1: The Spiritual: Beginnings and Context

Chapter 2: The Spirituals: Protest Songs

Interlude: The Protest Spirituals: From the Post Civil War Era Through the Great


Chapter 3: The Spirituals: “There is Power in the Union!”

Chapter 4: The Beginnings of the Modern Civil Rights Movement, the Influence of

Radio, and the Rise of Gospel Music

Chapter 5: Montgomery: Black Sacred Song in the Modern Civil Rights Movement


The Beginnings of a Singing Movement

It is important to recognize here at the very beginning that the Movement . . . was larger, more inclusive, more revolutionary than the misnamed and misinterpreted “civil rights movement.” Contrary to the pablum we read in media and in textbooks, the Movement was a national phenomenon, which anticipated and paved the way for the millions of people singing “We Shall Overcome” in the freedom movements sweeping through Eastern Europe and Southern Africa. All Americans, in fact, are indebted to the men, women, and little children who broke into American history like beneficent burglars, bringing with them the gifts of vision, passion, and truth. And a case can be made and ought to be made that the Movement freed more white people than Black people.

—Lerone Bennett, Jr.

Did the civil rights movement begin with the Montgomery bus boycott, the Emancipation Proclamation, or when the first slave said “no” or slowed down in the work assigned? And did it end with the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.? It is clear that beginnings and endings are determined by the critic’s perceptions and ability to get others to agree to those perceptions.

—Malcolm O. Sillars

When does something become a movement? What if it always was a movement, long before there were words to name it? In fact, what if movement is not the best way to describe what has happened—and, in some cases, what is continuing to happen? In the case of the civil rights movement, perhaps it is better described as a “continuous, irresistible action,” an action that began the moment Africans were enslaved, forcefully brought across the Middle Passage, and bludgeoned into a lifetime sentence of enslavement with only the barest possibility of manumission, a servitude nearly unparalleled in human history for its brutality and inhumanity.

From the very beginning, when the first Africans were torn from their native lands and brought in chains to the Americas, they desired freedom. The records show that the slaves did more than just desire freedom; they employed every means possible to achieve that end. On the slaving ships of the Atlantic Ocean, despairing Africans took their own lives, tried repeatedly to escape, rose in rebellion, and committed infanticide rather than face slavery. Once in the Americas, slaves continued their desperate efforts to be free, employing violence and nonviolence, stealth and brazen action, spoken and written pleas. Those who covertly learned to read and write wrote passionately, arguing the unholiness of their fate. They escaped. They escaped and were caught and then escaped again. They prayed, first to the African gods they left behind and ultimately to the God of Christianity. At great personal cost, they made the exploitation of their forced labor increasingly more expensive. That ongoing, never-ending action was an unrelenting fight for freedom.

And they did one other thing. They sang. By every known account, the Africans of a dozen nations and people groups arrived in the Americas singing and continued to sing. They sang because they sang in Africa and singing was an inextricable, irreducible part of their lives and souls. While scholars say there were significant cultural differences among the Songhai, Akan, Yoruba, Ibo, Wolof, Oyo, Asante, and all the people groups taken into slavery, the music they sang bore remarkable similarities. And singing, like dancing, was central to their lives. The very best guess by the very best scholars in the field is that long before Africans knew of Christianity, even as they became African-American slaves, they sang.

At the time of the slave trade, singing was virtually continual in Africa. The lyrics Africans sang concerned every facet of their lives, of events hundreds of years ago, of the mundane tasks of daily life, of the glories of their natural world. The physical and spiritual worlds were interchangeable—all songs were sacred, all songs were profane, all were important. And if the goal of African music “has always been to translate the experiences of life and of the spiritual worlds into sound, enhancing and celebrating life,” as Samuel A. Floyd writes, then how could the continually resisting African-American slave not sing of a loss as elemental as freedom?

Not surprisingly, with singing being such an integral part of their lives, the words African-American slaves sang, the concepts they expressed, were often complex, with multiple layers of meaning. Centuries later, Gates would dub this “double-voicedness” as “signifyin’”—a special language to convey meaning available only to those listeners who knew the hidden contextual keys and language. Other scholars have shown how this trait was apparent both in Africa at the time of the slave trade and continues on the continent to this day. This “shadow language” will become an essential part of African-American life, a buffer between the worlds of whites and blacks, a weapon that plays its part in that ever-present, ongoing quest for freedom.

As a means of establishing what they believed was absolute control, slave owners in North America, especially in what would become the southern United States, successfully destroyed the shared heritage, religion, customs, and language of their slaves, systematically separating and dispersing new arrivals from various African tribal peoples to other plantations. Within a short generation or two, few memories of physical Africa remained. Rarely has this much effort gone into obliterating a conquered people’s social, spiritual, and cultural identity. Only their music remained: “Now, no slave ever has any rights: personal, family, property, time, privacy, freedom of motion, freedom of opinion nor freedom of the physical body. That is the symbolism of the chains. But the only thing that cannot be chained is human thought unexpressed. So if you do not want your slave to speak freely you should also forbid him to sing—even without words. The human voice in speech only releases the thought; in singing, the same voice gives it wings.”

The slaveholders did not destroy the slaves’ music. It was too firmly entrenched in all of Africa’s children, too potent, too much a part of their DNA to ever fully eradicate. Of course, the slaves made it difficult for the owners to forbid singing. Very early in their enslavement, African-American slaves convinced their overseers that they better accomplished their backbreaking work if they were allowed to sing their “nonsense” songs. Short of actual physical confrontation or escape, these songs may have been the first nonviolent protest of an enslaved people. The songs helped the myths and memories survive—the stories of the forebears of Monkey, Rabbit, High John de Conquer, Stagger (or Stack-O) Lee, John Henry, and the rest. Apparently the slave owners paid them little mind, for they flourished.

Another critical factor was the introduction of the white man’s religion, Christianity, to a people who had, for the most part, been forcibly separated from their gods. The spread of the Christian faith among African-Americans was a slow and torturous process, one hindered by the absence of a faith among many of the plantation owners themselves. After all, the teachings of Jesus systematically eliminated distinctions among believers, and few slaveholders were willing to admit that the creatures they despised were also human. Christianity did eventually filter out to the slaves, particularly following the Second Great Awakening in the United States. While the slaveholders sought to minimize the damage by obsessively focusing on the Bible verses that emphasized unquestioning slave obedience, slaves eventually cobbled together a very real version of the faith, one with remarkable similarities of first-century C.E. Christianity.

And with the introduction of Christianity to the slaves, they added the heroic stories of Moses, Daniel, and Jesus, heroes who led their people from physical and spiritual bondage to freedom. It was to these iconic figures that later freedom fighters like Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr., looked to inspire and encourage an enslaved people to act.

If the spiritual is such a catalyst, what did it sound like? Scholars like Dena J. Epstein and John Lovell, Jr., spent decades meticulously combing through fragmentary antebellum records to answer that question (and many others). Stripping away the racist stereotyping, the comments by listeners without a background in music composition or theory, and the utter disinterest most southern slave owners held in the lives of their charges, Epstein and Lovell establish a sense of what the original spirituals must have sounded like. When combined with the early recordings of isolated churches in the Deep South made by John and Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress, a fuller aural soundscape emerges.

William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison also tried to describe the music in the days before recording devices in their seminal book Slave Songs of the United States. Allen and Garrison were both musicians and, even in the midst of the project, Ware admitted his difficulties in accurately capturing what the collectors had heard being sung, and said that he was driven to “despair” in trying to convey the “effect” of group-singing among the slaves. Other white writers of that era used words like “unearthly,” “wild,” and “weird” to describe slave song melodies. The authors cite a pre–Civil War article by W. H. Russell of the London Times, who described the music this way:

The oarsmen, as they bent to their task, beguiled the way by singing in unison a real negro melody, which was unlike the works of the Ethiopian Serenaders as anything in song could be unlike another. It was a barbaric sort of madrigal, in which one singer beginning was followed by the others in unison, repeating the refrain in chorus, and full of quaint expression and melancholy:

“Oh your soul! Oh my soul! I’m going to the churchyard

To lay this body down;

Oh my soul! Oh your soul! We’re going to the churchyard

To lay this nigger down.”

Russell’s description does address, at least briefly, how the music was usually sung. Whether in a church, hidden brush arbor meeting, slave quarters on the edge of the plantation, or in a work-related setting (rowing, hoeing, harvesting, shucking), the spirituals were usually performed in a call-and-response interaction, the opening line or couplet shouted by someone in the group, the response sung in return.

The music itself, as compiled from the various sources, is described as being composed of rich, otherworldly melodies with notes that often did not fall within the western European pentatonic scale (the “blue notes,” or flatted sevenths, gapped scales, and ambiguous thirds). The music and accompanying words appeared to have been improvised on the spot, changing constantly until there is today no definitive version of any spiritual—only what the (mostly white) compilers hastily captured as a snapshot of a single performance.

Other distinctive elements: The musical accompaniment to the words of the spirituals always left room for ample improvisation. There was frequent repetition of both the melody lines and the words, particularly in the first two phrases. There was the tendency, according to the accounts, for the spirituals to be accompanied by movement. And there was a constant, undying love of rhythm, poly-rhythm, and counter-rhythm, a powerful survival from Africa that molds and directs black music in the West even today. One former slave once wrote of the sacred music experiences of his childhood:

The colored people . . . have a peculiar music of their own, which is largely a process of rhythm, rather than written music. There is largely, or was . . . a sort of rhythmical chant. It had to do largely with religion and the words adopted to their quaint melodies were largely of a religious nature. The stories of the Bible were placed into words that would fit the music already used by the colored people. While singing these songs, the singers and the entire congregation kept time to the music by the swaying of their bodies or by the patting of the foot or hand. Practically all of the songs were accompanied by a motion of some kind . . . the weird and mysterious music of the religious ceremonies moved old and young alike in a frenzy of religious fervor.

The pieces were all in place. We have a resourceful, courageous, freedom-loving people with a heritage of music and story. And we have a religion that united this people in their centuries-long quest to wrest freedom from their oppressors.

In short, at that moment, we have a movement.

Unlike all the other peoples that entered the New World, the Black man was forcibly brought there against his will, to serve other men’s material needs. When, in 1619, John Rolfe, the tobacco king of Virginia, spoke of the ship that brought the first Blacks to the shores of America, he declared, “The ship brought not anything but 20 and odd negroes.” Little did he know that inside the hold of that vessel were the dynamics that were to change the whole American panorama. In that ship were the seeds of the Spirituals, the Denmark Veseys, Nat Turners, the Frederick Douglasses, the Civil War, the Gettysburg Address, the seeds of the blues and jazz and the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance—in a word—“soul.”

—Leonard E. Barrett