Is There a Message In the Music? – By Anthony B. Pinn

Anthony B. Pinn on Robert Darden’s Nothing But Love in God’s Water

Robert Darden, Nothing but Love in God’s Water: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014, 224pp., $34.95
Robert Darden, Nothing but Love in God’s Water: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014, 224pp., $34.95

Think about the following scene: Enslaved Africans physically abused, mentally tortured, and uncertain of their material possibilities. Yet they were convinced the future had to be better than the present. And they marked out this thinking, this optimism even, in the context of absurdity and in song we have come to call the spirituals. “O go down, Moses, Away down in Egypt’s land” is just one of these songs, and it speaks more than one message. The obvious message is biblical, a rehearsal of a biblical story and nothing more. This is what most slaveholders heard when they caught the lyrics. But there was another message that possessed a deeper and more subversive meaning: God delivered one group of chosen people and God will liberate enslaved Africans from an equally injustice bondage. This is what enslaved Africans heard in the songs. And this double-talk, this layered message, has been of interest to listeners and academics for a long time. Books over the course of decades have presented, described, and analyzed the lyrics and musical content.

In the tradition of thinkers such as John Lovell, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Dena Epstein, Robert Darden provides a description of African American musical production and links it to the struggle for social justice in the United States. Whereas most earlier works discuss freedom songs as revised spirituals in relationship to 1960s protest, Darden moves back to the 1950s and the Montgomery Bus Boycott as an earlier location for the synergy of music and protest. As Darden sees it, the creativity of musical traditions and the courage inflected by religious sensibilities, guided by a preoccupation with justice, come together to constitute the frame for a “movement”.

Early on, Darden argues that readers should understand his book as built on a triadic structure: story, song, and laughter. The first constitutes his way of marking out the genealogy of African American music and tying it to African cultural sensibilities in relationship to religious-political realities of North America. In addition, he argues that song became a key mode of expression, one that could withstand the surveillance and brutality of life in perpetual servitude and could also chronicle a response to such conditions through religious signifiers and codes. Finally, laughter entailed the ability to identify and, through folk heroes such as High John the Conqueror, outsmart oppressors. These three categories provide an underlying theoretical framework used to explore and explain how music helped African Americans confront an inhospitable society.

Darden’s sense that religious and political worlds come together through musical production provides an intriguing way of marking out the nature and meaning of an important African American grammar of life. That said, one might raise questions concerning his somewhat flat depiction of the religious landscape of African American communities. Darden pays limited attention, for example, to the ways in which African traditional religious sensibilities had an impact on cultural production. More importantly, what is to be made of the double-talk within these groups? That is, how can scholarly interpretation capture the “meaning” of music language that so easily shifts and changes form? Does this ability to shift vocabulary (and its significance) not also say something about the relationship between religion and politics? Perhaps any distinction between “sacred” and “secular” is ultimately of no real significance?

Mahalia Jackson, 1962. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Mahalia Jackson, 1962. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

There is no denying, as Darden notes, that much African American musical expression speaks to a deep desire for liberation and for freedom from injustice. Not all spirituals, however, understand this transformation as taking place within the context of human history. And some spirituals speak to a notion of redemptive suffering that challenges any idea of sustained concern for historical transformation. Perhaps it is not the metaphysical content but rather the rhythm that renders them appealing and transferable to new contexts? For instance, the author chronicles protest spirituals in the context of labor union organizing. Yet does the change in lyrics not speak to something other than their spiritual application? “Give me that Old Time Religion” and “Give Me that Old Communist Spirit” say something about very different metaphysical arrangements, based on the former’s sense of transcendence over against the latter’s materialist read of history. If the use of “sacred” songs by labor opens to the use of freedom songs during the Civil Rights Movement, does this not also suggest something concerning the cultural—over against the theological—importance of these “sacred” songs? The author’s somewhat linear presentation often omits such internal contestations of ideas and ideals.

Nothing but Love in God’s Water encourages readers to think of music as an invitation to transformation, as an opportunity, through performance, to re-arrange socio-political and economic structures of collective life. And while the author provides an informative description of music’s impact on the language and “flow” of political protest, missing is substantial attention to the blues. The author writes of the gospel blues. But what does one make of the blues, the earthy, body-centered blues that critique injustice and traditional modalities of religious engagement? These, one would think, say something to and about the nature of protest and the response of the oppressed to the existential conditions faced, providing both in ways that challenge the theological sensibilities of what the author understands as “sacred” texts such as the Bible.

This book also leaves unanswered some important questions. For example, is it not possible that the labor songs, by removing the theological underpinning, actually foster something that shifts the optimism of the spirituals away from supernatural sensibilities to something more materialistic and earth-centered? In this way, the manipulation of “sacred” music involves a transformation of those songs from theologically driven to empirically arranged, and hence more in line with the blues. In addition, the author provides insightful attention to developments in technology (the appearance of records and record players, for example) that allowed for the spread of music. But does this same technology not create a distance from initial places of performance, such as churches, that de-theologize the music, thereby calling into question what it means to call them “sacred” songs?

The persistence of such questions points to the manner in which the text makes some assumptions concerning the utility of religion and the presence of non-theistic sensibilities (e.g., the blues), as well as the nature of theological language and imagery. That is to say, doesn’t the ability of this music to shift, for instance, from the rigorous theism of the spirituals to the materialism of union songs speak to the need to rethink theory of religion? Put differently, if the author is correct concerning the fluidity of African American music across socio-cultural and political terrains, wouldn’t this at least suggest religion isn’t constituted by particular, organizational arrangements and rhythmic creedal statements? Religion, then, must entail something not so sui generis after all. If this weren’t the case, the theological under pinning of the music’s language and grammar would be more difficult to shake. What is the shared geography of experience that facilitates transference of imagery and symbolism in meaningful ways? While this study of music might prompt the author to raise questions concerning the very nature and meaning of religion, such is missing from this text.

Despite lingering questions and concerns, describing African American musical traditions is an important dimension of scholarship related to the nature and meaning of life in the United States. And as such, this book makes an intriguing contribution to this scholarship from one who knows music from a variety of angles. (Darden is both an academic and a former gospel music editor for Billboard.) The study is grounded in a keen awareness of the transferability and malleability of lyrics and music over time. These insights provide a way to interrogate the assumed “sacred” nature of the songs in question. Perhaps, as seems at least implied in this book, the sacred nature of African American music involves the manner in which it speaks to the fundamental questions of human existence, the metaphysical concerns of life. And the secular utility of this music stems from its ability to address the material connotations of historical existence. There is a practical quality to the spirituals and gospel music in African American communities that grounds its ability to transcend various time frames and particular cultural contexts in order to lend energy to the possibilities of a robust and healthy existence.