When he was 11 years old, Robert Darden’s parents gave him a Mahalia Jackson album for Christmas, and he played it over and over. Now director of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project and associate professor of journalism, public relations, and new media at Baylor University, Darden says, “I’ve spent the last 54 years trying to replicate the thrill that listening to that album gave me” and to preserve the important American music he came to love. That mission culminates in Darden’s new book, Nothing but Love in God’s Water: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement (Penn State, Oct.).

Since the early '80s, Darden has been both a scholar and an evangelist of gospel music, seeking to preserve it through archival work and by writing its history. After seeing Andrae Crouch and the Disciples in concert in the early '70s, Darden began interviewing gospel musicians when they came through Waco, Tex., writing about them for the local paper. Billboard started covering gospel music in the '80s, and the magazine named Darden its first gospel music editor, a position he held for 10 years. After he left Billboard, Darden became editor of the Wittenburg Door, a magazine satirizing the contemporary church, where he continued to write about gospel music.

Darden's 2004 book, People Get Ready: A New History of Black Gospel Music (Continuum), tells the story of gospel music through both historical and musicological lenses. After covering the 2005 Grammy Awards and Kanye West’s hip hop song, “Jesus Walks”--which West performed with classic gospel artists Mavis Staples and the Blind Boys of Alabama--Darden wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times“Gospel’s Got the Blues.” He mourned the physical loss of gospel recordings and concluded, “It would be more than a cultural disaster to forever lose this music. It would be a sin.”

Now Darden says, “I had no idea I’d have such a reaction to that opinion piece, and I’ve been reacting to that gift ever since.” One of those reactions was to establish the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project at Baylor in February 2005. He and his staff collect and digitize 45s and other materials that come to the archives. In the process Darden made a startling discovery: “We’d receive these 45s of gospel songs or spirituals and flip them over to find civil rights songs on the B-side of the record.”

Darden has always been intrigued by what he calls the “double-voicedness” of the spirituals; although they appear to be about the freedom that heaven promises, they’re really about freedom from slavery and oppression in this world. In Nothing but Love in God’s Water he writes about the use of songs about justice and spirituality from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement. In a second volume, likely to be published in late 2015, Darden will take the story to 1968, when thousands occupied Resurrection City, the shantytown erected in Washington, D.C. to protest poverty in the wake of Martin Luther King’s death. “What you can’t deny,” Darden says, “is that this music provided something that enabled black people to challenge the most powerful nation on the planet armed only with love, justice, and song. It’s all there in those old spirituals, and those unstoppable, irresistible gospel songs.”