Christian Rock – A Conversation with Randall J. Stephens

StephensRandall J. Stephens is Reader and Associate Professor of History and American Studies at Northumbria University in northeast England. In his most recent book, The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘n’ Roll, Stephens documents the turbulent relationship between conservative Christianity and popular music in twentieth century America, a relationship that features opposition, acquiescence, and ultimately, embrace.

ECM: How did Christians inspire rock ‘n’ roll?

RJS: I focus quite a bit on Pentecostalism; especially in chapter one, which focuses on the origins of rock ‘n’ roll. I argue that, in part, the music and the worship styles of Pentecostal churches proved instrumental in inspiring the first generation of rock ‘n’ roll musicians. In particular, you have Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Johnny Cash, James Brown, B.B. King, and others who grew up in Pentecostal churches or attended Pentecostal worship services throughout their formative years. Fortunately, we have good documentation of them speaking about their youth in these churches and about how influential it was for them.

Elvis, for instance, grew up in the congregation of Memphis First Assembly of God, and he talked often about his admiration for the gospel quartets who came through, including the white Statesmen Quartet and the Stamps Quartet, along with African-American groups like the Golden Gate Quartet. Asked by a reporter about why he moved the way he did on stage, Elvis replied simply, “I just sing like they do back home.” And continued: “When I was younger, I always liked spiritual quartets and they sing like that.

Ray Charles, too, was famous for retooling spirituals and black gospel music into love songs and releasing them as secular mega hits.

ECM: Why then, were Christians so quick to demonize—and racialize—rock?

RJS: Well, they demonized it, in many cases, because of what they saw as a sort of sinful appropriation. Black and white Christians accused Ray Charles of blasphemy because of how he was secularizing sacred music. Blues legend Big Bill Broonzy certainly believed Charles had gone too far. A former pastor in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Broonzy claimed that Charles had “got the blues,” but “he’s cryin’ sanctified. He’s mixing the blues with the spirituals.” Or, as the critic Hollie West said about Aretha Franklin, whereas she “once said Jesus, she now cries baby. She hums and moans with the transfixed ecstasy of a church sister who’s experiencing the Holy Ghost.”

There were some white Pentecostals who thought that rock and rollers were thieving from church music. One of these, the Pentecostal youth pastor and author of the Cross and the Switchblade, David Wilkerson, called it “Satan’s Pentecost” and portrayed rock ‘n’ roll concerts as a kind of inverted Pentecostal worship, with demonic speaking in tongues. A lot of this was in the vivid imagination of believers, of course, but it shows that, for many of these observers, there was a thin but important line that was being crossed. In the 1950s, white and black conservative Christians worried that even their church music was becoming too “worldly” or too vulgar.

On the race end of things, because I focus largely on the American South, I looked at the white Southern Baptist Convention, Southern Presbyterians, and Southern Pentecostals, and found that their reaction to rock was almost uniformly negative and very often racialized. They attacked rock as “jungle music,” “congo rhythms,” and “savagery.”

In some cases this is ironic because these are some of the very things that Pentecostals were criticized for themselves—for race mixing and having “debased” music in their services, whether that be Hillbilly, boogie-woogie, or some kind of hybrid black and white styles. So there were all of these interesting, and specific, interconnections that I thought deserved more attention. 

ECM: Is this racist impulse inherent to evangelicalism? Or southern evangelicalism? Or was it just a sign of the times? 

RJS: It’s indicative of the times, in a way, because that kind of racist rhetoric about rock and roll also appeared in national newspapers and magazines. But what I found in the case of the American South was that there was often this funny discourse about the missionary enterprise of these organizations—the experiences that their missionaries had had in the field—and how these experiences were supposedly applicable to the music. They referenced the “caterwauling” and the driving tribal drums that they had heard in the jungles of the southern hemisphere, and noted how this had a parallel in the music now blasting out of the mean streets and teenage hangouts of American cities.

So for white fundamentalists and conservatives it took on this different kind of religious dimension. There was also a lot of talk about witchcraft and demon possession—I even remember hearing some of this as a kid in the 1970s and 80s in the Church of the Nazarene. Some of that rhetoric persisted for decades after the 50s.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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