By Eric Holmberg
Published January 6, 2008
There is a real, and somewhat ironic sense in which rock music has its tap-root in the Kingdom of God. Virtually all music historians trace rock’s family tree back through rhythm and blues to the black gospel music of the deep South during the early part of this century.
The African-American culture had at that time cultivated a strong, albeit somewhat rudimentary Christian tradition, which was reflected everywhere in their music.1
Having experienced the ravages of slavery, racial hatred, poverty, and death, their music often focused on their experience with suffering and faith’s response to it. Consequently, it tended to emphasize the emotional side of religious human experience rather than the more rational approach favored by the white culture.
The gradual freedoms afforded blacks after the Civil War saw the increasing secularization of gospel music and the corruption, or “sensualization” of this beautiful emotional dimension until a whole new musical category had been created – the “blues.” To the casual listener, the difference be-tween the two was often subtle; involving more the “spirit” of the song than the music itself.
Respected “bluesman” Leon Pinson noted this distinction in an interview with Spin magazine: “I’m a minister of the music, and I don’t play no blues… Two white folk asked me once, how come your music feels different than the blues? I said it’s supposed to make you feel different – if you listen to the words and what the Good Lord says.“2
This same negative characterization of the blues from a Christian perspective is echoed in these words by Jessie May Hemphill, a female blues artist: “Mama ain’t happy with me, ‘cause my soul can’t be saved with me runnin’ around singing the blues.“3
The history of rock and roll was literally written by African-American artists who left the “light” of the church and gospel music in order to em-brace the darker and more main-stream possibilities of this emerging musical style.4 A good example is writer, producer, and musician Willie Dixon. Dixon was the master architect of the epochal Chicago sound defined by Chess records in the Fifties and early Sixties and practically shaped the musical destinies of groups like the Rolling Stones, Cream, and Led Zeppelin.
His own destiny, however, was worked out in a small farm in Mississippi some forty years earlier. His mother was a devoted Christian; his father an outlaw type he saw only periodically and who taught him that Christianity was just a subtle form of brainwashing. Whose example did he follow in his life and music? Sexually charged songs like “Back Door Man,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man,” and “Little Red Rooster,” among many others, leave little doubt.
Perhaps the best example of this corruption of gospel music and its subsequent influence on the development of rock is found in the life and music of legendary blues artist Robert Johnson. While not as well known as Little Richard or Elvis Presley, it can easily be argued that Johnson, more than these two men or anyone else, is the true father of rock and roll. For example, in the liner notes of Columbia Records re-mastered collection of his recordings, music historian Stephen LaVere writes:
And to the world at large, however unaware it might be, Robert Johnson is the most influential bluesman of all time and the person most responsible for the shape popular music has taken in the last five decades!
In August of 1990, Spin magazine featured an article entitled “35 Guitar Gods” – a rating of the most important guitarists in rock history. Johnson easily won the competition. And Eric Clapton, guitar legend in his own right, described his singing as “the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice.”
Recalling the first time he heard his music, Clapton said: “It was as if I had been prepared to receive Robert Johnson, almost like a religious experience.“5 Eric Clapton is far from alone in this type of adulation; from Keith Richards to Robert Palmer, those who un-derstand rock’s heart know that Robert Johnson is the man who made it beat.
We know surprisingly little about Johnson’s short life. As a young black man in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, however, there is little doubt that he grew up in and around the church and gospel music.6 Friends recall that one of his earliest and most lasting musical influences was Son House, “a precarious combination of bluesman and preacher.“7
Sadly, like many musicians after him, the life of singing and living the blues was simply too at-tractive for a talented young man with a knack for playing the guitar and getting in and out of trouble – what little Christian idealism he might have possessed was all but lost in his pursuit of “wine, women, and song.”
Most of the twenty-nine titles he later recorded focused on what were to become the great themes of rock and roll – illicit sex (and the consequences thereof), getting high, and, incredibly enough, Satan. It was even commonly accepted that his sudden and almost supernatural ability to play the guitar came from making a deal with the devil. Superstition? Probably – though songs like “Me and the Devil Blues” make one wonder.
Early this mornin’, ooh when you
knocked upon my door
And I said, “Hello, Satan, I believe it’s time to go.”
Me and the Devil, ooh, was walkin’ side by side
And I’m goin’ to beat my woman until I get satisfied
On August 16 – the same day Elvis died – of 1938, and at the same age as Jimi Hendrix – 27- Robert Johnson died; the victim of strychnine-laced whiskey slipped to him by a jealous husband. The consummate rock star mold had been prepared into which many other talented lives would be poured in the decades to come.
To understand Johnson’s life and legacy, we must first understand that classical satanic thought and activity, whether its sexual (moral), philosophical, or magical, is essentially a reaction to Judeo-Christian orientations within a particular society. As the “Resister” or the “Counterfeiter,” both translations of the various diabolical names found in Scripture, Satan needs a God to resist; a truth to supplant with a lie.
It is in this context that we can understand not only the underlying forces that gave rise to the life and music of Robert Johnson, but why it was America and England that predominantly made rock and roll what it is today. Both countries were profoundly affected by the Great Awakening, a spiritual revival that firmly re-established Christianity as the religious and moral foundation of the nation.
Both had seen the gradual erosion of spiritual passion and the sub-sequent increase in social problems and unrest, particularly among their youth. And both ultimately provided a young, eager, and participatory audience for this new music’s sensuous urgency. The battle had begun.
Where Christianity emphasized personal holiness and taught that physical passions needed to be brought under the control of the Spirit, the message of first the blues and then rock was to “get your mojo working.” Because throwing off restraint is a gradual process, popular music initially maintained a certain measure of decorum, and sex was alluded to only euphemistically. Johnson sang about being a “steady rollin’ man” and Fats Domino found his “thrill” on Blueberry Hill. Today, it’s far more explicit.8
Where Christianity emphasized transcendence through God, discipline, and “seeking first the Kingdom of God,” the new music told young people to “ramble,” be a “freebird,” get “satisfaction,” and if they ever needed transcendence – to “get high with a little help from their friends.”
Where Christianity gave preeminence and worship to Jesus as Incarnate God and Saviour, rock music either ignored Him, mocked Him, or tried to strip Him of His glory and parade Him about with a host of false prophets and cardboard messiahs.
Where Christianity abominated sin and its ravaging power and put forth a crucified God as its atonement, rock took as one of its primary themes the fiery embrace of rebellion against God’s commandments. The blues was sin’s lament, hard rock its celebration, soft rock its quiet advocacy – God’s view was nowhere to be found.
Where Christianity insisted that children “obey their parents in the Lord” and respect, even reverence authority, rock and roll made Mom and Dad out to be idiots without a clue as to what was really going on. What began as “Don’t trust anybody over thirty” became “I am an anarchist!” and suddenly time didn’t seem to be on anybody’s side.
Where Christianity identified Satan as the enemy of our souls, rock and roll lauded him as its patron saint.
Where Christianity warned of “a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which shall consume the adversaries,“9 dozens of rock groups sang enthusiastically about the “highway to hell.” Contemporary music fiddled and the nation burned.
Practically anything Christianity extolled, rock tore down; and virtually everything the Bible and Jesus condemned, at least some segment of the rock and roll industry promoted. Ultimately, its own nature, or at least the way that nature was defined, necessitated this “anti-Christ” orientation – as a reaction against authority it had no other choice but to square off against the greatest Authority of all. But instead of a “palace of wisdom,” this “road of excess” led to a darkness of such suffocating intensity that for many there has been no return.10
1 By “rudimentary,” I simply mean that because there was little education available to blacks and most couldn’t even read, their theological training was often not very sophisticated. This is not to say, however, that their spirituality wasn’t. Quite the contrary; few seminaries can compete with the depth gained by a childlike faith and dependence upon God in the midst of tribulation.
2 Spin, June, 1990, p.48
3 Ibid, p.45
4 The same is true today. It’s amazing how many black artists have received their musical training in church and then left to make a name for themselves in popular music. Some, like Lionel Ritchie and M.C. Hammer, even struggled with a calling into full time ministry before being “led” into the “big time.” There’s a lesson to be learned here somewhere.
5 “Robert Johnson – The Complete Recordings,” Columbia Records, 1990, pp.22, 23.
6 La Vere describes Johnson as “a simple country boy with a view of life encumbered by a strict set of social and sexual mores …” (Ibid, p.20) “Encumbered” is an interesting choice of words and tells the reader something about the bias that exists among the writers and reviewers who are into rock and roll.
7 Ibid, p.11. It’s interesting that even La Vere recognizes the spiritual incompatibility that exists between these two styles of music.
8 I could use literally hundreds of ridiculously graphic songs as examples, including some by the biggest names in the music business.
9 Hebrews 10:27.
10 “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” (Proverbs of Hell, William Blake) Incredibly, this was among Jim Morrison’s favorite quotes.
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