The Gospel According to the Blues dares us to read Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount in conversation with Robert Johnson, Son House, and Muddy Waters. It suggests that thinking about the blues–the history, the artists, the songs–provides good stimulation for thinking about the Christian gospel. Both are about a world gone wrong, about injustice, about the human condition, and both are about hope for a better world. In this book, Gary Burnett probes both the gospel and the history of the blues as we find it in the Sermon on the Mount, to help us understand better the nature of the good news which Jesus preached, and its relevance and challenge to us.
“The Gospel According to the Blues is at once a primer in American music, culture, and race and religious history. Gary Burnett moves deftly from lyrics to theory and back again, from Blind Lemon Jefferson to the insights of contemporary scholarship. Highly readable, thoroughly researched, and with deep respect for the art form on every page. For best results, read with scratchy vinyl recordings of the masters as accompaniment.”
Michael J. Gilmour, Providence University College, Otterburne, Manitoba, Canada
Ry Cooder has been making music and recording for the past 50 years and his latest album, The Prodigal Son, his first for six years, has been hailed as “destined to become an instant classic” (Daily Telegraph), the produce of a “musical mastermind” (Rolling Stone) and “completely fresh and contemporary” (NPR). MOJO declared it “A career-high.”
It is, indeed, something of a masterpiece – perhaps remarkable, in that it is a collection of gospel songs and the artist himself makes no claim to belief. But this is music that Cooder has always loved. “I’m not religious,” he says, “but I always felt drawn to these songs. There’s some kind of reverence mood that takes hold when you play and sing.” For Cooder reverence means “being a conduit for the feelings and experiences by people from other times, like when you stand in an old church yard and let the lonely tombs talk to you…I think any creative artist has to have a sense of a truth or force beyond the visible.”
These are songs that will speak to anyone, believer or unbeliever. The arrangements, musicianship and feeling – and the songs, what a collection of songs – are spiritually powerful. There’s humanity, decency, inspiration, hope in these songs, that anyone can feel. If you are a person of faith, however, you’ll find an extra dimension of faith, encouragement and challenge here too.
All of this much needed, of course, in these days of political bitterness, disregard for the truth, corporate greed, and desperate social inequality and injustice. So thanks, Ry, for putting the spotlight on the spiritual values that can ground us and help make us human again.
71-year Cooder plays guitar, bass and mandolin in what is mostly a carefully curated selection of blues and gospel from the early 20th Century. There are three Cooder originals, Shrinking Man, Gentrification and Jesus and Woody, the latter bemoaning the current state of the world and imagining Jesus telling Woody Guthrie “Guess I like sinners better than fascists, And I guess that makes me a dreamer too.”
Cooder’s reworking of other songs include Carter Stanley’s Harbour of Love; Blind Roosevelt Graves’ I’ll Be Rested When The Roll Is Called; You Must Unload by Blind Alfred Reed; Straight Street by The Pilgrim Travelers; William L Dawson’s, In His Care; and two songs by Blind Willie Johnson, Nobody’s Fault But Mine and Everybody Ought to Treat A Stranger Right(“Blind Willie’s music is pure trance, it’s not 12-bar blues or any suchlike…In steel guitar heaven, I felt Willie looked down and saw that was good,” says Cooder. (Mind you I’m not so sure Willie would have been happy about Ry slipping in those couple of lines which adds Buddha to Jesus in Nobody’s Fault But Mine.)).
The choice of songs is masterful, and the treatment of each brings them bang up to date, without losing their original intent or spirit.
One of the most powerful songs on the album us You Must Unload, written by Blind Alfred Reed, who was recorded, along with The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, at the famous 1927 Bristol Sessions (The “Big Bang” of modern country music).
The song mercilessly challenges “fashion-loving, money-loving and power-loving” Christians – arguably broad swathes of self-proclaimed believers in North America and Europe – and tells them they must “unload.” Anyone who has read their New Testament scriptures would recognize the voice of John the Baptist here, with his fiery denunciation of religious self-satisfaction, or indeed, Jesus, with his searing critique of acquisitiveness and love of money. The Old Testament prophets, too, from which John and Jesus took their cue, were unflinching in their lambasting of those who were content with religious observance but yet oppressed the poor, sought power and preferred a nice glass of wine with their feet up to helping their neighbour – go and read the eighth century prophet Amos and you’ll see what I mean.
The song starts with an amusing dig at the fashion conscious whose obsession with “jewellry encrusted high heel shoes” bars them from the joys of heaven. They sure give Ry the blues. And Jesus too.
Then there’s the money loving Christians who don’t pay their way, who think making it in the kingdom of God is easy. Pretty damning of the way a lot of us Western Christians live, isn’t it, indistinguishable from the pushing and shoving and acquisitiveness that is the hallmark of life these days. The urge for more, bigger, better, more choice. And we want it all for ourselves – cut those taxes, let those poor people stand up on their own two feet.
And then the last verse – taking aim at those power-loving Christians. Power is such a seductive thing. As if political power were somehow linked to the Kingdom of God that Jesus talked so much about. But Jesus said his kingdom wasn’t “of this world,” meaning that it wasn’t like the kingdom of Caesar or America or wherever – it isn’t based on violence, the threat of violence, money, or influence. It’s based on love, compassion, generosity. That’s why Christianity was so successful in the first three centuries before it got entangled with government and the trappings of power. Christians lived out the counter-cultural values of love and self-giving service, devoid of political power, and yet ended up attracting huge swathes of the Empire to follow Jesus. Which is what gives the lie to the support for the 45th President of the United States by so many so-called evangelical Christians. Do they understand the message of the person they purport to follow, if they are prepared to sacrifice values of compassion, love for the stranger, truth, and human decency for the passing gratification of temporary political power? What happened to taking up the cross and following the compassionate, justice-announcing Jesus? Wherein, paradoxically, is to be found the real joy of life.
All of which makes Blind Alfred Reed’s song and Ry Cooder’s fresh interpretation so relevant and compelling right now. It strikes at the heart of a false religion that somehow feels that money and power are compatible with the gospel. They’re not. Thank you Ry for this timely reminder.
Randall J. Stephens, The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock’n’Roll, (Harvard, 2018)
Randall Stephens has given us a riveting account of the way in which rock music impacted the Christian world in the United States, since its emergence in the 1950s. It’s well researched and detailed, and is expansive in its scope, covering the relationship between early rock ’n’ roll and Pentecostalism, the racism inherent in early Christian reactions to the new music, the resistance of conservative religion to the Beatles and other 60s developments, and then the emergence of Jesus rock, morphing into Contemporary Christian Music and the various reactions to that.
The book is well written and never dull, deftly exploring what has been a complicated relationship between rock and fundamentalist and evangelical religion. Along the way we get something of a history of evangelical Christianity in America over the past 60 years, including the distinction between fundamentalists, evangelicals and charismatic/neo-Pentecostals, and the way in which these groups saw themselves over against the prevailing culture in the United States. I liked the quotation from Duke and Notre Dame historian, George Marsden, which Stephens mentions (albeit noting that it doesn’t tell the whole story): “a fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something.”
When rock ’n’ roll first emerged, fusing blues, gospel, rhythm and blues, and country in the 1950s, American Christians viewed it as sinful, deranged, demonic, the “devil’s music.” Yet by the late 60s and early 70s, large numbers of conservative Christians had embraced rock music as a means of evangelism and praise to God. Stephens skilfully tracks this trajectory and is able to demonstrate that “much of what animates evangelical churches in the twenty-first century comes directly from the unlikely fusion of Pentecostal religion, conservative politics, and rock and pop music.”
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Randall begins by tracing the development of rock ‘n roll from its roots in southern Pentecostalism. The hard-driving, powerful music in the worship of holiness and Pentecostal services gave rise to such popular performers as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Godmother of Rock and Roll, with her guitar-fuelled gospel. From a background in Pentecostal religion came major figures like Johnny Cash, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and, of course, most importantly of all, Elvis Presley. Presley not only appropriated the rhythms and beat of his white Pentecostal background, but integrated black gospel into his style of singing and performing. Such integration was anathema to white southern evangelicals in the 50s who objected to the “jungle music” and “voodoo rhythms” of rock ‘n roll.
We then have a fascinating chapter entitled “Race, Religion, and Rock ‘n’ Roll,” where Randall explores the racist nature of white southern Christian reactions to the new music that was capturing the hearts of the nation’s youth. Fears about vulgarity, sexual licence, communist plots, and drinking and dancing combined with the worst of racial prejudice to fuel a fundamentalist loathing of rock ‘n’ roll.
The arrival on the scene of the Beatles in the 1960s is the subject of Randall’s next chapter. Long hair, an emergent youth culture, drugs and androgynous clothing, along with the youth hysteria that greeted the Beatles in America drew the ire and condemnation of church leaders. Billy Graham, in 1968, bemoaned the worldwide “moral deterioration,” which was a clear sign of the approaching apocalypse. Randall takes us through the fall-out in the Christian world of John Lennon’s “We’re more popular than Jesus now” remark through to the beginnings of some soul-searching amongst evangelicals about how they needed to relate to a younger generation.
The next phase of the story is the emergence of Jesus rock and its morphing into Contemporary Christian Music, and the various reactions to it. Randall does an excellent job of catching the spirit of the time in the early 70s when some Christians, led by people like Larry Norman, began to express their faith in the medium of rock music. “Why should the devil have all the good music?” Norman asked. Or indeed, long hair and hippie attire. Even Billy Graham began to wear his hair longer, as folk and rock music were increasingly incorporated into church youth events. Professional rock and pop performers flourished, including Norman, Barry Maguire, Phil Keaggy, Chuck Girard and Cliff Richard, and mainstream performers like Johnny Cash, Pat Boone and eventually, at the end of the 70s, Bob Dylan proclaimed the gospel in their songs.
All of this provoked a furious fundamentalist reaction with figures liked Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye and Jimmy Swaggert fulminating against “a musical revolution that integrated aggressive music and aggressive sex” which ought never to be mixed with the gospel. Notwithstanding this, by the 1990s, Christian pop music and rock-infused worship music had broadly infiltrated the evangelical church and Contemporary Christian Music made up a respectable share of the total recording market, returning huge revenues to successful bands through sales of recordings and merchandise.
Randall closes this fascinating study with a short review of bands and artists with a Christian outlook which have gained critical and popular acclaim, including some that attempted to crossover from a Christian market to a more general one. He notes the Christian background and motivation of U2, and amusingly recounts the late 1990s foray of crooner Pat Boone into the heavy metal arena.
The Devil’s Music is a highly engaging examination of the struggles of American evangelicalism with the emergence and mainstreaming of rock music that gives us an important insight into the nature of the modern form of this type of Christianity, its values and fears. It’s a remarkable story of shock, opposition, accommodation and finally embrace which anyone interested in both the recent history of the church or that of rock ‘n’ roll will thoroughly enjoy.
[Randall Stephens has included a great Spotify playlist based on the book here]