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.”
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]