The Emergence of Jesus Rock: On Taming the "African Beat"
Haines, John, Black Music Research Journal
What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes
--I John 1:1
On March 4, 1966, the London Evening Standard published John Lennon's now infamous words: "Christianity will go.... We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first--rock "n" roll or Christianity" (P. Norman 2003, 268). Some five months later, when the last part of this citation was printed on the cover of the popular American teen magazine Datebook capped off with an exclamation point--"one of the most influential marks of punctuation ever fixed in print" (quoted in "Rock 'n' roll according to John" 1966, 50) according to Devin McKinney--all hell-fire broke loose, in the words of Time magazine (2003, 141). Two days after Lennon's "rock 'n' roll or Christianity!" threat hit newsstands on July 29, public burnings of Beatles records were held in Birmingham, Alabama. Soon anti-Beatle frenzy had spread from the South to the rest of the United States. By September of 1966, Americans from New York City to Reno were burning and banning Beatles' records; John Lennon feared for his life as manager Brian Epstein tried to "quell the storm over the remark on Jesus," as one newspaper put it; "Are the Beatles Safe in America?" wondered the New Musical Express; "Is Beatlemania Dead?" asked Time ("Beatles Manager ..." 1966, 13; Spitz 2005, 627-628, 924).
So what had happened? Only two years before, Beatlemania had swept the United States with the overnight success of the Fab Four on the Ed Sullivan Show; the following year saw the release of both films A Hard Day's Night and Help! and their critically acclaimed Rubber Soul, an album that took Beatles music to a new level of maturity. Had America suddenly grown tired of the Beatles? Was Beatlemania threatening to supplant American Christianity? Some might have thought so. A year before the storm broke, one parent worried that his daughter and her friends had developed "a real cult over the Beatles," complete with "Beatle prayers" uttered before a "Beatle altar" in one girl's bedroom (McKinney 2003, 142-143).
In reality, the wind stirring up the 1966 "storm in a teacup" (Spitz 2005, 627) was not John Lennon, nor even Beatlemania, but rock 'n' roll itself. As detailed in this essay, many in the United States viewed rock as plagued with two principal problems: its African roots and its stimulation to dance. These two problems were related, since rock's presumed Africanness gave it dangerous rhythm. The racist denunciation of rock was not unique to the sixties; it went back a decade to rock's earliest moments, as Shane Maddock has shown (1996, 181-202). In 1956, for example, the White Citizens Council of Alabama denounced rock's sexual overtones, accusing the "basic, heavybeat music of the Negroes" of seducing unsuspecting white youth. Racist antagonism against rock only increased with the battle for civil rights and the "blanching of rock," as David Szatmary has called it (2000, 21-25; see also Romanowski 1996, 211-212). Racist prejudices in American popular music were nothing new, of course. In the 1910s, for example, jazz was called the musical "virus" of "colored ... groups that play for dancing ... they shake and jump and writhe in ways to suggest a return to the medieval jumping mania" (Osgood 1926, 11).
The 1966 Beatles vs. Christianity debacle proved to be a watershed moment in the history of rock 'n' roll, since it brought out antirock racial prejudices as never before. As detailed in this essay, the scandal over the Beatles generated an unprecedented campaign of antirock propaganda that focused on the presumed African aspects of rock. This campaign was shortly followed by the emergence of Jesus Rock. From the late sixties to the late seventies, the expression Jesus Rock became the first Christian incarnation of rock, taming its black and dance elements. The Christian Contemporary Music phase completed this process. What Jesus Rock really changed was less rock music itself than its dressing; namely, the lifestyle and lyrics of rock performers. Paul Baker's "comparison chart" for Christian musicians makes clear that Jesus Rock and rock tout court sounded essentially the same; early seventies Jesus rocker Chuck Girard like Neil Diamond, Larry Norman like Bob Dylan, and so on (Baker 1985, 242-257). Rather than changing the sound, Jesus Rock changed the debate--away from rock music and its "African beat" to rock's usefulness as an evangelistic tool. In other words, Jesus Rock changed less the musical aspects of rock than its social role. During the seventies, rock became the key to evangelizing thousands of youth and thereby lost its sting. As Larry Norman sang in his 1972 song "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?", "Jesus is the rock and he rolled my blues away."
Though it only lasted for a short decade, Jesus Rock, what I will consider here the alter ego of rock 'n' roll, had much to do with the emergence of Neo-Evangelicalism in white American culture. Indeed, the evolution from Jesus Rock to the institutional-sounding Contemporary Christian Music coincided with the rise of American Evangelicalism. The crucial decade in which Evangelicalism began its metamorphosis, from a parochial phenomenon into a global and politicized force, was the sixties. The sixties are remembered optimistically by most in the United States as the decade of social change that began with the dissent over civil rights and the Vietnam War and ended with Woodstock and with Neil Armstrong landing on the moon. For many Christians, however, the sixties appeared to be the beginning of the end of the world as signaled by the widespread acceptance of such ills as feminism, atheism--and rock 'n' roll. For rock antagonist David Noebel, discussed in this essay, the imminent destruction of the world was to be preceded by the miraculous rapture of Christians into heaven, as described in Hal Lindsey's best-selling 1970 book The Late Great Planet Earth (see Johnson Frykholm 2004; Shurk 2005).
Emerging from this apocalyptic context, Jesus Rock is a significant cultural phenomenon despite its brevity. Sadly, the contribution of Jesus Rock to the longer history of rock 'n' roll has been much neglected. This is in part because rock's history is seldom told from the point of view of those who condemned it. As Elijah Wald (2009) has pointed out in a thought-provoking recent book, current rock historiography regularly ignores certain crucial aspects of early rock's history, such as the role of women. Jesus Rock is integral to this history. What little writing exists on Jesus Rock is by Christian authors for largely white Evangelical Christian audiences; it depicts Jesus Rock as an unimportant precursor to Christian Contemporary Music in the late 1970s (e.g., Rabey 1986; Key and Rabey 1989; and Howard and Streck 1999, 24-45; but see also William Romanowski 1990, 105-153; 1992; Di Sabatino 1999, 155-213; and Baker 1985). Making things worse is that these narratives often betray an inferiority complex; namely, that the worth of Christian musicians can be measured only by comparison to their secular counterparts, and that they usually suffer in the comparison. Early Jesus Rock stars Larry Norman and Randy Stonehill, for example, rate as lesser Lennons and McCartneys (Di Sabatino 1999, 179, D135; 201, D272). Mainstream historians of rock outside the Christian camp have happily accommodated this sense of inferiority. Rarely have they considered Christian Contemporary Music, and much less Jesus Rock, worth mentioning (e.g., Gillett 1983; Hatch and Millward 1987; Belz 1992; Szatmary 2000; Friedlander 2006). Philip Ennis alone fleetingly mentions Jesus Explo '72 (discussed later), only to compare its "One Way" finger sculptures to the penis-shaped Chicago Plaster Casters of the same period--in effect giving the finger to the whole Christian-Jesus Rock phenomenon (1992, 293).
"African Beat Music"
To understand the rise of Jesus Rock, it is important to view the opposition to rock 'n' roll that preceded it, an opposition whose catalyst was Lennon's "Christianity will go" statement. If the voices of rock's opponents have all but disappeared in the official history of rock, as I have suggested, these voices are nevertheless vital to its history because they ultimately helped define the music and its culture. In what follows, I focus on attacks against rock 'n' roll leading up to the emergence of Jesus Rock.
Although some raised an eyebrow or two at the sexually provocative antics of Elvis and those after him, just as they had with jazz some fifty years earlier, with the advent of the Beatles many saw in rock 'n' roll a more sinister force that had burst into popular American culture. For them, rock threatened American youth; it had not come from within but had invaded from without. The now consecrated label "British Invasion," although expressing the general excitement with which rock was greeted, also speaks of an American fixation with outside invasions. Little could stir up American paranoia more than the idea of an invader mighty enough to cross the two vast oceans that constitute America's largest, natural borders, as best seen in the response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. For Christian antirock advocates in the sixties, the power of the invasion metaphor lay in its appeal to a fundamental fear.
The civil rights advances and Motown's prominence in the sixties only fanned the flames of an existing racism. Wald points out the irony of an increasing divide between black and white music in the aftermath of the civil rights movement (2009, 239-243). In the sixties, a few writers boldly stated what others were not brave enough to spell out, a specifically racist critique of rock 'n' roll. What most disturbed them about rock was its blackness, its Africanness. On the heels of the paranoia about the "mongrelization of America" by the "heavy-beat music of the Negroes" of the fifties (Szatmary 2000, 21-25), a conservative churchman from Oklahoma, David Noebel, railed openly against the African roots of rock. By fear of "mongrelization," of course, was meant fear of miscegenation, the interbreeding between black and white people--a phenomenon going much further back than twentieth-century America. Noebel's Rhythm, Riots and Revolution appeared in 1966 as a scathing attack on rock, and a clear echo of the racist and jingoistic accusations of the fifties. Although published by the obscure Christian Crusade Publications (the very name conjuring up a racism of historic proportions), Noebel's book echoed the earlier worries about rock's power to mix white and black races. It was not published widely but had a long-term impact in churches and high school auditoriums in subsequent decades, as this author personally experienced in the late 1970s (Haines 2010, 5-6). Noebel recast the old idea of a black invasion of white America in pseudoscientific terms, and this was the key to its ultimate appeal.
Noebel linked rock to what he called "African beat music." As he saw it, rock had originated in "the heart of Africa, where it was used to incite warriors to such a frenzy that by nightfall neighbors were cooked in savage pots! The music is a designed reversion to savagery!" The power of rock musicians over young people, he maintained, could be compared to that of "African witch doctors" and Adolf Hitler (1966, 77-78, 93-94; see Romanowski 1996, 213). Rock and its advocates were feeding an ill Noebel called the "Negro Revolution," whose leader was, he declared, a man Harry Truman had called "a trouble-maker and a rabble rouser" and whom J. Edgar Hoover named "the most notorious liar in the country": Martin Luther King Jr. (Noebel 1966, 176, 181).
To these familiar sounds of racism, Noebel added the novel accompaniment of a pseudoscientific validation. Citing film composer Dimitri Tiomkin and scientific articles in the American Journal of Psychiatry and the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Noebel diagnosed a threefold ill in rock music: its loud volume, its emphasis on rhythm or African beat to the neglect of other musical elements such as melody or harmony, and what he called a "broken meter," by which he meant either polyrhythm or syncopation, though it was unclear which (116-117). Noebel never fully laid out his arguments, but this mattered little. Using a scientific tone, he accused rock of being unsound and unfit for public consumption, and of "tampering with our teenagers" (77).
Other writers and speakers echoed these same arguments in print and in the pulpit for quite some time thereafter, making Noebel's Rhythm, Riots and Revolution a landmark publication despite its obscurity (Larson 2967; Godwin 1988; see also Noebel 1974, 43-47, 62-64, 173-186). On the heels of Noebel's work, Bob Larson, a former rock guitarist, denounced the "pulsation" and "syncopation" endemic to rock. Even more than Noebel, Larson made use of pseudoscientific arguments. He specified that the presumed effects of rock on the cerebrospinal fluid, pituitary gland, and autonomic nervous system stimulated hormone overproduction. Writing in 1967, Larson held that syncopation …
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Publication information: Article title: The Emergence of Jesus Rock: On Taming the "African Beat". Contributors: Haines, John - Author. Journal title: Black Music Research Journal. Volume: 31. Issue: 2 Publication date: Fall 2011. Page number: 229+. © 2008 Center For Black Music Research. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.
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