The Emergence of Jesus Rock: On Taming the "African Beat"

By Haines, John | Black Music Research Journal, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview
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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.

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