Authors: Peter Bebergal
While enacted by Africans adopting Christian behaviors, these ancient songs and musical signatures, rituals to connect with the gods, are pre-Christian in their very expression because they endeavor to employ methods of magicâtrance, divination, spirit possession, danceâin order to have a direct encounter with the deities. This is the oldest form of religious worship, when magic and religion were inseparable, where myth was communicated through a colorful and often wild blending of costume, song, and dance. This type of yearning for freedom and self-expression is our first and earliest glimmer of the spirit of rock and roll, a primeval and communal method to transmit a truth, to celebrate, to mourn, to sacrifice something to the gods. And to do it together.
Out of the work songs sung in the fields and in the ring shout of the church came the spiritual, a form of music that would
become one the most influential in American music. From the spiritual came gospel, and gospel itself would soon become a staple not only of African American churches but of white churches as well. With each successive generation, whatever was deliberately African about the shout and spiritual was eventually lost. But the rhythms and stylistic forms remained. More important, the spiritual rebellion inherent in the music would continually find its expression in every form of African American music. Soon it would begin its snakelike climb into the branches of American popular music, from gospel to the blues and eventually to rock, where it would provide popular music with a means to lift it out of the ordinary, to challenge ideas of what music could and should be, and what it could mean.
Pentecostalism brought together the music and worship style of the African American churches. Once thought to promote the devil, shouting and other ecstatic practices were claimed by Pentecostalism as an authentic response to being filled with the spirit of God. But mainstream churches did not approve of such behavior as an expression of worship, even if it was white folks doing the shouting. Within mainstream Christian sects, the Pentecostal movement was believed to be the devil's secret congregation.
For white America, including the church he was raised in, Elvis brought to bear much of what they were afraid of: sex by way of the devil's own infinite lust. This fear was also deeply racist. Many believed that what was most potent and dangerous about rock was its roots in African American music: rock music was tribal, pagan at its core, and would seduce white teenagers like the serpent seduced Eve. Rock is sex. In the 1957 book
That Bedroom Door!
by Lambert and Patricia Schuyler, the authors claim a conspiracy among black men, aided by the government, to have sex with white women. The conspiracy runs deep. With their “jungle music,” blacks have taken to inculcating the youth into loving rock and roll, merely a means to a nefarious end: “[Teenagers] have been taught to love it and never does it cross their minds that this incessant emphasis upon the Negro with his repulsive love songs and vulgar rhythms is but the psychological preliminary to close body contact between the races.”
Fears of popular music were bubbling up long before Elvis, however. The postâCivil War African American churches saw the devil everywhere. Secular music and dancing were particularly questionable. But in an effort to keep the devil at bay, congregations still used the methods of worship adopted as slaves, what the historian Eileen Southern calls “the hand clapping, foot stomping, call-and-response performance, rhythmic complexities, persistent beat, melodic improvisation, heterophonic textures, percussive accompaniments, and ring shouts.” The great irony of these young churches is that such musical elements were once employed to call upon the spirits, heal the sick, and divine the future. The even deeper irony is how these also became staples of white churches, where the devil was once seen as having to be worked and beat out of the slaves.
Little Richard embodied the basic conflict within rock's relationship with church music, with those very same churches calling it the devil's music. Little Richard (born Richard Wayne Penniman) was raised a Seventh-day Adventist, a congregation with an apocalyptic theology that sees any form of secular music
as opposed to the teaching of Jesus. He grew up playing and singing gospel, and by the time he left home to make a mark for himself, he was already drawn to the blues, his first act of rebellion. Gradually he incorporated rock into his songs, not always successfully, but in 1955 he turned “Tutti Frutti,” originally a sexually explicit blues song, into a vehicle for his own flamboyant style of musicianship. Richard played standing up, banging away on the piano, and looking over his shoulder at the audience with a mischievous gleam in his eye. He knew what his family church thought of his music and his gregarious sexual lifestyle, but Little Richard was playing the music that was in his heart. In a 1970 interview with
, he explained the origins of his rock and roll interpretation of an old blues song: “Well, you know I used to play piano for the church. You know that spiritual, âGive Me That Old Time Religion,' most churches just say,
âGive me that old time religion' but I did,
âGive me that old time, talkin' 'bout religion,' you know I put that little
in it you know, I always did have that
but I didn't know what to do with the
I had.” That “thing,” of course, is the shout, perhaps transformed as it became part of the mainstream church, but remaining as the lifeblood of American religious music, its tribal pagan past invisible, its rebellious instinct snaking its way into rock and roll. Little Richard, however, could possibly feel the old gods calling to him, but like many Christians, called those feelings of rebellion the devil. In 1957, Little Richard had a vision of a coming apocalypse. During what
calls the “height of his success,” Little Richard left rock and roll and returned to the church. During the following years he denounced rock music:
“My work is for the Lord and I have dedicated myself to Him. I renounced all things associated with my past life such as songs of the devil, women, carousing all night and other evils associated with rock 'n' roll.” Little Richard eventually returned to rock, and brought his religiosity with him. Maybe rock was the real salvation after all: “I think that rock and roll is getting ready to shake the world again. That rock and roll, with them wild names and that thing that makes you dance yourself to glory, I think that's what's getting ready to happen to the music.”
In a 1956 article for the
, the reporter Phyllis Battelle interviewed psychiatrist Jules Wasserman to help explain why teenagers are so drawn to rock and roll. Battelle wrote, “[Wasserman] compares it to the âdionysian revels in Greece, where the god of sex (Priapus) and the god of drink (Bacchus) were feted in the same two-beat rhythms.'” Rock's detractors were even more sensitive to the music's occult wellspring than the young fans. A perfect example of the occult imagination at play in the history of rock, this outside characterization of rock as a pagan rite would become part of the internal identity of rock and would shape the music and its presentation for decades to come. If parents and ministers hadn't imposed their own fears of paganism and tribal religion on rock and roll, the occult imagination might not have been sparked in the same way. As a result, intentions to stop the music in its tracks instead started a conflagration that has never gone out.
No matter the outrage from parents and religious leaders,
even Catholic youth discovered that rock offered a means to worship that felt crucial, filled with vitality. The rebellious spirit of rock was not unlike the one Jesus brought to the money changers at the temple, a raucous response to authority that had all but given in and given up. But even when put toward Christian worship, adults were hesitant to accept rock as anything more than a pagan virus. In 1957, the then Roman Catholic archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Samuel Stritch, spoke against even allowing rock and roll to be played at Catholic youth centers, especially because it promoted dancing, hips and all. In a letter to his flock, he wrote, “Some new manners of dancing and a throwback to tribalism in recreation centers cannot be tolerated for Catholic youths.Â .Â .Â . Too much familiarity between the adolescent girl and the adolescent boy is dangerous and sinful.” Notwithstanding the subtle racism, the association of what was deemed tribal with sexuality, manifest in the music and rhythms of rock and roll, was exactly right.
Eventually it was all too much, even for the record labels and DJs. Rock and roll was a force sweeping up the nation's youth in a way parents, church leaders, and even radio music executives could not have foreseen. The only solution would be to exorcise the demon entirely, a black demon to be sure. The answer came in the form of a white Christian, Pat Boone, who sang of chaste love and never even lifted a foot off the ground, never mind pulse anything below the waist. But the attacks didn't cease, and many suggested the fad called “rock 'n' roll” would soon fall out of popular favor.
In response to a 1957 article in the
titled “Rock 'n' Roll's On Way Down, Say 3 Experts,” one letter
writer was thrilled at the prospect and was glad to see that, in the wake of rock's demise, “a trend towards sentiment, love, and romance is becoming apparent.” The subtext here is that the demon of sex, conjured by those barbaric tribal rhythms, had lost what little power it had regained and became, like many parts of the pagan world, enfolded into the dominant white Christian mainstream. The soul of American youth might have been saved, but the soul of rock had become a pale, flaccid thing.
In coffeehouses and bars in New York City and San Francisco, writers and poets were creating their own brand of agitation. The public first took notice in 1957 when
covered the obscenity trial of the 112-line free-verse poem “Howl.” The publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of City Lights, was accused of the intent to “willfully and lewdly print, publish and sell obscene and indecent writings, papers and books, to wit: âHowl and Other Poems.'” The poet Allen Ginsberg first read his poem in 1955 to an astonished audience. “Howl” was perfectly timed to speak to a growing unrest among young adults; they realized that the postâWorld War II idealism of American preeminence was a pipe dream, consistently undermined by poverty, racial strife, and a conformist streak that covered the suburbs in a gloom of dullness. “Howl” called for a celebration of sexual and religious ecstasy, drugs, and a recognition that the “bum's as holy as the seraphim!” “Howl” was also an attack on the dehumanization caused by the corporate machine, one that stole human souls to sacrifice to the insatiable appetite of Moloch, “whose factories dream and croak in the fog!” The judge, Clayton W. Horn, found in favor of the publisher, and concluded that the poem “does have some redeeming social importance.” The
result of the trial wouldn't have mattered, though. A movement had already begun to challenge the social and religious status quo by way of literature, poetry, and music.
Ray Smith, the narrator of Jack Kerouac's 1958 novel,
, introduces the rugged and humble poet Japhy Ryder. Ryder is well versed in Eastern mysticism and philosophy and believes that bodhisattvasâenlightened masters who become teachersâcan be found among ordinary people. The two writers share their interest in various saints, in particular Avalokiteshvara, a bodhisattva so compassionate that, in seeing so much suffering, he literally blew up in despair. Kerouac based the working-class Buddha-like Ryder on Gary Snyder, a poet whose work shows a deep association with Buddhist meditation, as well as a sympatheticâand spiritualâaffinity with ancient religions and their emphasis on the natural world as a divine expression. Snyder's interest in Buddhism, particularly by way of Zen, exposed many other writers to the possibility of a spiritual identity far removed from what many perceived as the crushing homogeneity of mainstream Christianity. In a later conversation with the conservative writer John Lofton, Ginsberg tries to explain his use of the word
in his poem “Howl”: “In Zen Buddhism there is wild wisdom, or crazy wisdom, crazy in the sense of wild, unlimited, unbounded.”
As Eastern religion and occultism were becoming important tools of inspiration to what is commonly known as the Beat Generation (a term originally coined by Kerouac), these writers were inspiring others looking to understand the spiritual nature of the unconscious that Freud had failed to fully explain. Novels such as
by Hermann Hesse were being read on
college campuses, and the Beat writers themselves were citing visionary artists such as Charles Baudelaire and William Blake as kindred souls.
Bebop provided the soundtrack. Jazz musicians had been looking for a way to challenge what they believed were the limitations of swing and big band music. Musicians began improvising, playing off of each other instead of the sheet music. Standard songs became playgrounds for experimentation. As the scholar Christopher Gair explains, bebop showed how technical prowess and spontaneity could be combined to great result. Bebop also “[e]xposed [the Beats] to an African American culture and language that would have a profoundÂ .Â .Â . effect on their own work.” The Beats would record bebop's complex rhythms onto their own prose and verse, what they heard as a reflection of their existential and psychic angst. What better way to express the longing for a spiritual experience that was immediate and unmediated than the language of bebop. But soon the 1950s counterculture would come across a faint echo from America's rural locations, the sounds of ghosts strumming their guitars, singing murder ballads, spirituals, hillbilly tunes, and blues songs.
The filmmaker and artist Harry Smith, a regular of New York's infamous Chelsea Hotel, had been collecting recordings of folk songs on 78s since the 1940s. The bulk of his collection was commercial records produced between 1927 and 1932. The names of the singers and musicians were all but forgotten by the time Smith was finding the recordings. His collection came to the attention of Moses Asch, the founder of the Folkways record label, who suggested to Smith he cull the best of what he had so that Asch could release them as a set. 1952 saw the Folkways
release of the
Anthology of American Folk Music
, a three-volume set, personally curated by Smith, and packaged with extensive notes, collages, and, inexplicably, occult symbols. The cover of the anthology is a reproduction of
The Celestial Monochord
, a seventeenth-century print by the astrologer and mathematician Robert Fludd. He used the monochordâan instrument using a single string to demonstrate how octaves can be understood mathematicallyâto imagine that the universe was a perfectly tuned manifestation of God, whose string reaches through the heavenly realm into nature. As a result, certain magical formulas can function to vibrate those parts of heaven that have a corresponding element in nature. This would become the basis of a magical practice based on the idea of “like as to like.” For Smith, this image made perfect sense. Smith was an occultist and student of the Kabbalah, magic, and peyote mysticism. The music of the anthologyâsocial music, songs, and balladsâwas separated into three sections coded by the colors red, blue, and green, corresponding to the elements of fire, water, and air. For Smith, the anthology represented a deeply human microcosm of the music of the spheres, where love, pain, joy, and death correspond to a divine property. Smith believed it was on the margins of America where an authentic way of life dwelledâfree from the gaping maw of Moloch, as Ginsberg might have said.