In Righting America we note that “in the twenty-first century, the study of American fundamentalism has really come into its own, with a surfeit of outstanding works, many of which pay close attention to economics and politics” (315). Now add rock ‘n’ roll to the list of topics, with Randall Stephens’ The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘N’ Roll (Harvard University Press, 2018). In this post and the next we feature Randall’s interview with rightingamerica, which certainly should motivate readers to purchase the book!

Randall J. Stephens is an Associate Professor and Reader in History and American Studies at Northumbria University, Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK. He is the author of The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South (Harvard University Press, 2008);  The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011); and editor of Recent Themes in American Religious History (University of South Carolina Press, 2009). Stephens has also written for The Atlantic, Salon, Wilson Quarterly, Christian Century, The Independent, Chronicle of Higher Education, and The New York Times. In 2018 he will be taking up a new post as Associate Professor of British and American Studies at the University of Oslo.

The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ’n’ Roll. Image (c) 2018, Harvard University press.

The topic of your book is just fascinating. How did you end up working in this area?

It started when I was working on my first book on southern pentecostalism. When I moved into the mid 20th century, I noticed all sorts of links between the tongues-speaking faith, cultural innovation, and high-energy music. One chapter in that first book dealt passingly with the religious roots of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and some other key figures in rhythm and blues and rock and roll. It just seemed like there was more to tell there. As I started working more on the rock project, I thought it would be a good idea to take the story forward by focusing on the birth of Christian rock and the many battles that played out among conservative Christians over race, sex, and pop culture.  

Of course, it really helped in my research that there is so much excellent work out there already on rock ’n’ roll, race, religion, youth culture, and other topics. I’m thinking about the scholarship of my colleague here at Northumbria University, Brian Ward, along with the work of Larry Eskridge, David Stowe, Kerry Segrave, Linda Martin, Shawn David Young, Paul Harvey, and a host of others. At the risk of being too simplistic, what I tried to bring to the table was the long history of conservative religious groups and their relationships with the new hybrid rock ’n’ roll.

Given the current controversy over racism within white evangelicalism, it makes great sense that race and racism are so important to your story. Could you talk about this?

Probably the strongest opposition to rock ’n’ roll, especially in the early years, was wrapped up in ideas about race and decorum. I spend quite bit of time in the book looking at the ways that white evangelicals and Catholics used arguments about the “savage” origins of the music in order to caution teens and their parents about dances, records, and performers. The language of a hell-hatched music and of demonic influence was all over the place. And this shaded into rants about race.

One section of the book particularly focuses on Baptist, pentecostal, Catholic, and Presbyterian sermons and print material, Sunday school lessons, and more. Quite often, laypeople and ministers liked to link together the “jungle music” of the mission field and the barbarous rhythms and dances associated with rock ’n’ roll. The music often took them to the southern hemisphere of their imagination. So, key figures such as W.A. Criswell, Jack Wyrtzen, and William Ward Ayer play important roles here. I also spend some time looking at the kind of religious arguments that the White Citizens’ Council developed.

The anti-rock ’n’ roll argument certainly went beyond this. Black leaders like W. Herbert Brewster, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Charles D. Beck made a strong case about the low origins and/or sinfulness of the music and associated dances. Still the racialization and demonization of the music was a powerful kind of argument among believers. Much of this kind of rhetoric faded by the 1970s, though it remained front and center in fundamentalists circles at Bob Jones University or in the lectures and tracts produced by Bob Larson, Tim LaHaye, or David Noebel.

Is the emergence of Christian rock in the early 1970s part and parcel of evangelicalism’s co-optation of the Jesus Movement?

Christian rock definitely owes quite a bit to the Jesus People movement. Most of the earliest performers—Phil Keaggy, Barry McGuire, Andraé Crouch and the Disciples, Larry Norman, Randy Matthews, the Armageddon Experience, Agape, Sound Foundation, and Honey Tree—were closely connected to or had some links with the Jesus movement.  It’s hard to say precisely which came first.  They emerged at about the same time, I suppose. Early venues like coffee shops and churches owed a great deal to the efforts of Christian hippies. The same is true of the first large festivals. Even the highly successful Explo ’72 fest in Dallas Texas, at which Billy Graham preached and Johnny Cash performed, had a certain hippy aesthetic about it. In the years 1967-1970, hotspots like the Bay Area, and Los Angeles were instrumental. You see the casual language of Christian hippies in song lyrics and in newspapers/magazines that covered the movement. One of my favorite headlines is from a late-60s issue of the Hollywood Free Paper: “JESUS IS BETTER THAN HASH.” That speaks volumes about the early Jesus music scene as well as the countercultural excitement around Jesus rock. It almost seems like a parody that would have appeared in Mad Magazine.

I also make the point that it was a certain kind of pentecostalism that fueled the movement.  Songs and sermons dealt frankly with premillennialism, spiritual gifts, healing, the reality of hell and the devil, and stern ideas about judgment. There was also a decidedly non-denominational and anti-institutional element at play.