In the early 1960s, young North American folk singers Joan Baez and Bob Dylan repackaged the songs of their poet strumming heroes Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and became megastars. They were beatnik Greenwich Village radicals, anti-establishment prophets with dark glasses, street philosophers, anti-McCarthy, post-religion and yet oh so spiritual. For a few years it seemed like there was a grassroots revolution of ideas led by intellectual doped out pop-stars. They cried out against injustice; stood alongside Martin Luther King Jnr at march on Washington; created a sense of camaraderie amongst disillusioned youths; and they were very cool. It was natural, then, for the parallel tribe of long haired baby-boomer Christians to be swept up by this tide and challenge church conservatism. Instead of the formality of the robed choirs, grand organs and Hymns Ancient and Modern, they opted for jangly guitars and ballads about a Jesus in their own politics. Many of the newly ordained wore side burns and bell bottoms with their clergy shirts and habits. Then, as Dylan smashed the very genre he helped invent and scandaled his fans with folk-rock, so followed the church music of the Jesus freaks.
Suddenly there was an explosion of Jesus rock. For every mainstream artist and style there was a Christian imitation. And the music of the Christian copies shaped this new church music of the “radicals.” As there was Dylan inspired Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, so there was a Dylan inspired Paul Clark and Phil Keaggy. Larry Norman took on the blues folk rock of Country Joe and the Fish. Led Zeppelin tried to buy their way into heaven, and then Resurrection Band showed the gospel way. Joe Cocker had a little help from his friends and Randy Matthews had a little help from his congregation (with much less whisky). Elton John flew with the Rocket Man, Billy Joel sympathised with the Piano Man, and Keith Green worshipped the Son of Man. James Taylor swooned about something in the way she moved, but Al Mossburg’s woman drove him insane for introducing him to Jesus. Bowie counted down with Major Tom but Agape was simply a Voyaging Pilgrim. As Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks wailed “who do you love?”, C. McPheeters and the Bible Belt Boogie Band simply loved Jesus. There was a Creedence Clear Water Revival, but the real move of the Spirit came with the Hallelujah Joy Band. I could go on. If there was a chart topping act, there was a Christian counterpart in your local Christian book store. The key musicological point I am making is: as secular led – in most cases – Christian musicians followed. And this pattern was reflected in church music led by local musicians who only had their record collection as a reference.
Of course there were some exceptions. In my next entry I will write about the struggle for gospel pop artists to find acceptance in the mainstream .