In the first part of a personal history, LARRY NORMAN, Christian music pioneer, charts the rise of Christian music from its roots and, based on his experiences, gives his own perspective on the collision between creativity and commerce.
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Yet, if it is "the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man," (Mark 7:15 ) then God is less concerned with how an artist dresses than in what is being said and sung.
Hymns had, for centuries, been the provenance of learned believers, gifted with crafting quatrains of precise meter with laboured rhymes or inspired revelation. It had been the work of educated people who could read and write.
But American slaves, beginning in the mid-1600s, without the benefit of a formal education or writing instruments, began creating songs of praise and lamentation as they worked and sweated side by side in the fields and estates of Southern slaveholders. These extemporaneous oral proclamations of petition and reverence spread from one region to another as sons and daughters, fathers and mothers were sold off individually to other plantations, their families broken apart. The indiscriminate merchandising of these dark-skinned people, and the whip and heartbreaking isolationism of slavery, either pushed a man toward resentment and despair or drew him closer to the God of the white world. And it also generated field hand hymns and solemn, muted fellowship under the watchful eyes of field guards.
Songs like "Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen", "Swing Low Sweet Chariot", "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?" and other Negro spirituals may be seen to be the first strains of a new kind of hymn, sung in a colloquial patois; emphasising faith and hope more than denominational, doctrinal theology. Once slavery was abolished, jobless itinerant field hands and blues singers would spread the black hymns into the white man's cities, albeit those who busked for coins often performed these slavery hymns along with worldly songs of carnality, buffoonery and whatever else put food on their table. It seems that very few blues singers restricted themselves entirely to songs about God. The variance and verisimilitude of this in the white man's world could easily be found in the Appalachians and other remote regions in America. Provincial mountain people, barely schooled and cut off from the new industrial revolution, made many of their own instruments and wrote songs about rising creeks, cuckoos, faithful hunting dogs and fated lovers in the same repertoire with their self-composed songs of faith, devotion and sacrifice.
Sophistication, of a sort, entered the scene when vaudeville artists and roadhouse singers began recording the occasional gospel song on Edison's wax cylinders and the Country and Western genre gathered the pious refrains of both blacks and whites in musical ensembles which fiddled with the Gospel for a few songs, but mostly stuck to their mainstay and staple: the songs of the lonely desert and sturdy horse, the fair maiden, the betrayed lover, the pledge and troth of the smitten, and a good time had on a Saturday night.
It was not uncommon for a country and western singer or bluegrass group to record an entire album of reverent gospel songs, while still watching Maggie Run and Pretty Polly perish and Frankie and Johnny move toward a jealous eventuality in their nightly stage presentations.
In the '50s, Elvis kept up his side of this Man and God tradition by recording three gospel albums, all the while rocking out subjugated love songs; a side-burned Adonis; a macho hunk of burning love; one night of sin with slicked back hair with pompadour, tight pants and curled lip. Elvis moved into heavy rotation: both on stage with his pelvis and on radio with his platters. He straddled both gospel and ersatz rhythm and blues. But I never remotely thought of him as a Christian when I was nine. For years he was, to me, just a guy who sang like a hyped up Dean Martin and moved strangely; who went on to make bad movies and was adored by almost every girl in school.
But then Dylan moved in for the buzz-kill, seemingly looking for meaning and reason like an unkempt James Dean. And after the twist and frug and pony died in the shadow of John Kennedy's unexpected death and our young nation of ambitious idealism plunged into mourning, The Beatles swept in with joyful kitsch and polite, matching suits and swamped America's musical references, drowning Fabian, Dion DiMucci, Ricky Nelson - decimating 90 per cent of the pop roster and, for awhile, even turning Sinatra into a king without a kingdom.
Both folk music and Liverpudlian rock coexisted for a time in a schism of dizygotic union like a symbiotic strain of virus, killing all popular music and performers that did not possess immunity and who soon could only find refuge on Ed Sullivan's television show or in Las Vegas. The future of music seemed full of possibility and the present culture rife with conflict and chaos. The Beach Boys had been pushed aside by The Rolling Stones. Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon would be replaced by Sonny and Cher.
Christian rock music was getting ready to take its place in the Son. In the '60s, the marriage between the Civil War ballad and the liberal, conscience-laden desire for universal brotherhood had transported folk music into broader popularity. On television, Hootenanny was a prime time cavalcade of folk singers and hack pretenders singing eccentric English ballads and Forties labour songs. And after rebel poets slipped acid into the cola of the modern protester, in songs like "Eve of Destruction" and "Like A Rolling Stone", the folk genre began to falter, full of disenchanted regret. Songs of secular hope in a Socialist future would soon take a back seat to the optimism and devotion of the folky, rocky genre of Jesus music. This modern hymnal of plain-spoken songs had both the allure of simple street music and the boldness and brashness of rock and roll.
I was there from the beginning, in fact 15 years before the "beginning," and by the end of 1971 I had seen many a fresh-faced novitiate pick up a guitar and learn to play it. They may not all have sung well. Their compositions may have been gauche and graceless and generic, but they were forcibly sweet and sincere.
The culturally entrenched Southern gospel music business industry itself may have continued to ignore what was going to become Christian music's next direction but it didn't dissuade anyone from joining the ranks of the newly faithful; singing about Jesus for free in high school cafeterias, beach outings and coffee houses. Very few groups or soloists thought about being signed to a major record label. And none were, for years.
I had become a Christian in 1952 and had begun publicly performing my own compositions in 1956, at the age of nine. I began to attract the indifference of my schoolmates and the intolerance of my denomination. But I continued to sing. While I believed that witnessing and Bible quotations were much more important than any music could ever be, music seemed to be a very direct way to get people to listen. I couldn't help it if my white boy version of black slave music disturbed my church and bored my schoolmates. But because the spoken word was the bearing wall of my efforts, I began to put in a lot of street time. I spent my early professional years at Capitol Records, fighting for the right to record my self-composed "Jesus rock". After Capitol agreed to release 'Upon This Rock' my contract with them suddenly ended and they told me "there is no market for your music." I started One Way Records and used secular sub-distributors or "rack jobbers" and "one stops" to disseminate 'Street Level' and 'Bootleg'. In 1971 I signed with MGM Records and recorded 'Only Visiting This Planet' at George Martin's A.I.R. Studios in London.
Feeling alone in my efforts from 1856 to 1971, I had hoped to raise an army of performers who couldn't be ignored. But it seemed like all of my tentative inductees went AWOL, one by one, because they didn't enjoy wholesale rejection. My own songs were assailed as being "too Christian for the rock and rollers and too rock and roll for the Christians". But then The Jesus Movement went corporate.