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How Christianity Created Rock ’n’ Roll



At Public Books, music critic David Hadju reviews The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ’n’ Roll (2018) by Randall J. Stephens. As Hadju notes, The Devil’s Music reminds us that the performance style and musical themes we associate with the golden age of rock ’n’ roll—the swagger of Elvis, the ecstatic moves of James Brown, the transformative power of love—originated in black Christian churches in the Southern US. As rock ’n’ roll took the mainstream by storm in the 1960s and '70s, racism would try to expunge the black Christian origins of the genre. But as Hadju argues, it remains in the DNA of rock ’n’ roll to this day. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

In truth, though, rock music owes much of its claim to coolness to the Christian faith. Rock and Christianity have had a deep and complicated relationship since the earliest days of early rock ’n’ roll, as Randall J. Stephens, a professor of history and American studies at Northumbria University in Great Britain, explores in The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ’n’ Roll. Indeed, Christianity—particularly, the fiery, wildly emotional, speaking-in-tongues strains of Pentecostalism and the “holiness” church long entrenched in the rural South—helped create rock ’n’ roll.

As other historians have discussed and Stephens notes, the sacred and the profane had entwined roots in the blues and black gospel music that predated the commercial mutation of blues that came to be known as rock ’n’ roll. Thomas Dorsey, an African American composer esteemed as one of the seminal pioneers of gospel, gave us the Sunday-morning classics “Peace in the Valley” and “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” (beloved by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.). Dorsey also, under the stage names Barrelhouse Tom, Georgia Tom, and Texas Tommy, wrote or cowrote gems of Saturday-night blues, such as “It’s All Worn Out” and “It’s Tight Like That,” in the early decades of the 20th century.

Image of James Brown via