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Excerpt from "Into the Mystic: The Visionary and Ecstatic Roots of 1960s Rock and Roll"

Chapter 1: An Experience of Power

by Christopher Hill


The Unsuspected Immigrant and the Invisible Institution Musicologists have devoted a lot of energy to the question of where the name rock and roll comes from. A likely source is the ring shout. When the shout takes on its own momentum, they are rocking. “I gotta rock, you gotta rock” says the shout “Run Jeremiah Run.” When the spirit is really moving through the congregation, they are rocking the church. 

But wait--haven’t we always heard that to “rock and roll” means to have sex? Yep. So does it mean sex? Yes. Does it mean religious ecstasy? Yes. One of the gifts of the Black Church to spirituality in general is the insight that the sensual and the sacred are, in a mystery, the same thing. It is this that made the transit from church to jukebox not simply a case of parlaying sacred tradition into hits, as if the spiritual part of the music was a clearly marked zone that the performers could just step out of. In turning from gospel to soul the musician is not so much moving from sacred to secular, leaving his calling for the World, but shifting the emphasis from one part of the spiritual spectrum toward another. 

The standard narrative about the origin of rock and roll as a music is that it came out of the encounter of country music and the blues. This isn’t exactly wrong but it almost willfully ignores the glaringly obvious affiliation with gospel music. 

The blues are often regarded as the primordial source of black American music, indeed of modern American popular music in general. But the blues are not the primordial music of African America. The blues and gospel music started to gain popularity in roughly the same era--around the turn of the twentieth century--and, for that matter, were both heard as novelties at the time. In the long story of African-American music, the sacred precedes the secular. The roots of gospel are in the spirituals, which date to the earliest slave culture, generations before anyone sang anything that people called the blues. A truer picture is to see the blues and rock and roll as related offshoots of African-American sacred music. 

As musical forms, the blues and rock and roll are very similar, but the performance of rock and roll--and the audience participation inspired by it--is modeled, consciously or unconsciously, on the liturgical practices of the gospel church. What most distinguishes rock and roll from the blues is what most links it to gospel music--the pursuit of ecstatic release as the goal of the performance. The gospel belief that music and motion can effect a change in consciousness--as well as the conviction that the congregation/dancers are getting a purchase on freedom that might outlast the performance--reappears more obviously in soul and rock and roll than it does in the blues. 

In support of the gospel origins of rock and roll we can call on some of the great names to testify. Elvis Presley tells us in his 1968 “Comeback Special” that his rock and roll is essentially gospel. While young bohemians in London were hunting out Elmore James records in the early ’60s, up in Liverpool the Beatles were apparently not listening to the blues at all. Aside from early rock and roll, the stuff the Beatles seemed to like, based on the songs they covered, was black pop that had a church lineage--soul music and girl groups. 

Gospel music is the elephant in the room when it comes to rock historiography. The blues is a medium of individual artists, outlaw heroes, easier for bohemians to admire and identify with than a faith community. For most rock critics, the juke joint is easier to negotiate (at least imaginatively) than the storefront church. And for many white intellectuals, there is a double barrier to empathy with gospel music--both race and religion. 

The blues could be detached from its cultural matrix and listened to as pure music more easily than gospel. The blues were a genre of entertainment. Gospel music underpinned a society and a way of life. 

In any decent history of rock music you will of course find blues musicians discussed, but you’ll have to look harder for gospel singers. Gospel may be cited as an influence, but individual artists are almost never dealt with at length. There are some seventeen blues musicians represented in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There are two gospel acts--Mahalia Jackson and the Soul Stirrers. 

The future historian of ecstasy will come to see that spiritual impulses are transmitted along unpredictable and paradoxical paths. By the late 1950s young white Americans were dancing en masse to music that was a product of centuries of African American spiritual practice. The lesson that what is trivial through one lens can be mighty through another will be another valuable discovery by our ecstatic historian. 

The music began to teach these young people to expect an experience of the embodied spirit in their dancing and to look for a kind of truth and consequentiality in their music. They absorbed the gospel knowledge that liberation and ecstasy could come by way of popular music, and that it could leave an imprint on history as well as on the individual soul. That the music in this lineage could connect the divine and the mundane was a message that never left the music. It carried the code through every change and crisis. Sometimes the power was more potential than actual, but it was always there. The promise was not lost on the cohort of young people who would create the 1960s heyday of rock and roll.

Christopher Hill has written about rock and roll music in the pages of Spin, Record Magazine, International Musician, Chicago Magazine, Downbeat, Deep Roots Magazine, and other national and regional publications. His work has been anthologized in The Rolling Stone Record Review, and he is the author of Holidays and Holy Nights. Currently a contributing editor at Deep Roots Magazine, he lives in Madison, Wisconsin. christopherhillbooks.weebly.com


Into the Mystic: The Visionary and Ecstatic Roots of 1960s Rock and Roll by Christopher Hill
© 2017 Park Street Press. Printed with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International. www.InnerTraditions.com


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