Evangelicals and Popular Music: Philip Jenkins on The Byrds

Earlier today I continued my series revisiting parts of my CD collection I haven’t listened to in a while by blogging about a terrific 1988 album by the Minneapolis alternative rock band Soul Asylum. Throughout the whole series, not once had it occurred to me that — were this a different time — no professor at an evangelical college like Bethel would have been caught dead possessing an album by a rock’n’roll band, let alone writing a paean to it!

Then today fellow evangelical historian/rock music fan John Fea drew his readers’ attention to a recent post by historian Philip Jenkins at Real Clear Religion, in which Jenkins asked how it is that “By 1970, evangelical Christianity was having a real impact on hippyish subcultures and Jesus People groups were becoming commonplace. By 1972, Campus Crusade attracted tens of thousands to Dallas for Explo ’72, a kind of Christian Woodstock.” He points out both that evangelical groups like Campus Crusade “faced a daunting challenge in reaching out to a non-believing audience that was at first deeply unsympathetic to the moral and cultural messages they preached” and that “many evangelicals were also deeply suspicious of the whole rock music culture.”

Poster for Elmer GantryAs we noted here last month, evangelical leaders like then-Bethel president Carl Lundquist (later to preside over the National Association of Evangelicals itself) were seeking ways to reach youth culture, even embracing some of its driving concerns. But that doesn’t fully explain why so many of those same youth would move from utter disdain of a religious movement they associated with Elmer Gantry and the Scopes Trial (to give two of the cultural hurdles cited by Jenkins) to showing up by the tens of thousands for Explo ’72 and joining innovative new evangelical communities.

“Divine intervention apart,” Jenkins asks, how did evangelicals manage to “span that cultural gulf”?

As the beginning of an answer, Jenkins points in the direction of a seemingly unrelated trend in American popular music, championed by one of my favorite bands, The Byrds:

At least part of the explanation lies outside the religious realm, in quite secular musical trends of the late 1960s, and the rediscovery of American musical roots — originally, without any religious intent whatever. As a driving force in the new cultural/religious upsurge I would point to one group above all, namely the Byrds. Through the mid-1960s, the Byrds moved ever more deeply into psychedelic experimentation, culminating with the 1968 album The Notorious Byrd Brothers, but at that point, things changed radically. David Crosby left the group, which now added Gram Parsons, with his enduring passion for country and western music. In 1968, the reformed Byrds began recording at Nashville, where they even played the Grand Old Opry. (The audience had no idea what to make of them).

The Byrds, Sweetheart of the RodeoThat same year, the band released the landmark album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which I’ve already singled out for praise in an earlier sketch of country music history. Most often, its significance is understood in terms of prompting a kind of reconciliation between the rock and country branches of the American popular music family tree — with bands like The Flying Burrito Brothers (formed by Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman after quitting The Byrds), Poco, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and The Eagles developing what became known as “country-rock,” and Nashville (gradually) becoming more accepting of the rock instrumentation, rhythms, etc. that are so prevalent on “country” recordings nowadays.

But Jenkins suggests another significance for those interested in the history of evangelicalism and its growing popularity among youth in the Seventies:

Quite unintentionally, the Byrds also revived and legitimized Christian themes in music for an audience wholly unaccustomed to them. If you want to revive America’s roots music, it’s hard to do so without incorporating hymns, gospel and Christian songs, and Sweetheart of the Rodeo featured such evocative classics as I am a Pilgrim and The Christian Life.

In 1969, they recorded the Art Reynolds Singers song “Jesus is Just Alright with Me,” which became an anthem for the emerging Jesus People. Plenty of other artists jumped on the bandwagon, recording or adapting Christian roots — and that is quite distinct from the contemporary emergence of avowedly Christian contemporary music.

Suddenly, young people who knew nothing whatever about the American religious heritage were exposed to this music, in highly accessible rock/country fusion styles, played by hip musicians with long hair and beards. Along the way, they also heard key evangelical messages, which suddenly became cool and contemporary.

Of course, Jenkins surely knows that Sweetheart of the Rodeo itself was a massive commercial flop: the album got no higher than #77 on the Billboard charts, and when “I Am A Pilgrim” was released as a single, it didn’t even make a blip on those charts. So I’m not sure that all that many “longhairs” ever encountered Christian themes of pilgrimage and holiness through The Byrds themselves. But I’m certainly willing to credit the album with helping to build the bridge spanning that cultural gulf Jenkins described earlier.

If I can add just a embellishing details as a semi-obsessive fan of The Byrds…

• Jenkins is wise to underscore that if the band “revived and legitimized Christian themes” for their audience, The Byrds did so “quite unintentionally.” If you listen to Sweetheart as it was released in 1968, you’ll find a stark difference between lead Byrd Roger McGuinn’s reverent readings of songs by Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie and his take on “The Christian Life.” As Tim Connors puts it on Byrdwatcher, his fantastic (though long-defunct) Byrds website, “McGuinn’s vocal, unlike Hillman’s on ‘Pilgrim,’ is quite self-conscious, with the result that the band’s reading of the song comes across as sardonic, not sincere.”

• But when Columbia reissued the album on CD in 1997, it included as bonus tracks the original version of that song, with a lead vocal by Gram Parsons. (For reasons still debated, McGuinn overdubbed several of Parsons’ vocals, usually in imitation of the other singer’s style.) Connors again, on the stark difference: “Not surprisingly, the actual Parsons vocal is an improvement over McGuinn’s ersatz Parsons vocal. The Parsons version lacks the irony that, intentionally or not, McGuinn brought to the Sweetheart version. While it’s clear from the way Parsons lived his life that his beliefs didn’t mirror those of the narrator, it’s also clear that he viewed the beliefs of the narrator with respect.” From Parsons’ solo career, see his duet with protegée Emmylou Harris, “In My Hour of Darkness,” an example of him respectfully engaging Christian themes in an original composition.

• As for McGuinn… As he recalled in a 1996 interview, “We just recorded [“I Am A Pilgrim,” “The Christian Life,” and “Jesus Is Just Alright”] for their musical value at the time.” But after a dalliance with Eastern religion (that led him to change his name from Jim to Roger), McGuinn himself became a self-described “born-again” Christian in 1977. From the same interview:

Roger McGuinn, 1972
McGuinn playing with The Byrds in 1972 – Creative Commons (Dan Volonnino)

After the Rolling Thunder Review [sic; the Bob Dylan-led concert tour in 1975-1976 that also included Joan Baez and a young guitarist — and self-professed Christian — named T-Bone Burnett], I bottomed out. I’d been doing a lot of drugs and alcohol and was not feeling very well. I had a crushing feeling on my chest. One night I prayed with a jazz musician to accept Jesus. It didn’t happen right away, but later that month I asked Him into my heart. The heavy feeling left immediately and has been gone for 19 years now! To young Christian musicians, I would say to listen to the Lord and do what He wants you to do with your gift. In my case, I received that I should stay where I was when I was called.

Still a devout Christian to this day, McGuinn expanded on the story in a 2004 Christianity Today interview, recounting that the prayer with the jazz musician was preceded by at least three other encounters with Christians, two of them in musical contexts: one showed up at McGuinn’s house claiming that “Jesus wanted him to give me some songs he’d written,” and another attended a McGuinn concert in Oklahoma.

Ironically, the head Byrd himself may have been converted thanks in no small part to a shift that (if Jenkins is right) he himself inadvertently initiated.

As a related postscript, Roger’s wife Camilla told this story of her own conversion, in an interview posted on their blog in October 2007. It began with her meeting the former Byrd in an acting workshop, where he played her a song:

Roger’s assignment was to convince me of something that I didn’t want to do. We sat on two chairs facing the audience, and he began playing his guitar. He asked if I wanted a lesson….

He showed me some chords and encouraged me to try. After a few strums, he asked for the guitar back then played and sang a song. His scene stealing performance did not endear me to him at all. He was doing that musician thing. After his crooning he asked, “Did you like that song?” I said, “Not really.” “Why not?” he asked. “Its [sic] country and I’m not particularly fond of most country music,” I said. He then asked, “But what did you think of the words?”

Then it hit me. The song was “I Like The Christian Life” (a song the Byrds had recorded.) He was going to try to convince me about the words that Jesus said. I retaliated with, “How long have you been into Jesus?” “A few months,” he replied. “Well give it a few more, and you will get over it!” I responded. Then I left the stage in righteous indignation. The audience thought it reminded them of a dramatic scene from a Tennessee Williams play and spent a lot of time congratulating Roger.

The story continued, but it wasn’t Roger who got over Jesus. It was me who realized that Jesus is love and He spoke the truth. Within two months we felt that God’s plan was for us to be married, and we were, on April 1, 1978. God does have a sense of humor. We laughingly tell people that Our Father arranged our marriage.

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