Each week in God and Country Music, Nick Rynerson gives country music a chance and examines the world of Americana, folk, alt-country, and popular country music.
In the 1930′s Robert Johnson changed music and culture forever. Though Robert Johnson was the not the father of the Delta Blues or even the best songwriter of his contemporaries (Son House gets my vote), but his mixture of mystery, image, virtuoso and timing have made him legendary. Not to mention, his guitar playing surpassed anyone of his time. Johnson would play his own bass line, riff and rhythm all at the same time. And he would make it sound unassuming. Sometimes the riff would be muted to almost unheard, yet he would still be playing it almost as if he was mixing the sound on a soundboard as he was playing. It is the musical layering that makes his music so listenable yet so complex. The most astute ear and the untrained ear alike have the potential to enjoy Johnson because of this unassuming virtuosic style.
Yet it was Johnson’s legend that loomed even larger than his guitar playing. Because of his secretive lifestyle, early death (age 27) and the legend that he sold his soul to the Devil to learn to play the guitar. Yet for a while this figure, like many great artists’ legacies, sat dormant. It seems somewhat fitting for this man to get a spiritual treatment because his music is so otherworldly and trailblazing. It almost makes sense that no ordinary man could make this without cosmic interference. Sort of like the legends attached to Di Vinci and The Pyramids, the larger than life image helps make sense of the brilliance.
All wrapped up and immortalized in that old myth that Johnson sold his soul to the devil. In reality he probability didn’t and theologically speaking, it doesn’t hold much weight that one could “sell” a soul. But this great myth has deep roots that have impacted the relationship between American pop culture and the American church dramatically.
It all starts with the blues.
In the 1920’s, this weird music started popping up in these dirty places: juke joints. Juke Joints were the speakeasies of the Deep South were hell was raised and culture thrived. What started was a culture war between the southern churches and the juke joints. Preachers would preach about the evils of these places and blues singers would talk tongue-in-cheek about their religious rivals (watch the videos below for examples).
Even Robert Johnson himself was a committed Baptist until his wife died in childbirth and he left the church and his family for a life of aimless wanderin’, juke joints and womanizing. Whatever the reason, he and many other blues musicians had been burned by or left the church dramatically (quite a ruckus in the 1930-something Deep South). Feeling abandoned by the church, they sought spiritual meaning somewhere else, in their music. The church, understandably, didn’t know how to handle itself so they fought back against what was seen as an attitude of rebellion and sin. And the blues singers liked that. It gave them some credibility. Thinking if the church doesn’t like them, they must really be doing something big! So for whatever reason, Johnson started telling people that he sold his soul to the devil (probably just to promote himself). And if you’re the church this is no good, but really how big of a deal is it really that some guitar player is going around saying this? But let’s fast-forward 30 years.
Here comes the advent of Rock n’ Roll. Essentially, it is the blues for middle class white teenagers. Now pastor’s kids, the girl next door and the rest of white America is embracing that same musical vision. Now the white churches are flipping and really, making it worse than it needs to be. Around this time the sexual revolution is happening and Robert Johnson is being rediscovered by people like Hendrix, Clapton, Allman, Lennon and Dylan and the myth of Johnson is revitalized. Now the Church is in full-fledged battle stations and the youth have apparently been lost to Rock n’ Roll and here comes the Religious Right ready to take back America. The rest is history.
All of this is found in the music that we listen to and the people it comes from. And what a valuable lesson for the church and for Rock n’ Roll: that whenever you go to war, somebody becomes the enemy. And when we go to war, all of the beauty of the enemy is overlooked and torn down. Christians sometimes settle for, as Mark Driscoll has rightly described, “prom songs to Jesus” and non-Christian music is somehow less beautiful or less connected to the image of God. All because of this great split 40-something years ago. Yet, when we stop and look at the music of the supposed devil-dealing Johnson, human pain and divine longings are abundant. We can’t undo the affects of the Culture Wars, but by giving an ear to the juke joints and blues singers and then giving them understanding, patience, grace and kindness we can continue in a gospel-informed reconstruction.