The 1970s was a time of hippies, free love, psychedelic drugs, and cultural revolution. But it was also a time of major religious revival, with the “Jesus Movement” gaining headway in that very counter-culture. How could that be? Baylor professor Philip Jenkins credits the Byrds, who popularized a recovery of American roots music, much of which is explicitly Christian. He explains:
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).
In August 1968, the Byrds released the album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which pioneered a new style of country rock. It also initiated a revolutionary change in the country music world, which was at the time very conservative musically and politically, and where long hair was strictly taboo. (Merle Haggard’s Okie From Muskogee became a huge hit the following year, and a confrontational conservative anthem). At first, country listeners assumed Sweetheart was meant as a mocking retro parody, while the rock audience was bemused. Over the next few years, though, the two genres increasingly coalesced, with all sorts of fusion styles inbetween — country rock, Southern rock, outlaw country, and the rest. (John Spong recently published a terrific history of this synthesis as it developed through the 1970s in Texas Monthly, but subscription is required).
Suddenly and shockingly, “country” culture became fashionable, as part of the Southernization that historian Bruce Shulman described as one of the key social trends sweeping America in the 1970s. This shift was greatly strengthened by the demographic and economic trends of these years, and the shift of wealth and population from Rustbelt to Sunbelt states.
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. (Christian rock largely dates from Larry Norman’s 1969 album Upon This Rock). The language of pilgrimage, redemption and sin entered rock music, as did Satan himself: in 1970, the Grateful Dead issued Friend of the Devil.
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.
And that, I suggest, is a major reason why those Christian movements were suddenly able to find young audiences open and receptive to their messages.
I love the Byrds! I heard them play. I do remember marveling at all of the Christian references I was hearing in their music and in other albums of that day.
And yet, I’m not sure I’m convinced by this analysis. Why did those old hymns and gospel songs resonate with people like Gram Parsons and record-buyers the way they did?
I think a better explanation is that where sin abounds, grace breaks in. Which means that we may be in for another spiritual awakening soon.
But this gives me the excuse to post some Byrds music. (“Jesus is Just All Right With Me” comes from 1970, though there is nothing particularly rootsy about it. Gram Parsons joined the group in 1968, but the far better “Turn, Turn, Turn”–a setting of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 by Pete Seeger–came out in 1965. This YouTube version is stellar, but it is more recent, from 1990.)
UPDATE: Thanks to SK Peterson for bringing up this STUNNING song by Gram Parsons (with harmony by co-writer Emmylou Harris AND Linda Rondstadt): “In My Hour of Darkness.” This is what the original article is talking about, not just with the coolness factor (though the accompanying pictures of these three performers are very, very cool) but with the way Parsons is taking that old-time gospel hymn structure and using it in a highly personal and expressive way. (I think we will all need to purchase the two-album set GP / Grievous Angel.)
I would add that the difference between this and what passes for most contemporary Christian music in the pop vein, in addition to facing up to “darkness,” is that Parsons is drawing on the past, on the Christian musical tradition, rather than repudiating it.