The Genesis of Jesus Rock: An Interview with David W. Stowe

[Crossposted at Religion in American History]

Randall Stephens

David W. Stowe is a professor of American Studies and Religious Studies at Michigan State University. He has written on jazz history, hymns, and rock music. Stowe is the author of a wide range of books and articles, including Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America (Harvard University Press, 1996); How Sweet the Sound: Music in the Spiritual Lives of Americans (Harvard University Press, 2004); and, most recently, No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism (Harvard University Press, 2011). Below I interview Stowe about his excellent new book and his insights into Jesus rock and the culture of conservative evangelicalism.

Randall Stephens: What drew you to the topic of the roots of Christian rock?

David W. Stowe: I was intrigued by the historical moment of the early Seventies—1971 to be exact—when it seemed popular music and youth culture were saturated in allusions to Jesus Christ: Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, several Top 40 songs with Jesus in their titles or verses. Why had the Son of God seemingly taken over U.S. popular culture at just that moment—when the countercultural energies of the Sixties were metamorphosing into something new? And did this music play some role in reshaping American culture during the Age of Reagan and beyond?

These struck me as questions worth trying to answer. There was a personal angle as well. I came of age during the Seventies and have always been fascinated by that decade, which I remember now as if it were some kind of dream. So Christian pop music—of which I was completely oblivious until about 15 years ago—was a lens through which to make sense of that strange interlude between Kent State and the Reagan Revolution.

Stephens: Why did a Christian analogue to rock music develop when and where it did?

Stowe: Like many forms of the Sixties counterculture, Christian rock first emerged in California. More precisely Orange County, the epicenter of what was dubbed the Jesus Movement. It was at Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa where Chuck Smith famously teamed up with ├╝ber-Jesus freak Lonnie Frisbee. Larry Norman came out of the Bay Area and had a major impact as well. But it’s important to note that the West Coast didn’t have a monopoly on Jesus music. The Rez Band (still in business) originated in
Milwaukee and made a very successful debut run across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. CCM guitar hero Phil Keaggy did a stint at Love Inn in upstate New York. [Check out the McCartney, Ram-esque Keaggy song in the youtube clip here.] So this Jesus Movement—and the music that went with it—was a national phenomenon.

Stephens: You focus quite a bit of attention on apocalypticism. How did end-times views shape Christian rock and, even, politics?

Stowe: Apocalyptic themes had bounced around in American pop music since early Dylan—“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”—and Barry McGuire’s surprise number-one hit of 1965, “Eve of Destruction.” A sense of living in end times tinged the late Sixties counterculture—a certain Cold War fatalism permeated American society for decades--so it made sense that an apocalyptic mindset would filter into the Jesus Movement. Among other things, it makes a catchy theme for a lyric. Witness Larry Norman’s most famous song: “Children died, the days grew cold/A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold/I wish we’d all been ready. . . .” read on>>>