School of The Rock


Did God Really Give Rock & Roll To You?

Written by Paul D. Race for School Of The Rock

K.I.S.S., Petra, and several other groups have recorded versions of the old Argent song "God Gave Rock and Roll To You." There is no doubt that the song is catchy. And, for Christians who liked the chorus but mistrusted the verses or the bands singing them, the Petra version even had Christian lyrics.

But for decades after Rock and Roll made an appearance, there seemed to be a struggle between those who believed that God gave Rock and Roll to you and those who believed it sprang directly from the bowels of hell. And let's face it, with so many bands writing twisted or immoral lyrics, you couldn't entirely blame older adults who couldn't tell the difference between the Carpenters and Black Sabbath for reacting "on the side of caution." Unfortunately, "I don't care for this musical style" all too often turned into "All songs with drums are of the devil."

Somehow, though, the tide did turn eventually. Today, the vast majority of music played on Christian radio stations has Rock influences, and almost nobody gets kicked out of church for plugging in their guitars. After all, forty years have gone by since "Jesus music" started. Most members of growing churches today were very young or not even born when the music of Andre Crouch and The Second Chapter of Acts began finding its way to mainstream churches and Christian radio stations. But every so often, I still run into someone who has "lived in a cave" for the last forty years and gets uncomfortable if the bass guitar plays too many notes or some such. So occasionally I find myself reviewing the ongoing relationship of Gospel and "popular music" (not just Rock). The ties are far closer than you might think.

Here's a great irony: nearly every aspect of Rock and Roll music that early Rock haters criticized entered our culture's musical vocabulary not through Rock and Roll, but through a specifically religious medium - the early Gospel songs of enslaved African Americans. Sadly, it's not a very pretty history.

The Roots of American Popular Music

Three hundred years ago, folk and popular music rhythms among European emigrants to this continent were firmly based on the idea of subdividing (most) measures and notes by half, by half again, and by half again. Whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and so on. Very orderly and, to modern ears, rigid.

But as cotton plantations brought in hundreds of thousands of captive peoples from West Africa, they were also importing the captives' love of complex rhythms, as well as certain kinds of harmonies and approaches to melody. As soon as a few of African exiles had absorbed the white man's religion, they began making up religious songs that included West African musical idioms. What we used to call the "Negro Spiritual" was born.

Even non-musicians recognize the raw emotional power of some of those old songs. But a musicologist would have noted unique influences from West African music underlying those simple, but profound lyrics. Here are a few examples:

  • Syncopation - In this case, it means moving the "pulse" of the melody off the beat, usually a bit ahead of it. Though European music sometimes included passages with syncopation, many early Gospel songs were based on syncopated rhythms throughout. As an example, a 4/4 measure would often have three, not four pulses. The first and third pulses would fall on what Europeans would call the first and fourth beats. The second pulse would fall on the second half of the second beat. Such syncopations are now so intrinsic to American music, that if you try to sing ANY American popular song written since 1920 with all the pulses falling exactly on the beat, it will sound incredibly dull and lifeless. But when rock-haters were looking for ways to define the "witch-doctor" elements of Rock and Roll, syncopation was one of the elements they usually seized on.
  • Swing - Dividing beats into thirds instead of halves, with the second "third" almost always silent. Thus a song that was ostensibly written in 4/4 would really be sung in something like 12/8. What would have been two eighth notes in a 4/4 song were inevitably transformed into an eighth-note, sixteenth-note pair with a triplet feel (even though it’s often written as a dotted-eight note, sixteenth note pair). Later musicians would call this effect "swing." It would contribute to nearly every form of American popular music after 1920. Long before folks heard swing in the work of Chuck Berry, they heard it in virtually every Cole Porter and George Gershwin song, not to mention the musical style that was actually called swing (and which, oddly, I have never heard condemned from the pulpit).
  • Blue Notes - An old African American singer once told Oscar Brand that white singers concentrated on making the note sound good once they hit it, and black singers concentrated more on how they hit the note. One common practice was hitting a note a half step low, and then bringing it up, especially on thirds and fifths. So if you were in, say, the key of G and you were going to hit a B, you might hit a Bb first, and slide up into the B. Or as musical styles like the Blues developed, you might even hold onto the Bb, turning it from a "grace note" to a "flatted third," one of the most common "blue notes," as such notes later came to be called. Of course blue notes influenced dozens of musical styles long before they ever worked their way into Rock and Roll. You can hear them in Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," ANY Blues song, most jazz, and almost all Bluegrass banjo picking.

You may be wondering why I haven't added the notorious emphasized backbeat to the list of West African-inspired musical patterns that found their way to our shores. After all, certain early Rock-haters identified "the backbeat" specifically as a jungle rhythm invented by witch doctors to call demons. But emphasizing the backbeat (for example, putting an emphasis on beats two and four in a 4/4 song), is hardly unique to West African-inspired music. True, it's important. But musicologists know that backbeats have long been emphasized in many cultures, including Eastern European and Middle Eastern music (think "Hava Nagila"). So, while a strong backbeat probably entered our culture's core musical vocabulary through early Gospel music, it is not specifically West African.

Of course, early Gospel music was more than just rhythms and blue notes; it was also simple but powerful lyrics and tunes, often sung in odd scales and rich harmonies that also affected other genres of music.

But American popular music's relationship with Gospel music goes way beyond the effect of early influences.

Time for a tour of those effects:

Gospel and Minstrel Shows

I told you this story wasn't pretty. During much of the 1800s, a favorite entertainment for some white people was other white people doing parodies of black people performing songs inspired by African American songs. As insulting as that must have been to black people, it did cause white composers like Stephen Foster to study and imitate the music of another culture. Consequently, several kinds of West African-inspired syncopation and musical phrasing, totally unremarkable to us now, found their way into Minstrel Show music and from there into other genres. (Think of the "Camptown Races" line “Going to bet on the bay.”)

In addition, Minstrel shows occasionally incorporated entire Gospel songs, such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." These in turn found their way into other settings.

Gospel and Piano

By the late 1800s, many African American churches had pianos. And one of the challenges of the piano player was to accompany songs that were not created with the piano in mind. This led to new ways of structuring piano parts that eventually affected every kind of American music. For our purposes, we'll point out just three innovations typical of early Gospel piano music (and related genres).

  • "Static" chords, especially on the tonic, were often replaced by jumping up a fourth and back quickly, two or more times per measure. Of course these rapid chord changes almost always reinforced some syncopated pattern. This would eventually come to affect early Rock and Roll (a more current, but obvious example is in Jim Croce's "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown"). It also made an impact in Folk Revival music (an example is Noel Paul Stookey's "Early in the Morning") because it easily translated to guitar.
  • Right hand piano parts came to imitate the intricate parallel harmony parts of traditional Gospel vocal arrangements (for another more current, but obvious example, think of the piano part to "Lean on Me").
  • Another contemporary innovation that went on to affect several subsequent musical genres was stride piano, using the left hand to alternate between a downbeat base note and an upbeat chord, often an octave higher. (You hear this in Scott Joplin's rags). Moving most accompaniment to the left hand this way freed up the right hand to spend most of its time harmonizing the melody in three or more parts. Although this technique did not (probably) originate in Gospel settings, many early Gospel piano players adopted it as soon as it became popular.

In short, early Gospel music led to the creation of a unique "Gospel piano" style that is still identifiable today, despite the fact that it has been transplanted to many other genres.

Gospel and Dance Hall Music

The syncopated, boisterous music of the Minstrel shows was borrowed and imitated in late 1800s’ dance halls. The Minstrel tune "Golden Slippers," might be followed by "Buffalo Gals," a dance hall number. Again, we don't think of "Buffalo Gals" as particularly progressive today, but the syncopated "Come out tonight" lines are radically different from the "white" popular music of a few decades earlier. (If you're having trouble conjuring up the sound of these pieces as they might have been presented in the 1890s, just think of the piano player in the saloon scene in every Western movie ever made.)

African-American Gospel Choirs

By 1870, realizing that a unique and important musical heritage was on the verge of being lost, African American music professors and choir directors had started writing down the words and music of early Gospel music and leading choir performances. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were one of the most prominent African American groups seeking to conserve and to popularize this genre. Such exposure influenced both white churches and white composers. Ironically, groups like the Fisk Jubilee Singers also kept certain Stephen Foster songs in circulation, so in a sense the Gospel-to-Minstrel connection came full circle.

Gospel and White Choirs

By the early 1900s, white choir directors who appreciated the energy of some early Gospel songs and the haunting melodies of others began arranging them for white choirs to sing. One problem that they encountered was that early Gospel melodies didn't always fit the European-style harmonic arrangements they were used to. So new ways of harmonizing these kind of melodies were invented, including use of sixth, major seventh, ninth, and thirteenth chords that had previously been popularized by impressionist composers. Though such harmonization had little effect on other musical genres, it did affect the way later white composers arranged new songs that they were attempting to write in a Gospel style. You can still hear these sounds whenever a choir (white, black, or mixed) drags up an old published choir arrangement of an old "spiritual."

"Black Gospel" and "White" Churches

In addition to this cross-fertilization between scholars and arrangers, African American Gospel music had direct influence on more than one circle of white believers. For example, the original Pentecostal Holiness movements of the early 1900s occurred in white and black churches at the same time. White preachers preached in black churches and vice versa, and members visited each other's churches regularly. Through such cross-fertilizations, a number of songs that started in black churches found their way into the informal repertoire of white churches. Did they affect the hymnals? Not much. But the effect on white "Southern Gospel" music was profound. Groups like the Cathedrals, the Goodmans and the Gaithers may sound "lily white" to our ears today. But if you removed the Gospel-inspired syncopations and harmonies from their songs, you'd have an entirely different kind of music.

Gospel and Jazz

There is little question that early Jazz musicians honed their skills and developed what we used to call Ragtime in the brothels of New Orleans - even though several of those musicians started out playing in church. But many of the reputed innovations of early Jazz came directly from Gospel music. So did some of the earliest Jazz classics, such as "When the Saints Go Marching In." As Jazz evolved over the years, many of its performers continued to pay tribute to their gospel roots by "riffing" on traditional Gospel songs or by writing Gospel-inspired (if not Gospel-themed) songs. Dizzie Gillespie's "Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac" and Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child" come to mind.

Gospel and Blues

The blue notes, melodic twists, and syncopation of early Gospel found their way directly into another unique American music form - the Blues.

Because of the content of most early Blues songs and the places most of them were performed, the Blues did not intersect with Gospel music as often as some other styles. But when Blues songs were transcribed into sheet music, Gospel piano styles often found their way into the arrangements.

One of the Blues' most distinctive characteristics, the "12-Bar Blues" chord progression, did not apparently come from Gospel. But as Blues progressions influenced other genres such as Boogie-Woogie, Jazz, and early Rock and Roll, they inevitably brought along other musical idioms that did come originally from Gospel.

Gospel and Tin Pan Alley

Starting about 1885, when sheet music publishing was in its heyday, songwriters and publishers began moving their offices into adjacent buildings on a Manhattan street. That neighborhood came to be called Tin Pan Alley because of the cacophony of so many cheap pianos in close proximity. For about the first three decades, demand for sheet music was so high that they published anything they could get their hands on, including Art songs, Minstrel, Dance Hall, Blues, Ragtime, and Gospel music. When wax cylinder phonographs and crystal radios created new demand for new sounds, songwriters became even more busy.

In the early 1900s, Jewish composers like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin were not afraid to borrow musical ideas from African American sources, whether they were filtered through other genres like Minstrel, or whether they were copied directly from the black night club musicians that young George and Ira Gershwin used to sneak into Harlem to hear.

Tin Pan Alley songs developed their own identity apart from the Dance Hall songs and other genres that fed into them. They added features like a throwaway "first verse" that was really just an introduction, an eminently singable chorus with a strong hook, inner rhymes, a "bridge" that was intrinsic to the song's structure, and, in many cases, exceptionally clever wordplay. But in the process of that development, they occasionally went back to Gospel roots for inspiration, a habit that became even more obvious when Tin Pan Alley songs started working their way into musical theatre and movie musicals.

Gospel and Musical Theatre

Because few of the early "musicals" had a pretense of a plot, what they really depended on was having a new "spectacle" and a different, compelling style of music every several minutes throughout the performance. This allowed room for the occasional Gospel-style song to be inserted, usually sung with enthusiasm that rivaled the old Minstrel shows. This trend continued through the "movie musical" era (think "Get Happy" in Summer Stock). It also continued into the modern "musical theatre" era. Examples include "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat" (from Guys and Dolls), "Brotherhood of Man" (from How to Succeed in Business), and "Run, Freedom, Run" (from Urinetown). While none of these songs comes close to communicating a "Gospel message," all of them are testimonies to the continued appeal of traditional Gospel music idioms.

Gospel Music and Early Rock

The most direct predecessor to what came to be called Rock and Roll was actually a family of African American musical styles that white record store owners called, collectively, "Race Music." Black artists wrote and performed music influenced by Boogie Woogie, Blues, and a capella traditions, all of which, in turn, had Gospel roots.

In those days, most white boys who liked this music were incapable of understanding many of the rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic intricacies of "Race Music." However, that didn't keep them from borrowing the most obvious elements and speeding the songs up fast enough for their audiences to jitterbug to. Because they were white, their music found its way to radio stations that rejected black artists. And when white teenagers heard this music, their response fueled the revolution that we now call "Rock and Roll."

As one example, to modern ears, Buddy Holly sounds "lily white." But his first big radio hit "That'll Be the Day," included Gospel-style rapid 1-4-1-4 chord changes, a modified blues progression, and rhythms that convinced many white and black listeners of the time that Holly was black.

Though early white artists have been accused of profiteering on the work of black artists, their ability to break down musical boundaries eventually did give black artists access to traditionally white-only radio stations and record stores.

In an oddly symmetrical direction, Gospel artists Rosetta Tharpe and Pa Staples brought electric guitars into the world of Gospel music. Rosetta Tharpe’s lead guitar playing heavily influenced Chuck Berry, and her “boogie-woogie” Gospel performances have given her the nickname “the mother of Rock and Roll.”  Pa Staples’ family band broke other barriers between Gospel and Rock, as the Staple Singers received "top-40" recognition with songs such as "Respect Yourself" and "I'll Take You There."

Gospel and Folk

Since the early 1900s, Folk artists and music historians had been trying to preserve and promote folk music, including many traditional, but increasingly neglected early Gospel songs. A few folk artists like the Weavers had commercial success (often with songs written by African Americans). But their music didn't attract huge numbers of young people until a flood of Ricky Nelson clones made the Rock of the late 1950s less visceral (some might say insipid). Searching for something they could "get their teeth into," young music lovers found new inspiration in folk music traditions. The resulting Folk Revival sparked the success of countless acoustic-based acts such as the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Gordon Lightfoot, Ian and Sylvia, and Bob Dylan.

Even as artists like Dylan and Joan Baez steered the Folk Revival movement toward political activism, most Folk Revival artists maintained respect for traditional Gospel music. They sang songs like "All My Trials Soon Be Over" and "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore." They wrote Gospel-styled songs, like the Limelighters' "He Brought Joy, Joy, Joy Into My Heart." And they welcomed traditional Gospel artists like Mahalia Jackson and the Clara Ward Singers into their circle and into their festivals.

After the British Invasion reinvigorated Rock and Roll, Folk gave way to Folk-Rock: folk-influenced songs with drums and bass guitar. Gospel songs became less prominent, but Gospel sounds stayed strong. Examples include Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge over Troubled Waters," Cat Stevens’ "Miles from Nowhere," and Carole King's "Way Over Yonder."

Interestingly enough, not only did Gospel influence Folk, Folk Revival, and Folk-Rock artists, Folk music itself became a medium for a new kind of Christian music. Starting with the 1964 song "We are One in the Spirit," folk-style music with a Christian message spread through "guitar masses," church camps, youth outreach programs, music festivals, and eventually into Evangelical Protestant churches, where it helped pave the way for early "Jesus music" and today's contemporary worship services.

Gospel and Rock from the 60's and 70's

After Rock bands retook the airwaves in the late 1960s, many artists still looked to Gospel musical styles (if not content) for inspiration. Examples include Blood Sweat and Tears' "Hi-De-Ho," Aretha Franklin's "Natural Woman," and Joe Cocker's version of "I Get By With a Little Help From my Friends."

In addition a small minority of rockers either were Christians or became Christians, including members of Kansas, Poco, and Glass Harp, and former members of a dozen first-tier groups. Admittedly, Rock tours were hard on anyone seeking to maintain his or her faith, and most rockers who claimed a Christian conversion eventually either left the road or (sadly) left the faith.

It must be admitted that for every group with more-or-less wholesome content, there was at least one group that glorified the "Highway to Hell." Like every other genre and style of music ever created, Rock has been used for immoral as well as for wholesome purposes. But that did not convince young musicians who became Christians during the Rock and Roll, Folk-Rock or Rock eras, that Rock's Gospel-inspired rhythms, harmonies, and melodies were inherently incapable of being used for good.

Gospel and "Contemporary Christian" Music

During the late 60s and early 70s, a number of young Christians with Folk-Rock and Rock experience began writing songs with Christian lyrics. Called "Jesus Music," most of the songs did not find their way to mainstream churches, and few "Jesus Musicians" found label support or commercial success. That changed in 1974, when the Second Chapter of Acts' self-named debut album broke records and barriers. For the next twenty years or so, "Contemporary Christian Music" included both relatively inoffensive pop-style artists and (usually independent) edgier groups. A few of the latter groups eventually did receive label support from "major" or "Alternative" labels.

Musically, however, "Contemporary Christian" has generally reflected trends on the "pop" music charts, albeit sometimes toned down a bit to sound "safer." After a 1990s "boom" that attracted major secular labels like Sony to the genre, there was a sort of "bust," in which the same labels cut their losses, abandoning several acts mid-contract.

Nowadays most "Contemporary Christian Music" has gone back to being recorded on “Christian" or independent labels. However, there has been a gradual reset in the Gospel music industry, to the extent that traditional Southern Gospel and African American artists are now in the minority of Christian recording artists. What used to be called "Contemporary Christian" is now in the majority, and often falls under the name Gospel, when people are discussing the industry as a whole.

As of this writing (2011) the strongest trend in current "Contemporary Christian Music" is in the increased emphasis on songs written for worship, which we’ll address shortly.

Gospel and "Post-Rock" Pop

By now (2012), the Gospel-inspired elements of Rock, including the backbeat and syncopation, have infused (some might say infected) virtually every genre, including such traditional holdouts as Bluegrass, Celtic, Country, and "white" Gospel. At the same time, the name "Rock" has lost much of its meaning, since at any given time, there are thirty or so sub-genres that claim that name. Regarding those genres, my sense is that, except for the most basic musical idioms of Gospel, most of today's pop music is influenced less by Gospel than it is by earlier Rock and Pop styles. But these things come in cycles - it might just be a matter of time before visceral, Gospel-influenced styles like those of Carole King, Aretha Franklin and Joe Cocker reemerge under some new banner.

Gospel and Contemporary Worship

It's no surprise that many churches (especially churches that wanted to appeal to young people) eventually dropped the arbitrary boundaries that kept any music that sounded like it was written after 1920 out of the worship service. Over eight years ago, a Southern Baptist official responsible for suggesting worship directions for the denomination reported that almost all of the fastest-growing Baptist churches had switched to “contemporary worship” (using Folk-Rock- or Rock-influenced songs with Evangelical Christian lyrics).

So many churches have gone to a contemporary worship style that worship songs are currently (2012) the fastest-growing single segment of Christian or Gospel music being recorded. Several bands who used to make a nice living selling records and doing concert tours are now surviving on sales of worship CDs. And if anything, the demand is growing.

The challenge for many worship leaders who want to reach under-30s today is how to make the service feel contemporary without leaving the older believers behind. Finding the balance seems to require a thorough understanding of hymns, Gospel, and contemporary musical styles. As well as a thick skin.


So did God really give Rock and Roll to you? Only in the sense that He allowed the musical expressions of a people who cried out to Him from captivity to work its way throughout all the musical genres of our culture, even the most deliberately resistant.

Frankly, most of our culture's music has not glorified God, no matter what the style. But some of it has, and we should enjoy the diversity and vitality of that music with a clear conscience. Better yet, we should be able to use any musical form to enter His gates with thanksgiving and to enter His courts with praise.


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