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Play an MP3 clip of 'If the Creek Don't Rise' as arranged for banjo.

Click to go to home page.Did God Really Give Rock & Roll To You?

Written by Paul Race for Creek Don't Rise™
and 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."

Click to learn about our newsletter for acoustic, Americana, folk music and more.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 Wes