The ritual roots of rock

Music has always had an association with the numinous and has been commonly put to ritual use. It was performed by our ancestors to placate the gods and invoke their assistance. Psalmody (chanted prayers sometimes accompanied by stringed instruments) arose in ancient Israel and was passed on to both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity in the first century ce. Both Tertullian and Augustine endorsed the use of music in prayers and to lift the heart in worship. The Mass was recited in plainsong and later accompanied by Gregorian chant. In the high middle ages, music was held to be a branch of theological metaphysics, a way of marking the harmonic order of the planets and the cosmos itself - the music of the spheres - thus elevating its role in creating an atmosphere fit for the visitation of God during the Mass. Liturgical music, sung in Latin, was used to draw the worshipper out of herself and into communion with God. Luther was a great advocate of music; he wrote several hymns in German and encouraged the laity to sing during worship. He is reported to have said, "Music drives away the Devil and makes people gay; they forget thereby all wrath, unchastity, arrogance, and the like____Experience proves that next to the Word of God only music deserves to be extolled as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart."11 With John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and his brother Charles, the writer of over 6,000 hymns, the use of popular, singable tunes that could be sung outside of worship and aimed at stirring hearts to repentance and devotion and at offering instruction in the faith fueled several religious revivals in Britain and the US.

During the religious awakenings in the mid-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the hymns of Wesley and Isaac Watts swept through camp meetings, energizing the movement of the spirit throughout the States. Charles Finney, a leader of the Second Awakening, promoted the use of popular music and colorful preaching as a way to excite the emotions and thereby "wake up the dormant moral powers, and roll back the tide of degradation and sin."12 In the south, where slaves would congregate on the periphery of the meetings and take part in their own revivals, elements of this new British hymnody were absorbed into the ecstatic "ring shouts" they had brought with them from West Africa. In a ring shout, several "shouters" would move to the center of a ring of worshippers, and "begin a slow, syncopated shuffling, jerking movement," that was "'bumped' by the handclapping or body slapping of those waiting on the sidelines." They would sing, slowly at first, but as they circled and danced, the pace of their singing would surge, until they were singing only the most cherished refrain, as the stomping and clapping of the outer ring grew more feverish. Revival hymns were incorporated into this ritual, with the shouters intoning lyrical lines to which those gathered in the outer ring would sing back a response. This style of shout and response is a form of "hymn-lining," with the song leader calling out each line of the hymn and the congregation then singing back in reply.13

Rock and roll has roots in this history of sacred music. Spirituals gave rise to gospel singing and then to the succession of blues, jazz, soul, and rhythm and blues.14 The great soul singers who began recording in the 1950s - James Brown, Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett and Curtis Mayfield - all launched their careers as gospel singers. Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye were children of preachers. They are all key figures in the secularization of many of the conventions of gospel music as it metamorphosed into soul, moving its most appealing features from the house of worship to the nightclub. The hymn-lining interactions of the song leader and his chorus, the syncopated movements of the shouter and the swaying, handclapping supporters of the outer ring, the accelerating pace of each verse with a crescendo in the refrain, the moans, howls and gesticulations of the black preacher, the rhythmic release of tension and pent up emotions and the harmonic patterns of gospel survive in soul. Ray Charles, who grew up Baptist, imported the charisma and stylistic genius of the itinerant evangelist into his routine. Some of his biggest hits were barely disguised gospel favorites, and his style of piano playing would have been equally at home at a revival service. It is not hard to hear the gospel standard "This Little Light of Mine" audible in the background of "This Little Girl of Mine." His songs also revolved around the causes of evil and retained a scheme for salvation, namely human suffering (poverty, loneliness, heartache, humiliation, betrayal, the blues - "all the world is sad and lonely wherever I roam") can be overcome by the love of a good woman. Or, as James Brown lays it down in "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World," man made the car, the train, the electric light, and the boat - to relieve him of his burdens and protect himself from being overwhelmed by the world - but in the end, he's "lost in the wilderness, lost in bitterness" if he's without a woman. In the soteriology of soul, the travail of a man's life can only be redeemed by the devotion of a steadfast woman.

Rock and roll derives from these precursors. And while the connection to this legacy of sacred music becomes more obscure with rock than it was with soul, many of the basic stylistic elements and salvific themes persist. While it has been stretched nearly to the breaking point, there is a residual religion that still runs through the veins of rock and roll. To begin with, it is often performed in a venue that was in earlier eras the exclusive precinct of religion. A predecessor of the outdoor summer music festival (Lilith Fair, Woodstock, Ozzfest, Lollapalooza, Rolling Thunder Review, Burning Man Festival, Rainbow Festival) was the revival camp meeting and its successor, the Chautauqua.15 And like its predecessor, the music festival provides an occasion to shed one's routines, normal obligations and comforts in order to enter a liminal world designed to optimize the possibility for self-transcendence and to practice a different mode of community. It has clear Edenic and utopian overtones. Festivals of the mid-1990s were nomadic global villages, and would feature midways of kiosks that promoted NGOs and political causes, vegetarian cuisine, smart drink bars, mask vendors and body piercing/tattoo artists.

A Turnerian analysis is appropriate here.16 In rock concerts we enter liminal time and space, we enter a ritual of anti-structure that has some capacity to cleanse our interior consciousness and enable us to imagine new ways of being. The great mix of sounds, images, emotions, and to some degree, statuslessness, that swirl around one at a music festival can be disorienting in a productive, rejuvenating way. Just as in traditional rites of passage, then, these modern festivals can thrust those who are present into the self-dissolving experience of communitas, planting within them a vision that is antithetical to the bureaucratic structures in which they spend their lives. In Turner's view, "Rock is clearly a cultural expression and instrumentality of that style of communitas which has arisen as the antithesis of the 'square,' 'organization man' type of bureaucratic social structure of mid-twentieth-century America."17

It is worth pointing out, however, that when Turner included rock music in his list of liminoid artifacts the corporate sponsorship that now brands logos onto every available surface at rock concerts had not reached its present level of saturation. Given the importance Turner attached to the symbols that one is exposed to at the peak of the liminal phase, the sacra of the tribe, he might take a less sanguine view toward the "anti-structural" potential of the current festival scene.18 These corporate logos may well be the icons and sacred diagrams of our people, the elemental symbols upon which our culture is built: Sony, Chevrolet, Hilfiger, Tower Records, Major League Baseball, Netscape, Nintendo, MTV, Smirnoff, Starbucks, and Altoids - all frequent music festival sponsors. Their logos may well be the religious symbols that point toward the transcendent forces that our culture increasingly views as salvific - electronic devices, cars, clothes, music, sports, the Internet, virtual reality, celebrities, narcotics, stimulants, and sweet-smelling breath. And a similar analysis could be done of the symbols that are put on display in music videos - which are themselves great pageants of consumption if not outright product placement, and reach largely overlapping conclusions about our objects of veneration.

But rock music is not entirely about its accoutrements. It is also worth examining for its lyrical content. Much contemporary rock music is either vacuous or nihilistic. Unfortunately, this is some of the most commercially successful recorded music, conveying the message that shallowness, self-destruction, or the raw assertion of the will-to-power will be rewarded with profit and fame. Another big segment of highly successful rock music is about youth in their twenties dealing with angst and various resentments typical of their age and sorting out things like self-esteem, identity, and relationships with friends and lovers. This can become a bit redundant with its stories of false starts, premature reports of enlightenment, alienation and dead ends, but there is some value in eternally rehashing these experiences in light of shifting cultural conditions. Then there are performers who conscientiously pursue salvific themes in their music - through social protest, romance, and mysticism.

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