Thursday, April 16, 2009

Goodness, Gracious, Great Balls of Fire and Brimstone

Cross post from Religion in American History.

Randall Stephens

Jerry Lee Lewis to Sam Phillips on the perils of rock and roll, Sun Records Studio, Memphis Tennessee, 1957

Jerry Lee Lewis: H-E-L-L . . . that’s right. It says “MAKE MERRY with the JOY OF GOD, only.” But when it comes to worldly music, rock and roll, anythin’ like that, you’re in the world, and you haven’t come from out of the world, and you’re still a sinner. And you’re a sinner. You’re a sinner unless you be saved and born again, and be made as a little child, and walk before God, and be holy. And brother, I mean you got to be so pure, and no sin shall enter there. No SIN! Cause it says “no sin.” It don’t say just a little bit. It says “no sin shall enter there.” Brother, not one little bit. You got to walk and TALK with God to go to heaven. . . .

Sam Phillips: Now Look, Jerry . . .

Lewis: Mr. Phillips, I don’t care . . . it ain’t what you believe, It’s what’s written in the BIBLE! . . . .

Phillips: Nah, gosh, it’s not what you believe it’s how do you interpret the Bible?

I’ll stop right there. It’s just so much more fun to hear this on youtube. A transcription can’t capture the accents and folk wisdom entailed, ya hear? I don’t even think Mark Twain could render the conversation justly. Hat tip to Joe Lucas (Historically Speaking) for making me aware of this fly-on-the-wall treasure. (How many other famous pop icons discussed hermeneutics with their producers?!?)

Hearing the above, I thought about work I’ve done, albeit very little, on rock, pop music and holiness-pentecostalism. At the suggestion of Bland Whitley while in grad school, I read an essay on famous pentecostal musicians (Stephen R. “Pentecostalism and Popular Culture in the South: A Study of Four Musicians,” Journal of Popular Culture 16 [Winter 1982]: 68-80.) Few have looked at pentecostal rock and rollers and country singers as Tucker did all those years ago. The evidence from interviews with performers, autobiographies, and secondary work is pretty stunning.

Elvis Presley, like “The Killer,” attended an Assemblies of God church. Johnny Cash spent some harrowing Sundays in a fired-up Church of God. Tammy Wynette did, too. There are other links between black pentecostalism and B.B. King and Little Richard. The latter’s autobiography will blow your hair back. All that to say that the connection between sanctified religion, gospel quartets, shouting preachers, and rock is not a mere coincidence.

Here’s are a couple questions I’m interested in, and this speaks to the above audio clip: If, as the Louvin Brothers reminded the faithful in 1960, “Satan is real, working in spirit . . .” then how does one square the devil’s music with holy living? That dilemma worried Jerry Lee, and, to a lesser extent, Elvis. How much of the vibrancy and ecstasy of early rock was a result of a religious tension? Maybe much more than most realize.

I said a little bit about this in the last chapter of my book. It’s worth quoting David Wilkerson (of Cross and Switchblade fame) who wrote about Lucifer’s rock trickery in a 1959 issue of an Assemblies of God magazine. For every Youth for Christ rally “Satan is now staging a rock and roll rally!” he said. Even worse, “Satan has used rock and roll to imitate the work of God at Pentecost! In these last days Satan has come down to baptize with an unholy ghost and unholy fire!” Rock shows looked like upside-down pentecostal revivals: “the shaking, the prostration” of the saints “are imitated by this unholy baptism—as far even to speaking in vile tongues!”


Jeff Vanke said...

public radio, which included a c. early 1990s interview of Jerry Lee Lewis, in the same vein. Witnesses to Lewis said he always believed he was performing the devil's music; Lewis was profoundly troubled by it, but committed to it.

So in later life Lewis recalled a conversation with Elvis. Lewis said, Elvis, do you ever think about whether you're going to hell for this music (or something to that effect)? Lewis remembered that Elvis's eyes got really, really big. After a long pause, Elvis answered, Jerry Lee, don't you ever asked me that again, and Elvis walked away.

In the Million-Dollar-Quartet songs of Elvis & Lewis & Cash & Perkins, a spontaneous jam session, many of the songs they can manage to share the lyrics of were spirituals. (Though they often didn't know them well enough to sing through to the end. For me, the CD was more of a curiosity than something to listen to again and again.)

Randall said...

That's a fascinating encounter. Someone needs to mine all this rich material.