My wife and I recently attended a Mannheim Steamroller Christmas concert. During the show the band performed Greensleeves. The music was quite familiar, as the song is known in the Christian tradition as What Child is This?. For the first time, however, I became aware that the song Greensleeves had its own lyrics which were decidedly non-religious in nature.
It has not been uncommon for music of the church and secular environments to stylistically mirror each other. Research shows that there are differing opinions as to whether Christian artists tend to “steal” music from secular sectors and simply replace secular lyrics with religious ones and, in fact, is hard sometimes to separate. Throughout much of the Middle Ages, the church controlled both religious and secular life. The musical styles tended to cross the nominal line between, even if performance and intent may have differed. There are documented cases, such as in the case of prolific Christian hymn writer Fanny May Crosby, in which commonly known secular tunes were redirected for church use, albeit with lyric changes.
Key to any discussion of similarities between secular and religious music, though, is the factor that people, and especially young people, like to hear music in their spiritual lives that is analogous to what is popular outside the church, just with a focus on Christianity. Since the 1960s, as rock music became ascendant in the secular world, so did its roots among the Christian community.
In this sense, the development of the secular rock movement and Christian rock music are not unsimilar. The Beatles forged a massive following during the early 1960s with their beatnik rock. John Plater, curator of the website 1960schristianmusic.com, stated: “… with the rise of the Beatles and other beat groups in the UK many Christian young people wanted to listen to beat style music.” Others followed the style of the Rolling Stones: “But there were other groups (mainly from the London area) whose music was blues style, being influenced more by the Rolling Stones than the Beatles…”
So who were these early Christian rock groups? The “first” Christian rock groups may never be widely known, but Plater’s research has found “from about 1960 onwards a group in the Bristol area of England did a Passion Play Musical most Easter periods. This was set to music which included rock-style music.”
Beat-style Christian groups followed, of course, on the heels of the Beatles. Plater noted: “By 1964 many Christian beat groups had come into being in the UK, playing in coffee bars, schools, etc. The Salvation Army’s ‘Joystrings’ were one of the better known groups.”
Wait, wait… the Salvation Army? Like, the Salvation Army downtown? Yes, that Salvation Army! The Joystrings were put together by the Salvation Army to perpetuate the preaching of the Gospel through cultural phenomenon. The group became quite popular, with several charting songs on the secular charts. They played many venues, including clubs and bars. But they kept their focus on the Gospel. A founding member of the Joystrings noted in a video interview: “It was the communication media of the day, if you like.” Another quoted Salvation Army General Koontz: “It was fulfilling the mission exactly of the vision of General Coutts when he said ‘We must go to the people and speak in their language.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jlt33ekuf7w&feature=youtu.be). The Joystrings appeared in controversial locations, but kept their eye on the ball, which was reaching the lost with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Joystrings disbanded in 1968, but carried a strong cultural and musical influence on the UK during their 5 active years.
Other Christian groups were also very vigorous during that time. Plater notes that the Crossbeats may have predated the Joystrings in their use of beat music. According to the website www.crossbeats.co.uk, the group was founded in Liverpool in 1963 and stayed together until 1970. The site notes the group played in “churches, clubs, coffee bard, prisons, and colleges in the UK…” The site also notes the group was “backed by some 300 prayer partners, and the work of the group was predominantly centred on outreach and evangelism.”
The other spectrum of Christian rock music in the Rolling Stones blues version was capped by such groups as the Crusaders and the Pilgrims. According to 1960schristianmusic.com, the Crusaders began musical life as the Keynotes, singing Southern Gospel, from 1958-1960. In 1960, they changed their name to the Crusaders and their style to gospel blues. The Pilgrims are known to have been in existence during the early 1960s, and a website dedicated to them claims “The Pilgrims were the first Christian Rock ‘n Roll band (or ‘rock group’ as they were known in those days) in the early sixties.” (http://www.derrickphillips.co.uk/pilgrims/band.htm)
Plater lists numerous other UK Christian beat, blues and other rock bands on his 1960schristianmusic.com website, from All Things New to the Witnesses, as well as some of the early groups from the United States. It is a fascinating review of early UK Christian rock music, replete with links to many websites and recordings.
The real explosion in the Christian rock music genre, however, occurred in the United States. Next month’s article will begin to chronicle the beginnings of Christian rock music stateside.