The Birth of Jesus Music
David Di Sabatino

One of the most powerful influences upon the 1960s counterculture was the development of rock and roll music. Rock music was an experiential medium encapsulating both the zealous exuberance and collective dissatisfaction of the young with a backbeat that propelled listeners to action. Even better, in the minds of oppositional teenagers, rock music drove parents crazy.

Taken in context of the Spiritual Sixties, rock musicians became much more than icons of rebellion. Guitar-slinging troubadours became both prophet and priest to a generation of followers who worshipped en masse at festival altars. By intently scrutinizing song lyrics many adoring fans were convinced that these musical avatars had buried the answers to life's mysteries within their record albums.

Much evidence exists revealing this unorthodox alliance of rock music and spirituality. Charles Manson's prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi portrayed the accused as persuading his followers with a combination of biblical prooftexts and song lyrics that Armageddon was drawing nigh. Bugliosi maintained that Manson identified the Beatles as the four angels of Revelation chapter 9 whom he believed were compelling him to instigate Helter Skelter (a race war between blacks and whites). The appearance of this musical gnosticism in the 1960s (the poring over music lyrics in search of secret knowledge) remains an ominous reminder of the pervasive influence music held over the young. To the children of the Spiritual Sixties nothing was more singularly important than their addiction to music.

The cultural potency of rock music not lost on the growing number of street Christians. The synthesis of rock music and Christianity seemed a natural consequence of their spiritual conversions. If The Jefferson Airplane (one of San Francisco's most prominent '60s bands) could openly sing about drugs in their paean "White Rabbit" ("One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small"), then a hippie Christian could sing about that which was most important to them, namely Jesus Christ. The development of Jesus rock music proved a viable medium for unique expressions of faith.

Various forms of contemporary gospel music had emerged throughout the 1960s predating the advent of what became known as "Jesus music." In the aftermath of Vatican II rock and folk renditions of the mass were performed and recorded. Christian youth in England responded to the British teen beat scene with a host of "gospel beat" albums that predate similar developments in North America. In the United States, the first contemporary Christian rock album was actually released in 1966 by a band calling themselves The Crusaders. Entitled Make a Joyful Noise With Drums and Guitars, the back cover of the LP states that the group "chose the Big Beat as the means of expressing their religious faith. . . . Now, for the first time, God is praised in song through the most contemporary musical expression: The Beat." In 1968 the Zondervan Company released Till the Whole World Knows by a Maryland based rock band called Sons of Thunder (even though they had female members). By 1969 three other Christian rock albums were released; Ron and Bill Moore's Lo and Behold, John Fischer's Cold Cathedral, and Larry Norman's landmark Upon This Rock. By 1970 there were enough overtly religious rock albums for Rolling Stone magazine to ask, "with all the Jesus rock albums around today, what's a mother to do?" 2

It is impossible to establish a sole pioneer of Jesus Music. Even though only three albums were released in 1969, many had been performing their own versions of gospel rock music in church youth groups and coffeehouses well before anyone realized that a "movement" was taking place. Paul Clark, Fred Caban (and Agape), Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, Phil Keaggy, Mike Johnson (of The Exkursions), Andrae Crouch, Nancy Henigbaum (Honeytree), Danny Lee (& The Children of Truth), Latter Rain, Last Call of Shiloh, Mark Heard Danny Taylor, Pat Terry, Harvest Flight, Liberation Suite, Out of Darkness, Azitis, Stonewood Cross, Jubal, Vindication, Hope of Glory, Hope, Overland Stage, Joshua, Newbury Park, Rainbow Promise, Malcolm & Alwyn, Crimson Bridge, Earthen Vessel, Wilson McKinley, Quo Vadis, The e Band, Dust, The Sheep, Andrae Crouch, Barry McGuire, Resurrection Band, Danny Taylor, Tom Rozof, The Hallelujah Joy Band, Bridge, Psalm 150, Dove, Millennium, The All Saved Freak Band, The Glorious Liberty, Randy Matthews, John Fischer, The Sons of Thunder, Ron Moore, and Ron Salsbury (and the JC Power Outlet), and several Maranatha! Music artists (Love Song, Good News, The Way, Deborah Kerner, Ernie Rettino, Aslan, Mustard Seed Faith, Phoenix Sonshine, The Road Home, Children of the Day, Selah, Erick Nelson, Joy, Country Faith, Karen Lafferty, and Blessed Hope) and others deserve mention as originators of the genre that was distinguished solely by its lyrical content. Throughout the duration of the revival, Jesus Music would rarely deviate from the reiteration of a single theme; the experience of God through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. These artists mark the first wave of Jesus musicians that spanned from 1969 to 1974. 3

Jesus Music provoked controversy from its inception. Traditional churchgoers made no distinctions between long-haired Christian rocker Larry Norman or guitar icon Jimi Hendrix. The established church remained convinced that anything born out of rebellion would only beget further rebellion. Hippies extolling the virtues of Jesus to a frenzied backbeat of "worldly music" was nothing more than spiritual compromise. Jesus musicians responded by offering defenses for their creative endeavours, many of them arguing that rock music's origins evolved from a complex stream of influences that included strong spiritual undercurrents. The sentiments of these hippie Christian musicians echoed the thoughts of sixteenth century reformer Martin Luther when he wondered "why should the devil have all the best tunes." Despite this stiff opposition against the use of contemporary culture, Christian minstrels continued to plot their own course trying to counteract the destructive themes inherent in much of the mainstream rock music.

This incipient period was marked by a number of characteristics. Evangelism was foremost on the Jesus musician's mind since there was no commercial infrastructure to support their efforts. At the time, most artists felt the production of recorded music albums a secondary concern eclipsed by the primacy of personal intimacy developed with a live audience. Also, in light of the belief that the Second Coming was imminent, the recording an album seemed an extraneous diversion away from concerns of evangelism. Most pioneers speak of this era as one of spontaneity unclouded by the materialism that followed as Jesus Music made an awkward transition into a competitive industry.

Jesus Music recordings became prevalent when groups and artists realized that a record album could serve a dual purpose both as a tool of evangelism and as a commodity to raise much needed funds. During this incipient phase product distribution remained rudimentary, usually centering on self-promotion and endless concert touring. Mail-order companies emerged to handle the handful of low-budget and (most often) poorly recorded efforts. In time, however, a number of institutional developments emerged around the fledgling scene as it expanded and moved beyond the embryonic stage. Coffeehouses and nightclubs sprang up across the continent as venues for Christian musicians to perform. In response to mainstream music festivals, such as the Monterey Pop and Woodstock events, a number of promoters began to hold similar Jesus Music festivals.

Institutionalization came quickly as the informal infrastructure developed into a burgeoning network of business enterprises formed around the loose collection of independent musicians. The Contemporary Christian Music industry (CCM) blossomed in 1975 with the establishment of a number of large record companies whose sole aim was to promote and distribute Christian rock albums. Myrrh Records, originally formed in 1971 to promote Randy Matthews, reversed their original pessimism about the future of Jesus rock music and signed up several other artists to bolster their lineup. As the "contemporary music" subsidiary of Word Records, Myrrh signed Nancy Honeytree, The 2nd Chapter of Acts, British folk duo Malcolm & Alwyn, Pat Terry Group, and others to their label while signing distribution deals to albums by Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, Love Song, Phil Keaggy, Lamb, and Paul Clark. Other labels to begin operations during this time were Greentree (a division of Benson), Chrism (a division of Tempo), and Sparrow Records when former Myrrh executive Billy Ray Hearn decided to launch out on his own. 4

Such commercial success fostered diversification not only stylistically -moving beyond the early country, folk, and rock influences to include heavy metal, ska, punk, thrash, and even reggae streams - but also lyrically as artists began to delve into other issues beyond their experiences of salvation. By the beginning of the 1980s the CCM industry could look back and see expansive growth in distribution, market share, national and international exposure, and even acceptance from most conservative Christian circles.

1 Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), 68.
2 Rolling Stone, 9 December 1971, 21.
3 See 0112-0113.
4 Paul Baker, Contemporary Christian Music: Where It Came From, What It Is, Where It's Going (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1985), 103-4.

Used with permission from the author from:
The Jesus People Movement: An Annotated Bibliography and General Resource
Religious Studies, Bibliographies and Indexes in, No. 49 (ISSN: 0742-6836) Greenwood Press. Westport, Conn. 1999. 280 pages. by David Di Sabatino