Thursday, 24 October 2013

The Devil’s Music: Religion and Rock in the 1950s South

Yesterday, 23rd October 2013, the Centre was pleased to welcome Dr. Randall Stephens (Reader in History at the University of Northumbria) to the second of the Centre’s 2013-2014 seminar series. In what was an engaging and highly insightful talk, Dr. Stephens discussed ‘The Devil’s Music: Religion and Rock in the 1950s South.’ Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Monday, October 28th, 1957, and Elvis Presley is about to perform to a packed crowd at the Pan-American Auditorium in Los Angeles. Before going on stage, a member of DIG magazine, marketed as ‘For Teens Only,’ was eager to gain a rise out of Presley during an interview backstage with the question: ‘As the reputed King of Rock 'n Roll, how do you feel about the comments Frank Sinatra made railing Rock 'n Roll enthusiasts as being nothing but a bunch of 'cretinous goons' and the music itself as 'the martial music of every side-burned delinquent on the face of the earth.' Although Presley responded calmly, as Dr. Stephens highlighted, this type of question itself illustrated the perception held by many that rock music was abhorrent. Yet of more interest to Dr. Stephens was Presley’s answer to a follow-up question about why he gyrated on stage as he sang – Presley said, ‘I just sing like they do back home. When I was younger, I always liked spiritual quartets and they sing like that.’ Here was Presley articulating what Dr. Stephens had set out to discover – namely, to understand the important connections between religion and the evolution of rock music in America.

To do so, Dr. Stephens discussed the rise of Pentecostalism in the American South, where believers spoke in unknown tongues, worshipped in free-form churches, and broke down social barriers that had divided traditional Protestants by gathering white and black converts long before desegregation. Gender equality was also a mark of the Pentecostal movement, which according to Dr. Stephens went the way of the ‘horse and cart’ by the 1930s. Nevertheless, the rise of Pentecostalism, with its unique blend of highly energetic and emotive services to spread the word of God – gospel was often combined with various musical instruments during services – had an indelible impact on the character of the South and the childhood of many future rock and roll stars of the 1950s and 60s. Dr. Stephens revisited Presley here, describing how in interview after interview he always mentioned to reporters that he and his family belonged to Memphis’s First Assembly of God church. For example, when speaking to an Associated Press reporter about Pentecostalism, Presley said:

We used to go to these religious singins all the time. There were these singers, perfectly fine singers, but nobody responded to ‘em. Then there were these other singers – the leader wuz a preacher – and they cut up all over the place, jumpin’ on the piano, movin’ every which way. The audience liked ‘em. I guess I learned from them singers.

According to Dr. Stephens, uninhibited Pentecostalism gave Presley ideas about music and performance. Indeed, he was often called the ‘evangelist’ by his inner circle of friends. Nevertheless, many in the American South did not appreciate his borrowing of sacred music for secular ends.

As Dr. Stephens highlighted, many of Presley's records were condemned as wicked by Pentecostal preachers, warning congregations to keep ‘heathen’ rock and roll music out of their homes and away from their children's ears. Likewise, White Supremacist groups, such as the White Citizen’s Council called rock and roll ‘jungle music’, ‘Congo rhythms’, and ‘animalistic.’ Thus, with these perceptions fuelling the rock and roll backlash, programmers announced they would not play Presley's music on their radio stations due to religious convictions that his music was ‘devil music’ and to racist beliefs that it was ‘negro music.’

Dr. Stephens then discussed the Pentecostal roots of various other singers at the time – James Brown, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash to name a few – to further reinforce his argument that religion had a massive influence on the rise of rock and roll in the South. Indeed, in the career of many of these stars, a duality between religion and the sins associated with rock and roll plagued them. Dr. Stephens played an excerpt of an intriguing conversation between Jerry Lee Lewis and Sam Phillips at Sun Records to illustrate this. This is attached here.

In closing, Dr. Stephens highlighted how his talk was part of a wider project in which he examines the relationship of rock music to American Christianity, beginning with Pentecostals who took to the new genre — Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and others — and ending with the advent of Christian rock in the 1970s. In his lecture, he mixed history, politics, religion, and music to provide a detailed picture of the South in the 1950s. Moreover, by highlighting the role of religion in rock and roll, Dr. Stephen helps us to understand the dynamic ways in which religion influenced the South in a number of ways outside of the church walls. In what was an informative and well attended lecture, Dr. Stephens unravelled the interesting roots of religion in the lives of many famous rock and roll stars – many of whom are more often associated with debauchery.
By Joe Ryan-Hume
PGR at the University of Glasgow

The Centre’s seminar series continues with Prof. Ivy Schweitzer (Dartmouth College) ‘More Pleasurable Reading We’re Not Doing: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.’ This is part of the 'English and American Literature Lecture Series', co-sponsored by the Centre, and will be held on Thursday 7th November in Room 202, 4 University Gardens, at 5:15pm. All very welcome!


  1. warning congregations to keep ‘heathen’ rock and roll music out of their homes and away from their children's ears. Likewise, alternative music