Oh Their God!
A couple of years ago I wrote about how I tend to avoid Christian music. I was careful to point out that I would happily listen to music by Christians and music about Christianity - or any religion - if I liked it. What I didn't like was the cynical branding of Christian music. It is in part a shelter for reverse-crossover artists: couldn't make it on the secular/mainstream charts? Declare yourself a Christian and an army of churchgoers will buy your CD in the gift store. It's just like buying coasters or a T-shirt or tote-bag. And they have them too.
In fact I listen to loads of religious music.
Rock'n'roll was born in the church, after all.
From the first time I saw The Blues Brothers - with, among so many great scenes, that set-piece featuring James Brown - and the blues records my mother bought when I was young, I have been absorbing huge amounts of religious music: gospel - filtered through jazz, blues and then rock and pop; soul music.
Elvis Presley sang gospel; so did Jerry Lee Lewis. Little Richard gave up music to return to the church - but the church is in every wild heartbeat of music he recorded.
I'm not a religious person. I don't have enough time in my life for my real friends, let alone imaginary ones. But I'm happy enough for people to take their strength where they can get it. It takes a lot to get through this life and if a helping hand is something you've found in God, in the church, in music - in all of these things - or in something else altogether, I say good for you, good on you and use whatever is working for you.
But there is something pretty special about hearing the power of great gospel.
I'm listening to Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace. Wow. What an album. There are, to my mind, half a dozen must-have Aretha Franklin albums. And that's just a basic starter-kit. But Amazing Grace will take your breath away. It's music that comes from somewhere else; music being sent somewhere else. Aretha was successful on the pop charts and had kudos as a soul star too. She wanted to return to the church. Aretha came directly from the church. Amazing Grace is one of those albums that raises the hairs on your arms, that makes you open another bottle, that loses an evening for you. It's life-changingly good.
The 33 1/3 volume dedicated to Aretha's Amazing Grace album is worth a read, by the way.
When I was reading that book - and right from when I first heard this album and some of the earlier Franklin material - I got to thinking (a lot) about how important religion has been in terms of inspiring some of the great music.
You don't need to believe, on any level, yourself. But some respect is required: for the artist - they're singing with their heart and soul - for their belief. They are putting themselves - and their lord - out there in song. And it's palpable.
I get this same feeling listening to Donny Hathaway's great live album and John Coltrane's A Love Supreme. It's a feeling that stays with me when I listen to Al Green and Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Ray Charles and many others.
You start to wonder what they were hearing back when they made this music. Clearly the driving force was this strong belief - and yet it's music that has found a home, arguably, with as many (or more) non-believers. Do we owe some respect to their lord, to the church - their church - for the gift we've so willingly received?
Country music too; the other obvious genre that exists largely due to God. And fear. And fear of God...
That Johnny Cash box-set, God Love Murder, the three themed discs. You ever heard that? The murder ballads are great, the love songs are superb, but the disc devoted to, well, songs of devotion - my god (well, actually, Johnny's God...). That's the good oil right there.
The Louvin Brothers album, Satan Is Real - there's something truly terrifying and beautiful, in equal measures, about the singing on this album, the themes, the close harmonies; it couldn't have happened - in that way - without the (divine) inspiration.
My favourite religious record to get lost in is Pastor TL Barrett and The Youth for Christ Choir's Like a Ship...(Without a Sail). Check out the title track.
That just has me wrapped up. That album is something else. As I said here. Another life-changingly good record.
The power of this music - for me - is not in its worship, it's not (just) about the subject matter. It can't be. Because I don't believe in God, I don't subscribe to any religion and none of this music has made me think twice about my position, my beliefs, my belief.
But I'm thankful for it. Some of the best music I've ever heard in my life has come from the church. Rock'n'Roll came from the church. And sometimes, just sometimes, it's wise for it to remember - and to even head back there.
It's my belief that music is the best thing religion has given the world, or rather music has been a great gift for the religious and for religion.
What do you think?
Can you listen to religious and religion-inspired music if you are not religious? Do you? Does it make you question your stance? Ever? Or can you not listen to gospel, country, blues, soul or any religion-referencing music once you make the connection?
Are there albums - clearly gifts to the religious, and to religion, clearly created from believing musicians - that wow you even as a non-believer?
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