Monday, 10 November 2014

Randall Stephens Interviewed on BBC Ulster about Rock Music and Religion

Elvis was clad in a full-body leather suit with a high, Edwardian collar.  It was his 1968 comeback special on NBC, and the bright, hot studio lights were glaring down on him.  When not performing his many famous songs, he riffed on what seemed to him like a very long career and discussed some of the new music of the day. Perhaps in jest, he blurted, "I really like a lot of the new groups—The Beatles, The Beards . . . and whatever." 

He also meditated on the origins of the genre he helped to create.  Sitting next to his original drummer, D. J. Fontana, and guitarist, Scotty Moore, Elvis, sweating profusely, observed: “rock and roll music is basically, uh, Gospel or Rhythm and Blues, and uh, it sprang from that. And people have been adding to it, adding instruments to it, experimenting with it.” Then, perhaps to break the serious mood, he laughed it all off, saying, “I don’t know what I’m talking about, really."

But in fact, Elvis did know what he was talking about. Like many other first generation southern rockers, both black and white, he grew up in a pentecostal church and took in the sights, sounds, and beliefs of the tongues-speaking faith.

Randall Stephens (Reader in American Studies and History) is completing a book that explores the many connections between religion and rock and roll.  Titled The Devil's Music: Christianity and Rock since the 1950s (Harvard University Press), it will delve into the sometimes productive, sometimes tumultuous relationship between so-called sacred and profane music, from the days when Elvis first made it big to the modern era of the multimillion-dollar Christian music industry.

In late October Randall delivered a lecture spun off this project at Queen's University Belfast.  His talk, co-sponsored by the Institute of Theology and the School of History and Anthropology, looked into the music, performance styles as well as the evangelical and pentecostal backgrounds of Johnny Cash, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles and other stars of the age.  Following his lecture Randall sat for an interview with Roisin McAuley, radio host of BBC Ulster's Sunday Sequence. In the excerpt below, they discuss Randall's ongoing research and the impact of religion far outside the walls of churches.  Interspersed throughout the segment are songs by black and white gospel groups, along with the major hits of rock music's pioneers.

In the coming weeks Randall will be giving a related seminar paper in the Department of American and Canadian Studies, Nottingham University, titled "'Where else did they copy their styles but from church groups?’ Rock and Religion in the 1950s South."  He will also be presenting a paper--"From Abolitionism to Fundamentalism: The Great Reversal and the Wesleyan Methodist Connection, 1843-1943"--as part of the Oxford-Manchester Methodist Studies Seminar and, in early January, participating in a roundtable at the New York City meeting of the AHA.

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