Can music save your mortal soul?” Don McLean asked that question in his 1971 classic, “American Pie.” Released when I was ten years old, it was the first rock song that I could sing word for word. I understood none of its historical allusions, but I grooved to its catchy phrases, graphic images, and compelling, if obscure, narrative arc. McLean’s nostalgic lament echoed the same acoustic mixture of grief and joy, tragedy and triumph, that I experienced in the gospel songs of my Evangelical church. We were sad about the cross but happy about the Resurrection. We regretted our sin but knew that on a hill far away someone died to set us free.
“A long, long time ago,” McLean gently begins, summoning a mythical past. I didn’t know what whiskey and rye tasted like, but I loved to sing with typical adolescent bluster, “This’ll be the day that I die.” Years later I learned that “the day the music died” was a reference to the 1959 plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper, but to my innocent ears, it just had to be about the cross. Why else would all the children scream in the streets, lovers cry, and while “not a word was spoken, the church bells all were broken”? On Golgotha, the Son cried out but no one answered. Isn’t that what McLean was getting at when he sang about the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost taking “the last train for the coast”?
Then there are the questions McLean kept asking. “Did you write the Book of Love, and do you have faith in God above?” I knew the answer to those—God wrote the Bible, and I believed in Jesus—but when he also asked, “Do you believe in rock and roll?” I was more uncertain. In 1971, Evangelical leaders were denouncing Larry Norman and asking young people to burn their albums (which I did, in the backyard, saving a few of my favorites) or at least play them backwards to discover their hidden satanic messages. Could popular songs like “American Pie” really serve as a musical expression of my faith?
For much of the eighties and nineties, with worship wars breaking out in Protestant churches across America, the answer to that question was far from clear. Now that Christian rock has passed through its imitative infancy to take its place as a near-equal to the best of secular music, we can answer that question with a resounding “yes.” In fact, even though my childish interpretation of “American Pie” was little more than the confluence of my theological naiveté with an ambitious singer-songwriter’s attempt to sound deep by turning dead rock stars into martyrs, I am quite confident in calling “American Pie” a modern Psalm. I would go even further and say that many of the best rock songs are as well.
Like King David, who used music to explore his own personal ambitions and failures, rock singers lament and accuse, protest and praise, with candid self-revelation and unembarrassed passion. Although not all of the Psalms were written by David, each expresses in musical form a highly individual voice. The Psalms even think of God in vocal terms. God is always thundering from the heavens, and in Psalm 29 alone, God’s voice breaks cedars, flashes forth flames of fire, shakes the wilderness, and causes the oaks to whirl. God was doing to nature what Jerry Lee Lewis would later do to pianos, and the appropriate response in both cases is the same: Glory!
Even the differences between the Psalms and rock songs are instructive. The Psalms are to the love of God what rock is to romantic love. Scholars think that many of David’s songs were written while he was in exile from King Saul or during his son Absalom’s revolt, which forced him to agonize over God’s faithfulness to him. Rock was born when popular music shifted from sentimental tributes to puppy love and stolen kisses to brooding reflections on the unsteadiness of sexual desire as a guide through the twisting passages of youth.
The best rock songs associate sex either with the cause of adolescent confusion or with its solution, but when they strip sexual desire of any higher purpose, they inevitably end up treating it as little more than a highly addictive narcotic. That is why rock needs religion. Rock has plenty of energy, but it often lacks soul. When it is not being infused with intimations of the divine, it is hardly anything more than whatever happens to be popular at the moment.
Rock can get religion only if it is already in some sense religious—which it is, due to its commitment to the irreducible mystery of the human voice. The role of the spoken (or sung) word in Christianity hardly needs emphasizing. God speaks, and Christians are supposed to proclaim what he says. Every religion, arguably, imposes its own theological shape on acoustic experience, and Christianity has a decidedly vocal sound. It does not have just one sound, of course, given the variety of its acoustic expressions over the centuries and across the globe, just as our vocal folds can generate more than words. Still, the Gospels and the spoken or sung word go hand in hand.
Can we say more about the sonic shape of Christianity? Ever since the work of the great philologist Erich Auerbach, scholars have recognized the note of realism that the Gospels introduced into ancient literature. In contrast to every kind of literary idealism or romanticism, the Gospels shine a bracing light on the neglected details of ordinary people and their humble environments. If we thought of the Gospels in acoustic, not literary, terms, we could say that they are compositions meant to be sung with the freest vocalizations. We might go so far as to say that if the four Gospels were music, and we could hear their acoustic uniqueness, they’d sound as original as John, Paul, George, and Ringo. I say that facetiously, but my point is serious. If the Gospels could be turned into songs, they would have the vocal immediacy and lyrical honesty of the best of rock and roll.
The Gospels let us hear the divine in the writings of the untutored, while rock shows us that singing voices are most sublime when they imperfectly strive for perfection. That, in any case, is a good premise to begin any attempt at a theology of rock and roll. It helps us to see, for example, that it is a decidedly Christian phenomenon that Karen Carpenter and Janis Joplin could have been stars in the same firmament, even if they were on opposite sides of the night sky. They share an aggressively honest vulnerability, one seducing you with an impossibly earthy purity and the other taunting you with a strangely guileless depravity. Carpenter kept her deep voice close to her heart, inviting the listener to lean in close, while Joplin sang like she was trying to break down walls as well as eardrums. Together they perfectly captured the feminine art of vocal self-immolation, and they were destined to burn out in their own distinct ways, one by what she gave and the other by what she withheld.
Like God in the Psalms, Joplin’s voice was always thundering, although it boomed not from heaven but from the lower regions of inconsolable pain. Her rendition of “Piece of My Heart,” written by Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns, takes her self-punishing exertions to such relentless extremes that it makes one wonder if any voice has ever been more soaked in suffering.
Recorded for the 1968 album Cheap Thrills, this is the sound of a woman hoping to transcend suffering by embracing pain. The thrill of listening to it is anything but cheap. “Didn’t I give you nearly everything that a woman possibly can?” If the answer is no, Joplin is willing to give more, without any limits. She taunts the intended listener, screaming not only “come on, come on,” but also commanding that he (most decidedly he!) “break another little bit of my heart now, darling.” She wants to make sure that he doesn’t pretend to be kind. This is sacrifice with a vengeance, the opposite of what Christ did on the cross, but that is precisely the source of its power. We cringe when we hear Joplin selling herself so short, and yet we are overpowered by the strength she finds in her own weakness.
Joplin vocalizes at least three theological and moral themes in this piece. First, she captures the way sacrifice can easily slide into abuse, especially for women, who are sometimes encouraged to make of obedience an absolute. Second, she gives monumental expression to how anybody, even in the midst of being victimized, can still turn the tables on an oppressor by demonstrating the depths of sacrificial logic. One way, but surely not the best, to beat shame is to flaunt it. Third, she reflects the amorality of so much rock music in its affirmation of any and every experience, regardless of the personal cost, since the point of the singer’s giving is not only the recipient’s pleasure but also the perverse pleasure she experiences in the excess of her gesture.
The meaning of rock songs is conveyed through the texture of voices as much as the content of the lyrics, and if Joplin is trying to sound like Golgotha in “Piece of My Heart,” Bob Dylan wants us to hear the hope for resurrection in “Lay Down Your Weary Tune.” That song was recorded as an outtake from the studio sessions for The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964), Dylan’s third album. He wrote it in 1963 while staying at Joan Baez’s cottage in Carmel Valley, California. In the notes he wrote for Biograph (1985), he explains that the melody was influenced by an early Scottish ballad he had heard on an old 78 and could not get out of his head. The song also seems to be shaped by his relationship with Baez, since it has much of her serenity and composure. Dylan performed it for the first and last time at Carnegie Hall on October 26, 1963, just days after he recorded it.
“Lay Down” sounds like a hymn and reads like poetry. Although he is often called a poet, this is one of his few songs that does not suffer by being read on its own non-musical terms. One of the remarkable aspects of this song is the way it combines sadness and joy—or rather, how Dylan allows joy to arise from the sadness, so that the joy is not gratuitous and the sadness not self-indulgent. By bringing these two emotional qualities together in a way that respects and yet reconciles their apparent opposition, he accomplishes a kind of christological acoustics of the heart. Indeed, his voice, which sounds prematurely aged, embodies the theme of the song, which is one of death and rebirth. That is, he lays down his voice, humbly and gently, not forcing a single syllable. A lesser singer might have been tempted by ambition to strain at the sublimity within reach, but Dylan plays it low and loose. To lay down your voice with such authority, you have to do it lightly, almost sweetly; otherwise, you might sound melodramatic. In this song, Dylan sacrifices his voice to the tune and his famous sense of phrasing to the lyrics.
Lyrically, this song is Dylan’s most mature statement about the nature of sound, and since songs are composed of sound, it is arguably his most self-aware song. His writing in the sixties was suffused with an apocalyptic imagination, much of which was on the side of judgment, not salvation, but this song is surprisingly consoling. It turns the apocalypse inward as Dylan reflects on the demise of both himself and the world around him. Substitute “life” for “tune” and you will hear just how christological the song is. Dylan is carrying the song here just as Jesus carried the cross, and he knows that he will have to put down his singing at some point, no matter how good the burden feels. This is a song about the end of songs—as well as what comes after.
Dylan projects a narrative voice into his work, so that there is a thin line, and much ambiguity, between first-person confession andsui generis invention. In this song, he assumes the role of a wise singer who is musing on the end of his life by trying to imagine, to use Don McLean’s words, “the day the music died.” The refrain begins with the line “Lay down your weary tune, lay down.” What is to be laid down? “Lay down the song you strum” is the answer. And then comes this remarkable passage: “And rest yourself ’neath the strength of strings/No voice can hope to hum.” “Lay down” can mean establish as well as relinquish, and the delicate interplay between the two is at the heart of this mysterious song. The song tries to imagine the moment when the world will both die and be reborn, and it seeks to meet that end by hoping to hear a voice that can follow us to our lowest depths.
The strumming of an insistent guitar frames the song as a death march or final voyage. The end is both embraced and postponed. The song is like a sigh, letting go of one breath without the guarantee of another. It gains much of its power through its allusions to the Psalms, as in “The water smooth ran like a hymn/And like a harp did hum.” It is the harp, in fact, that has strings strong enough to rest beneath. Dylan also uses a passive voice to indicate God’s presence in his very absence, as in the first line of the second stanza, “The ocean wild like an organ played.” Who is playing the ocean like an organ? God is behind nature, hidden to sight but audible to the ears, since, as with Job’s whirlwind, something is making nature sound so turbulent. The biblical allusions continue when Dylan depicts the waves crashing like cymbals, a reference to the Apostle Paul’s “clanging cymbals” of faith (1 Cor. 13:1). Through it all, the singer is stationed beneath “clouds unbound by laws,” an image worthy of the Hebrew prophets who imagined a day when God would rewrite the laws of nature.
Images build to a salvific climax. Leaves cleave to a new love’s breast, the rain cries like a trumpet, branches like a banjo play to the wind, and a river, seen as a mirror, joins in the music. The mirroring river is a clear allusion to the crystal river in Revelation 22:1. There might also be a more subtle allusion to Revelation 14:2, where John hears “a voice from heaven like the sound of many waters.” Dylan, too, hears the source of his hope in the river, which echoes to him the sound of the strumming of his own song. The water is so clear that it is like a mirror, but in it Dylan hears more than he sees. The singer can lay down his weary tune because he has heard the voice that no mere mortal could ever hope to mimic, a voice as smooth as a river and as strong as a hymn.
Joplin and Dylan are but two examples of how the singular voices of rock singers can convey the sound of damnation and salvation. Rock artists push their voices in edgy ways in order to compete with the guitars and drums, but the best of them do not let their bands dominate what they have to say, right in line with Pope Benedict XVI’s argument that instrumental music should not drown out the words of a song. Singing, he insisted, is the surpassing of speech, not its demolition. Christianity has deep stakes in protecting the integrity of the human voice in musical development. When the Church “was uprooted from her Semitic soil and moved into the Greek world,” it was tempted to take music in a more poetic and ecstatic direction, which is why the Council of Laodicea forbade the use of privately composed hymns and restricted singing to the choir. The speech-song of the Psalms is biblical faith’s “own form of [musical] culture, an expression appropriate to its inward essence, one that provides a standard for all later forms of inculturation.”
Pope Benedict thought that rock, with its sonic shock and awe, failed to live up to the “sober inebriation” of the Psalms, but he held out hope for a liturgical renewal of popular music. Perhaps his prayers have been answered. Christians today have a far more diverse array of opportunities to hear musical expressions of their faith than ever before in Christian history. If we had known anything about chanting in the church of my youth, we would have thought it Catholic and cultish, but that was long before the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos released their chart-topping Gregorian plainsong in 1994. All of a sudden, pop music made an old prejudice wither away.
More radically, Christians today are sounding spiritual depths in ways that transcend the vocal word altogether. Just recently an old friend who shares my Evangelical past gave me a CD that purports to be the literal sound of the name of God. The recording, which consists of tuning-fork reverberations derived from the Kabbalistic form of numerology known as gematria, promises to lead the listener into blissful consciousness of God. When I was a kid, we just hummed when we didn’t know the words to a song, but the times, well, they are a-changin’. What once would have seemed like an alien Eastern invasion of Christian musical space—a mystical form of biblical literalism transposed into mesmerizing vibrations—has become an acceptable form of meditation in the Evangelical community.
Still, Pope Benedict’s warnings about the instrumental eclipse of the human voice should not be taken lightly. Christian metal is often called “white metal” because it sounds different from the darker, heavier alternatives. It has a message that, no matter how concussive the amps, can be understood. From Benedict’s perspective, we could say that the soft rock of the early seventies, which included Don McLean, a suburban alternative to Bob Dylan, was more Christian than progressive rock with its psychedelic pretensions.
Much of New Age music is about vibrations that promise to harmonize our inner lives with our busy schedules, and, admittedly, sitars can be much more relaxing than synthesizers. Yet there remains a significant difference between the sermon and the singing bowl. The richest harmonies are won from struggle with dissonance. The best singing, at least in rock, is always a little flawed, somehow. Karen Carpenter’s contralto was almost too deep to be beautiful, but listen to her songs without her brother’s overdubbing and you will hear notes of regret and loss that countered his saccharine lyrics.
Words must combine in unpredictable ways for poetry to inspire. The same is true of the sounds of song. Resonances in their waves make our souls leap to listen. Their wobbles, like the cross, make voices human.
Stephen H. Webb is author of Dylan Redeemed and The Divine Voice and is currently working on The Cross and the Singing Bowl: A Christian Pilgrimage into the Healing Properties of Sound.