‘Where else did they copy their styles but from church groups?’ Rock and Pentecostalism in the 1950s South

Randall Stephens

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Church leaders and laypeople in the US went on the defensive shortly after rock and roll became a national youth craze in 1955 and 1956. Few of those religious critics would have been aware or capable of understanding that rock ‘n’ roll, in fact, had deep religious roots. Early rockers, all southerners—such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and James Brown—grew up in or regularly attended pentecostal churches. Pentecostalism, a vibrant religious movement that traced its origins to the early 20th century, broke with many of the formalities of traditional protestantism. Believers held mixed-race services during the height of Jim Crow segregation. The faithful spoke in tongues, practiced healing, and cultivated loud, revved-up, beat-driven music. These were not the sedate congregants of mainline churches. Some pentecostal churches incorporated drums, brass instruments, pianos, and even newly invented electric guitars. Rock ‘n’ roll performers looked back to the vibrant churches of their youth, their charismatic pastors, and to flashy singing itinerants for inspiration. In a region that novelist Flannery O'Connor called “Christ-haunted,” the line between secular and sacred, holy and profane was repeatedly crossed by rock musicians. This article traces the black and white pentecostal influence on rock ‘n’ roll in the American South, from performance style and music to dress and religious views. It also analyzes the vital ways that religion took center stage in arguments and debates about the new genre.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)97-131
JournalChurch History
Issue number1
Early online date29 Feb 2016
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2016

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