Hippies, rock, and Christ:
One quite interesting New Testament passage speaks about how God “did not leave Himself without witness” (Acts 14:7). There are always hints or clues to who God is and what he expects of us. As Paul makes clear in Romans 1 and 2, non-Christians are therefore without excuse: we have plenty of testimonies to God in creation and in our conscience.
C. S. Lewis protested about all these signs along the way that point to God, even when you do not want God. As he said in his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy: “In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere — ‘Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,’ as Herbert says, ‘fine nets and stratagems.’ God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”
Many of us have found that to be the case. As a non-Christian I thought of myself as being on a quest, a search for spiritual truth, but I tended to look everywhere except where I should have been looking. I checked out eastern religions and leftist politics and I tried psychedelic drugs and all the rest. But I avoided the God of the Bible.
Yet little hints were there along the way. Let me concentrate on some old rock music in this regard. And I suppose I must offer this warning: those who are not several hundred years old like I am may not get the full impact of this article! But just consider it to be a lesson in ancient history!
As I have written about before, I was heavily into the hippy and counterculture in the late 60s and early 70s. You can read about all the juicy details here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/06/27/coming-home-my-testimony-part-1/
Most of the rock music back then was of course devoid of clear Christian content. But sometimes it snuck through anyway, even if those running with it were not Christians themselves. Let me refer to just a few songs and artists that featured some sort of Christian and biblical themes.
One famous song released in 1969 was “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum. Some of the lyrics said this:
“Prepare yourself you know it’s a must
Gotta have a friend in Jesus
So you know that when you die
He’s gonna recommend you
To the spirit in the sky (spirit in the sky)”
Of course he went on to sing:
“Never been a sinner, I never sinned
I got a friend in Jesus…”
So it was not quite the Christian gospel being sung about there! You can listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZQxH_8raCI
Back then I also listened to folk singers (and anti-war protesters) like Joan Baez. One of her albums I discovered via a friend who was a hardcore Marxist (he gave me copies of books by Marx and Engels that I find a hard slog to get through). Once when I was at his apartment it may have been when I first heard her 1969 album, David’s Album.
Her then husband David Harris was about to be imprisoned for draft resistance. I too was wondering what I would do – fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft was one serious option I was exploring. And her album featured a number of traditional Christian songs, such as:
Will the Circle Be Unbroken – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ot2sxD1hYD4
Just a Closer Walk With Thee – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9mR1P4nc-bk
Even as a messed up hippy I recall being touched by these sort of songs. Something stirred in my heart and mind while listening to them. And another album can be mentioned. Early in 1971 Motel Shot was released by Delaney & Bonnie and Friends (including Joe Cocker, Leon Russell and Duane Allman). Eric Clapton had also toured with them.
It too had a number of Christian songs on it which moved me at the time. In fact, when I got saved later that year I destroyed all my albums – and books. But this was one of the few albums that I bought a second time as a Christian! Some of the Christian songs were:
Will the Circle Be Unbroken – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5oCOf0x5Xw4
Talkin’ About Jesus – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=duMph1U-o-Q
Rock of Ages – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6LJodPUZdk4
Where the Soul Never Dies – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uo8nb-bIvdM
One final song deserves mention. Late in 1970 when I was a stoned out, depressed, suicidal hippy, George Harrison released the song “My Sweet Lord”. Of course it was eclectic mumbo jumbo, featuring not just praise to Jesus but Krishna, etc. But in my very dark and dead-end state it did give me a bit of hope.
I recall one day when driving with a friend it came on the radio. She knew I was on a bit of a spiritual journey so she said, ‘I bet this song means a lot to you’ or something like that. Yes it did. And around nine months later I became a Christian! You can hear his song here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-59rmRj4QnA
Mid-August 1971 was when I gave my life to Christ. I made a clean break with my past at the time. As I say, I threw out all my albums and books. But now and then one would hear other more or less Christian songs on the secular radio stations. Just one can be mentioned. “Jesus is Just Alright” had been out since the mid-60s. But it became a huge hit for The Doobie Brothers in 1972: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBwlr65TbJA
Since I am talking about at least pseudo-Christian music here, let me close with one example of real Christian music. And because I am still on a bit of a nostalgia trip, let me take you way back – once again. When I and other hippies got saved, many of us renounced hardcore rock.
But what happens when a lot of hardcore rockers get saved? They had to figure out if they could still use rock, or if they had to lighten up a lot. That tended to be the way things began with the Jesus revolution. Many who got saved turned to a much softer, lighter folk or acoustic sound.
Just yesterday on the social media I saw a post about Love Song, and their impact fifty years on. Many of you older types will remember them. Here is how one wiki article describes the group:
Love Song was founded in 1970 by Chuck Girard, Tommy Coomes, Jay Truax, and Fred Field, prior to the conversion of any of the band members. Field and Truax were the first two to convert to Christianity and began attending a bible study at Chuck Smith‘s Calvary Chapel where the other two eventually “accepted Jesus”. Drummer John Mehler within six months, but he and Field left before mid-1971 to form a new group. Bob Wall, who subsequently played guitar on all three albums, was brought in. It was this group of four who recorded their 1972 debut album: Love Song. It is considered one of the greatest Christian music albums of all time.
In 2002’s Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music, Mark Allan Powell states that this album was the best selling Christian album to date, and despite not having high production standards, it was influential as it had no equivalent peer to rely on. He also claims that it had both artistic integrity and an inspired vision, and in this way they connected with their target audience. He compared what they achieved with this first album to what the Grateful Dead did in concert. Love Song, according to Powell, left people talking about Jesus, which was the band’s goal. Mehler, eventually rejoined in time to play on Final Touch. Phil Keaggy joined to replace departing Wall in 1973 for a short stint, but was not included in any of the band’s early recordings. The group toured heavily in the early 1970s, becoming very popular both in the US and abroad.
This piece has been a bit of a tour down musical memory lane. Some of you can relate. But the point is, even things like pagan rock music could be used by God to help reach lost and very troubled hippies such as myself. So for that I am very grateful indeed. God has his ways of getting truth out there – even in pagan music. He has not left himself without a witness.