Did you know…? • 36% of Bob Dylan’s songs published between 1961 and 1968 had biblical references, including his 1964 hit “The Times They Are A-Changin.’” • The book of Ecclesiastes has been a great inspiration on popular music including the song “Turn, Turn, Turn” by The Byrds, the Pink Floyd album The Dark Side of the Moon, and “Desperado,” the 1973 hit by The Eagles, among others. • Paul Simon once advised a young prospective lyricist to raid the Bible for memorable phrases. “Just steal them,” he said, “That’s what they’re there for.” There’s no question that Scripture has influenced music since the first ever song was penned. In Turn! Turn! Turn! author and music connoisseur, Steve Turner, takes an in-depth look at the lyrics and cultural context of 100 of the greatest songs from the 1930s to today to reveal an often overlooked or ignored strand of influence in popular music—the Bible. Indeed, some of the “greats”—including Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Bono, Johnny Cash, Sting, and others—have repeatedly returned to the Bible for such sustenance, as well as musical inspiration and a framework with which they can better understand themselves. “I hope the book prompts, provokes, and intrigues as it reveals this often-hidden history,” writes Steve Turner. You’ll never listen to your favorite song or popular tune the same way again after discovering how the Bible has influenced music.
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About the Author
Steve Turner is an English music journalist, biographer and poet, who has spent his career chronicling and interviewing people from the worlds of music, film, television, fashion, art, and literature. He regularly contributes to newspapers such as The Mail on Sunday and The Times and his many books include Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts, Popcultured: Thinking Christianly About Style, Media and Entertainment, Hungry for Heaven: Rock and Roll and the Search for Redemption, U2: Rattle and Hum, Van Morrison: Too Late to Stop Now, and A Hard Day's Write: The Stories Behind Every Beatles Song. Originally from Northamptonshire, England, Turner’s career as a journalist began as features editor of Beat Instrumental where he interviewed many of the prominent rock musicians of the 1970s. His articles have appeared in Rolling Stone, Mojo, Q, and the London Times, and he has also written several poetry books for both adults and children. He lives in London with his wife and two children.
Read an Excerpt
CAN THE CIRCLE BE UNBROK EN (BYE AND BYE)
THE CARTER FAMILY
The original Carter Family recordings significantly influenced American popular music. A. P. Carter sang with his wife, Sara, and her cousin Maybelle (who was married to A. P.'s brother, Ezra), and they recorded for several labels between 1927 and 1944.
Carter was talented not only as a writer and performer but also as an arranger and "catcher" of songs. He traveled through Appalachia collecting music that had been passed down for generations but was in imminent danger of dying out as recorded entertainment replaced oral culture.
Carter found mountain ballads, hymns, fiddle tunes, and spirituals that contained the history and beliefs of people whose family origins were in Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales. In archiving this varied material, he pioneered what would later be known as American "roots" music, inspiring the folk, gospel, and country movements of the 1940s and 1950s.
Because these songs weren't usually composed with commercial considerations, they spoke from the heart about primal human issues: love, joy, toil, hardship, faith, loss, regret, love, hope, and death. Singing about religion didn't make you a "religious" singer, because religion was regarded as a part of normal life. The secular embraced the sacred just as the sacred embraced the secular. It was only when commercial interests got involved that music needed to be categorized by genre for the purposes of programming and marketing.
Carter didn't have to go far to find the material for "Can the Circle Be Unbroken." "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," a hymn composed by British lyricist Ada Habershon and American musician Charles Gabriel, had first appeared in the 1908 hymnal Alexander's Gospel Songs published in Philadelphia.
Charles M. Alexander was an American singer who met Miss Habershon when he visited London in 1905 with renowned evangelist R. A. Torrey. She was a brilliant theologian, the author of several books, and had lectured in America at the invitation of another evangelist, Dwight L. Moody. Alexander invited her to write words for songs that he could perform at Torrey's large public meetings. She obliged with over two hundred lyrics.
"Will the Circle Be Unbroken" became one of the first recorded gospel hymns. In November 1911, the Scottish singer William McEwan, also a friend of Torrey's, performed it in an operatic style for the Columbia label.
It became a favorite hymn of A. P. Carter's mother, Mollie, who, like the rest of the Carters, worshiped at Mount Vernon Methodist Church in Maces Springs, Scott County, Virginia. Although it hadn't appeared in any official Methodist publications, when first recorded by the Carter Family it was in over twenty nondenominational hymnals ranging from The Highway Hymnal (1915) to Spiritual Songs and Hymns (1935).
A. P. Carter maintained Gabriel's tune and Habershon's chorus but rewrote the verses to tell the story of a single death through the eyes of a loved one, starting with the sight of the hearse arriving at the front door and ending with the empty home after the funeral.
The question posed by the chorus — "Will (or can) the circle be unbroken?" — referred to the family circle. Does death tear us apart irretrievably from our loved ones, or is there hope of heavenly reunion? In Habershon's hymn, the unsettling question was whether or not you would follow your Christian friends and relatives to heaven or face eternal separation. Pre-1935 hymnals suggested the following Bible verses to accompany the hymn: Matthew 25:32 ("And before him shall be gathered all the nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as the shepherd separateth the sheep from the goats" [ASV]), Luke 16:26 ("And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, that they that would pass from hence to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from thence to us" [ASV]), and Matthew 13:49 ("So shall it be in the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the righteous" [ASV]).
Habershon's version started: There are loved ones in the glory Whose dear forms you often miss When you close your earthly story Will you join them in their bliss?
In Carter's version, the issue was whether the stories he'd been told about a heavenly home were trustworthy. Paul said that, for him, being "absent from the body" would mean being "at home with the Lord" (2 Corinthians 5:8 ASV). Jesus used the domestic metaphor when assuring his disciples that heaven contained "many mansions" and that "I go to prepare a place for you" (John 14:2).
Song: "Can the Circle Be Unbroken (Bye and Bye)"
Artist: The Carter Family
Single: A-side: "Can the Circle Be Unbroken (Bye and Bye)" / B-side: "Glory to the Lamb"
Release: July 1935
Studio: ARC Studios, New York, NY
Personnel: A. P. Carter (vocals), Sara Carter (vocals and autoharp), Maybelle Carter (vocals and guitar)
Writer: A. P. Carter
Producer: Ralph Peer
Record Label: Banner Records
Other Significant Recordings: The Brown's Ferry Four (1946), Johnny Cash (1964), Avett Brothers (2002)
Also by the Carter Family: "Can't Feel at Home" (1931), "Glory to the Lamb" (1935), "Never Let the Devil Get the Upper Hand" (1938)CHAPTER 2
ME AND THE DEVIL BLUES
The character of the devil in rock music owes more to the legendary Mississippi blues player Robert Johnson (1911–1938) than to any other musician. He not only embedded the biblical adversary into his songs but also was said to have done a deal with dark forces in order to acquire his talent.
When Johnson took up the blues, it was already known as "the devil's music" because it had developed outside the church; celebrated activities such as lust, drunkenness, violence, and debauchery that the church opposed; and rarely sought God for forgiveness, guidance, or hope. The music of the church didn't wallow in depression or encourage resentment and self-pity. Instead, it promoted joy, hope, and a spirit of thankfulness.
Some blues music also introduced vestigial African beliefs such as voodoo, hexes, charms, and bad spirits. Some of Johnson's twenty-nine recorded compositions (he only ever took part in five brief recording sessions spread over two years) draw on this heritage. "Stones in My Passway," for example, alludes to the voodoo practice of bringing a curse on someone by having them walk unsuspectingly over an arrangement of stones and a personal possession (a button, for example) in what is known as "foot track magic." In "Hell Hound on My Trail," he mentions another voodoo practice of putting "hot foot powder" around a door in order to banish unwanted visitors. This powder would be a concoction of herbs, minerals, chili, salt, and sometimes soil from a grave.
For reasons that no one now knows, Johnson chose to sing about the devil in a very personal way rather than as a distant spirit or a symbol of evil. This has helped consolidate the rumor that his talent itself was attributable to a Faustian deal.
The famous story is told that he was a musician of no great prowess who disappeared from his hometown for six months (or two years, depending on the source), during which time he met the devil at midnight beside a lonely rural crossroads and sold him his soul in return for musical genius. When he returned to the local music joints, he was transformed. He now played guitar with great skill and composed his own songs.
From this distance it's impossible to know Johnson's beliefs or the way in which his audiences received his songs at the time. Johnson biographer Elijah Wald suggested that in the 1930s, the denizens of Mississippi juke joints could well have seen some of his references to the demonic as little more than jokes.
"Me and the Devil Blues" draws from the Bible rather than the spirit world of African ancestry. It speaks of a personal encounter and implies that the devil is no stranger, but also, in some inexplicable way, in control of him. When Satan comes calling, he has to heed his bidding.
The song is not a straightforward narrative, and it's difficult to unpack the action because of the sudden shifts in voice (he addresses the devil in verse one, the listening audience in verse two, and his woman in verse four) and the inexplicable gaps in the story.
In the first verse, the devil calls on him. In the second verse, the two of them are out walking ("side by side"), and then comes the sudden declaration that he's going to beat his woman "until I get satisfied." One assumes that his planned action is somehow provoked by the devil, but this isn't stated.
In the third verse, the woman complains that he's dogging her around (in African American vernacular, "to treat someone badly"), and in the last line he says that this must be the result of "that old evil spirit so deep down in the ground." Is he again referring to the devil, or is he alluding to his own deeply buried evil nature?
The final verse anticipates his death. He claims he won't mind being buried "by the highway side." It's not clear whether the death is one of punishment — execution perhaps — for beating his woman to death or just his inevitable human end. The song's payoff line says that in any case his "old evil spirit" can "get a Greyhound bus and ride."
The story of the devil knocking on his door and walking out with him is reminiscent of the story told in Job where Satan came to God, and when God asked him where he had come from, he answered, "From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it" (Job 1:7 ASV). It's also reminiscent of the gospel story of the temptation in the wilderness where Jesus was personally confronted by the devil.
It's notable that the song refers to the devil knocking on the door, but when Johnson answers he addresses him as "Satan." In the Old Testament, there are several mentions of Satan but none of the devil. In the New Testament, the names become interchangeable, so much so that in Revelation 12:9, the writer referred to him as "the great dragon ... the old serpent, he that is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world" [ASV]. Although Johnson doesn't claim to be a follower of the gospel lifestyle, he appears to accept biblical categories.
Like his life, Johnson's death is swathed in mystery. It appears that he was playing at Three Forks, Mississippi, where he was poisoned by a jealous club owner and died in a nearby hospital in Greenwood on August 16, 1938. Other versions have him being stabbed. No one is certain where he is buried. Everyone agrees that he was only twenty-seven years old.
At the time of his death he was known only to a few. Not all of his recorded work was then released. It was only when the album Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers was released in 1961 on the Columbia label that he entered the mainstream. His work was manna for young white music fans newly turned on to gospel, country, folk, and blues.
He became an inspiration to people like Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, and Robert Plant. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. In a twist of irony, the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas has rescued from demolition the building in Dallas where he recorded "Me and the Devil Blues" and "Hell Hound on My Trail," making it part of Encore Park.
Song: "Me and the Devil Blues"
Artist: Robert Johnson
Single: A-side: "Me and the Devil Blues," take 1 / B-side: take 2
Release: May 1937
Studio: 508 Park Avenue, Dallas, TX
Personnel: Robert Johnson (guitar and vocals)
Writer: Robert Johnson
Producer: Don Law
Record Label: Vocalion
Other Notable Recordings: Peter Green (2001), Eric Clapton (2004), Gil Scott Heron (2010)
Also by Robert Johnson: "If I Had Possession over Judgment Day" (1936), "Hell Hound on My Trail" (1937), "Cross Road Blues" (1937)CHAPTER 3
Woody Guthrie (1912–1967) became a significant influence on the way rock music developed, particularly in its social and political concerns. His most prominent disciple was Bob Dylan, who tracked him down to a New Jersey hospital in 1961 when he was dying of the degenerative brain disease Huntington's chorea. Musicians as diverse as Billy Bragg, Bono, Joe Strummer (the Clash), Roger McGuinn (the Byrds), Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Donovan, Wilco, Joan Baez, and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine have also celebrated him.
Born in Okemah, Oklahoma, Guthrie documented his times mainly through song and had a particular passion for the downtrodden, excluded, and sinned against. He wrote from his direct experiences of the hobo life, living with migrants, and joining protests against workers' pay and conditions. He consciously made himself a voice for those who had no voice.
During World War II, he railed against fascism — his guitar famously bore the legend "This Machine Kills Fascists" — but was also a communist sympathizer, something that turned him into a controversial figure during the Cold War period. He lived and worked with folk revivalist Pete Seeger and was a close friend of Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter.
His passions were always equality, justice, and peace. In 1940, Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" annoyed him so much that he wrote a riposte he originally titled "God Blessed America" but finally became "This Land Is Your Land."
During the same period, he composed "Jesus Christ." "I wrote this song looking out of a rooming house window in New York City in the winter of 1940," he wrote on his original manuscript. "I saw how the poor folks lived, and then I saw how the rich folk lived, and the poor folks down and out and cold and hungry, and the rich ones out drinking good whiskey and celebrating and wasting handfuls of money on gambling and women, and I got to thinking about what Jesus said, and what if He was to walk into New York City and preach like he used to. They'd lock him back in jail as sure as you're reading this. 'Even as you've done it unto the least of these little ones, you have done it unto me.'"
He set his feelings to the tune of the folk song "Jesse James."
As a child in Oklahoma, Guthrie was baptized into the Church of Christ, but as an adult was interested in many religions without signing up to any. However, the figure of Jesus Christ exercised a particular fascination that never left him. "It ain't just once in awhile that I think about this man," he said. "It's mighty scarce that I think of anything else." Once asked to name the people he most admired, he answered, "Will Rogers and Jesus Christ."
He saw Jesus as a champion of the poor and a scourge of the rich, a fearless challenger of political, religious, and military authority, a promoter of peace and a believer in the power of love. "Jesus Christ" became the template for later popular songs that portrayed Jesus as a political irritant, such as "Ballad of the Carpenter" by Phil Ochs (1965), Kris Kristofferson's "They Killed Him" (1985), "The Rebel Jesus" by Jackson Browne (2005), and "Jesus Was a Democrat" by Everclear (2008). The Billboard singles reviewer in 1945 sniffily noted, "'Jesus Christ' is social rather than spiritual."
The story told in the song is simple. Jesus travels around preaching, and part of his message (in Guthrie's retelling) is "sell all of your jewelry, and give it to the poor." This upsets the rich and powerful — Guthrie names them as bankers, preachers, cops, soldiers, and landlords — and, as a result, they arrange for him to be terminated.
The main biblical source is the encounter between Jesus and a wealthy ruler recorded in Matthew and Luke. The man asked Jesus what he needed to do to gain "eternal life" and was told that he should keep the commandments. He argued that he had always obeyed these rules, but Jesus said, "If thou wouldest be perfect, go, sell that which thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me" (Matthew 19:21 ASV).
This statement made the man go away "sorrowful" because, as Matthew put it, "he was one that had great possessions" (v. 22 ASV). The response of Jesus was, "Verily I say unto you, It is hard for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God" (vv. 23–24 ASV).
Members of the first church in Jerusalem "had all things common ... and parted them to all, according as any man had need" (Acts 2:44–45 ASV). This was an inspirational idea to Guthrie. "When there shall be no want among you, because you'll own everything in common," he wrote. "When the rich will give their goods into the poor. I believe in this way. I just can't believe in any other way. This is the Christian way and it is already on a big part of the earth and it will come. To own everything in common. That's what the Bible says. Common means all of us. This is pure old 'commonism.'"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Turn! Turn! Turn!"
Copyright © 2018 Museum of the Bible, Inc..
Excerpted by permission of Worthy Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. "Can the Circle Be Unbroken (Bye and Bye)" by the Carter Family (1935),
2. "Me and the Devil Blues" by Robert Johnson (1937),
3. "Jesus Christ" by Woody Guthrie (1945),
4. "Strange Things Happening Every Day" by Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1945),
5. "I Saw the Light" by Hank Williams (1948),
6. "Jezebel" by Frankie Laine (1951),
7. "If You Believe" by Johnnie Ray (1954),
8. "Hallelujah I Love Her So" by Ray Charles (1956),
9. "I Walk the Line" by Johnny Cash (1956),
10. "(There'll Be) Peace in the Valley (for Me)" by Elvis Presley (1957),
11. "Great Balls of Fire" by Jerry Lee Lewis (1957),
12. "Come Sunday" by Duke Ellington with Mahalia Jackson (1958),
13. "We Are Crossing the Jordan River" by Joan Baez and Bob Gibson (1959),
14. "When the Stars Begin to Fall" by the Weavers (1961),
15. "Stand by Me" by Ben E. King (1961),
16. "You'll Never Walk Alone" by Gerry and the Pacemakers (1963),
17. "Can I Get a Witness" by Marvin Gaye (1963),
18. "The Times They Are a-Changin'" by Bob Dylan (1964),
19. "Promised Land" by Chuck Berry (1964),
20. "People Get Ready" by the Impressions (1965),
21. "Gates of Eden" by Bob Dylan (1965),
22. "Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)" by the Byrds (1965),
23. "Girl" by the Beatles (1965),
24. "Blessed" by Simon & Garfunkel (1966),
25. "God Only Knows" by the Beach Boys (1966),
26. "Within You Without You" by the Beatles (1967),
27. "I Shall Be Released" by the Band (1968),
28. "I Am a Pilgrim" by the Byrds (1968),
29. "All Along the Watchtower" by the Jimi Hendrix Experience (1968),
30. "Job's Tears" by the Incredible String Band (1968),
31. "Astral Weeks" by Van Morrison (1968),
32. "Sympathy for the Devil" by the Rolling Stones (1968),
33. "Prodigal Son" by the Rolling Stones (1968),
34. "Bad Moon Rising" by Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969),
35. "Oh Happy Day" by the Edwin Hawkins Singers (1969),
36. "Christmas" by the Who (1969),
37. "Superstar" by Murray Head (1969),
38. "I Wish We'd All Been Ready" by Larry Norman (1969),
39. "Bridge over Troubled Water" by Simon & Garfunkel (1970),
40. "What Is Truth" by Johnny Cash (1970),
41. "Let It Be" by the Beatles (1970),
42. "Woodstock" by Joni Mitchell (1970),
43. "Amazing Grace" by Judy Collins (1970),
44. "Wholy Holy" by Marvin Gaye (1971),
45. "Wedding Song (There Is Love)" by Noel Paul Stookey (1971),
46. "After Forever" by Black Sabbath (1971),
47. "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)" by Randy Newman (1972),
48. "Go Like Elijah" by Chi Coltrane (1972),
49. "Eclipse" by Pink Floyd (1973),
50. "Desperado" by the Eagles (1973),
51. "Jesus Is the Answer" by Andraé Crouch and the Disciples (1973),
52. "Give Me Strength" by Eric Clapton (1974),
53. "Word on a Wing" by David Bowie (1976),
54. "Anarchy in the U.K." by the Sex Pistols (1976),
55. "Exodus" by Bob Marley and the Wailers (1977),
56. "Waiting for the End of the World" by Elvis Costello (1977),
57. "Adam Raised a Cain" by Bruce Springsteen (1978),
58. "Privilege (Set Me Free)" by the Patti Smith Group (1978),
59. "Rivers of Babylon" by Boney M. (1978),
60. "Precious Angel" by Bob Dylan (1979),
61. "Power of Love" by T Bone Burnett (1980),
62. "The Jezebel Spirit" by David Byrne and Brian Eno (1981),
63. "Dweller by a Dark Stream" by Bruce Cockburn (1981),
64. "Every Grain of Sand" by Bob Dylan (1981),
65. "The Number of the Beast" by Iron Maiden (1982),
66. "Yah Mo Be There" by James Ingram and Michael McDonald (1983),
67. "40" by U2 (1983),
68. "Jesus Walking on the Water" by Violent Femmes (1984),
69. "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen (1985),
70. "Pie Jesu" by Sarah Brightman and Paul Miles-Kingston (1985),
71. "The Cross"' by Prince (1987),
72. "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" by U2 (1987),
73. "The Mercy Seat" by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (1988),
74. "The End of the Innocence" by Don Henley (1989),
75. "Will You Be There" by Michael Jackson (1991),
76. "Tears in Heaven" by Eric Clapton (1992),
77. "Cleansed by Fire" by Alice Cooper (1994),
78. "Earth Song" by Michael Jackson (1995),
79. "New Test Leper" by R.E.M. (1996),
80. "Joy" by Whitney Houston (1996),
81. "Forgive Them Father" by Lauryn Hill (1998),
82. "Fire in the Hole" by Van Halen (1998),
83. "Run On" by Moby (1999),
84. "The Millennium Prayer" by Cliff Richard (1999),
85. "The Man Comes Around" by Johnny Cash (2002),
86. "Sacred Love" by Sting (2003),
87. "All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands" by Sufjan Stevens (2004),
88. "Jesus Walks" by Kanye West (2004),
89. "Jesus Was an Only Son" by Bruce Springsteen (2005),
90. "Jerusalem (Out of Darkness Comes Light)" by Matisyahu (2006),
91. "Why Do I Keep Counting?" by the Killers (2006),
92. "Viva La Vida" by Coldplay (2008),
93. "Faith" by Kendrick Lamar (2009),
94. "Roll Away Your Stone" by Mumford & Sons (2009),
95. "Who Am I Living For?" by Katy Perry (2010),
96. "Judas" by Lady Gaga (2011),
97. "Do Unto Others" by Billy Bragg (2013),
98. "Devil Pray" by Madonna (2014),
99. "How Great" by Chance the Rapper (2016),
100. "Blinded by Your Grace, Pt. 2" by Stormzy, featuring MNEK (2017),
About the Author,