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Songs of Praise from Unlikely Artists, Part Two

Issue 113

In Part One of this series (Issue 112), I noted that throughout the history of American music, the influence of the Christian church has been well documented and apparent. While some bands have been working in the Christian music genre from the beginning of their careers, others haven’t been as overt, yet have written and recorded Christian-faith songs – and you might be surprised at who some of them are. Yet, as mentioned in last issue, truth can often be stranger than fiction, and the following stories prove it:

The Byrds

The Byrds repeatedly released songs of Christian faith throughout the band’s 1964 – 1973 lifespan. Ironically, none of the band members at the time was a Christian until the band’s final years, although that would change after the band’s demise. Unlike other musicians in this series, the Byrds, and Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman in particular, have chosen to be interpreters of praise songs, rather than composers.

The Byrds’ electrified version of folk music, mixing electric 12-string guitar, three-part vocal harmonies and Beatles-type arrangements, became the foundation for folk rock.

In 1965, hot on the heels of their breakout hit single “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the Byrds released their follow up, an electrified version of the Pete Seeger folk song, “Turn! Turn! Turn!.” Based on the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes, the song contained an anti-war message that resonated during those early days of the Vietnam War. Ironically, McGuinn at the time was becoming an adherent of Subud, an obscure Indonesian religious sect.

The Byrds then borrowed The Louvin Brothers’ “I Like the Christian Life” for their 1968 album Sweethearts of the Rodeo. The first country-rock record, Sweethearts introduced the trailblazing Gram Parsons to the rock music world and became a template for Poco, The Eagles and many others to follow.

The following year, The Byrds recorded a rocking cover version of the Arthur Reid Reynolds gospel song, “Jesus Is Just Alright,” which became a concert favorite, featuring fierce four-part vocals arranged by drummer Gene Parsons and searing electric leads by virtuoso guitarist Clarence White.

 

McGuinn became a converted Evangelical Christian in 1978 and has continued as a solo artist since then, apart from a 1979 Byrds semi-reunion with McGuinn, Clark, Hillman which yielded a hit song, “Don’t You Write Her Off.”

Bassist Chris Hillman, a co-founder of the Byrds, became more and more integral to the band as time went on, contributing vocals after Gene Clark departed and eventually contributing songs such as “Time Between” and co-writing “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star” with McGuinn. Hillman and Gram Parsons bonded over their shared love of country music and left the Byrds after the Sweetheart album to form The Flying Burrito Brothers.

Hillman cites Nashville pedal steel guitar whiz Al Perkins as the one who led him to becoming a Christian while the two played together with Stephen Stills’ Manassas band during the 1970s. Hillman’s wife of 41 years, former record executive Connie Pappas, influenced his decision to convert to Orthodox Christianity in 1997.

For the most part, Hillman has also chosen to be an interpreter of faith songs more than a composer. One exception is “I’m Still Alive” from  Like A Hurricane (1998), where he sings the lines, “I will go on forever, and forever I’ll be in God’s grace through all eternity.”

 

Hot Tuna/Jefferson Airplane

As a fingerpicking acoustic blues guitarist par excellence and psychedelic rock electric guitar maverick innovator, Jorma Kaukonen has created an impressive body of work over the past 55 years, from “Somebody to Love,” “Volunteers” and “White Rabbit” with the Airplane to a range of acoustic and electric works with Hot Tuna and as a solo artist who encompasses everything from blues, ragtime, folk and country to acid rock and heavy metal. The marathon six-hour Hot Tuna shows of the 1970s cemented a rabidly loyal international fan base that never tires of listening to Kaukonen’s guitar stylings, counterpointed by the awesome Jack Casady on bass.

One of the accomplishments of which Kaukonen is most proud is his exposing the music of the late Rev. Gary Davis to a wider audience. A blind Baptist minister who held church services in a Harlem storefront, Davis played guitar to accompany his congregation, and he perfected a complex ragtime Piedmont blues fingerpicking style that combined contrapuntal elements of Jelly Roll Morton’s piano style with gospel and folk blues.

As a result, over a half dozen popular Davis gospel hymns have become beloved Hot Tuna concert staples, among them: “I Am the Light of This World,” “I’ll Be All Right,” “Oh Lord, Search My Heart” and “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.”

 

Kaukonen has also drawn upon other songs from the gospel blues and old time bluegrass music canon, including the following:

  • “True Religion,” which was written by the Rev. Robert Wilkins, who also wrote “Prodigal Son,” which was recorded by The Rolling Stones
  • “Suffer Little Children to Come unto Me” by Woody Guthrie
  • “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?” by Ferlin Husky
  • “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?” by Washington Phillips

Although he is Jewish, Kaukonen nonetheless felt sufficiently inspired to come up with his own song of Christian spiritual awakening: “I See the Light.” Originally recorded on Hot Tuna’s The Phosphorescent Rat (1974), “I See the Light” contains the quintessential Hot Tuna musical elements: fingerpicked verses and interludes, interspersed with power chords and distorted and highly melodic bass.

 

“Good Shepherd,” from the Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers (1969) has an interesting history. Kaukonen adapted the gospel blues song “Blood Stained Banders” by Jimmie Strothers, which was itself a drastically altered version of the early 1800’s Methodist hymn, “Let Thy Kingdom, Blessed Savior.”

According to an interview published in The Poughkeepsie Journal, “Kaukonen was offering the view that the ‘blood-stained banders’ of the lyric was an allusion to the Ku Klux Klan. He continued to find meaning in performing “Good Shepherd” and other songs like it that celebrated religion in one context or another without preaching, saying such material gave him a doorway into scripture: “I guess you could say I loved the Bible without even knowing it. The spiritual message is always uplifting – it’s a good thing.”

 

Eric Clapton

One of the most famous rock star virtuosos on the planet, Eric Clapton has publicly shared the saint/sinner struggle throughout his life. He has scored numerous artistic and humanitarian triumphs. He has also suffered deep personal tragedies and fought personal demons as well, all the while creating music for millions of fans that connects emotionally, and oftentimes, spiritually.

A long devotee of the blues, Clapton’s obsession with the tormented Robert Johnson, a Paganini-like Delta blues slide guitar master rumored to have “sold his soul to the Devil,” formed the foundation of much of his approach to music. The themes of personal longing and combating one’s inner turmoil have always been a part of Clapton’s expressive guitar playing, songwriting, and singing.

As early as 1969 Clapton first became a Christian and wrote the song, “Presence of the Lord,” which was featured on Blind Faith (the album from the band of the same name). Although he chose to have Steve Winwood sing the studio version, Clapton would later sing it himself with Derek and the Dominos and as a solo artist in concert. It is reputedly the first song which Clapton wrote completely on his own.

 

As he went through bouts of heroin addiction and alcoholism through the next decade, Eric Clapton’s love triangle angst with his best friend George Harrison and Harrison’s then-wife Pattie Boyd fueled the creation of his masterpiece, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (1970).

During that time, Clapton would repeatedly return to songs of praise and faith, composing gospel blues songs like “Give Me Strength” from 461 Ocean Boulevard (1974), featuring Clapton playing dobro and singing the refrain, “Dear Lord, give me strength to carry on.”

 

Always mindful of his musical roots, Clapton included the blues gospel hymn covers, Blind Willie Johnson’s “We’ve Been Told (Jesus Coming Soon)” as well as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” on There’s One in Every Crowd (1975).

Clint Eastwood-esque western movie imagery juxtaposed with an itinerant musician lifestyle is the setting for “Hold Me Lord,” which he wrote for Another Ticket (1981).

Finding sobriety and emotional stability in the 1980s, Clapton participated in the 1985 Live Aid concert and began exploring different musical terrains outside of his blues and R&B post-Dominos bands of the 1970s. Branching out to work with Phil Collins, Nathan East, Russ Titelman, Stephen Bishop, Jerry Williams, Greg Phillinganes, and covering songs from artists as diverse as Japanese synth pop stars Yellow Magic Orchestra, Eric Clapton still would include songs like “Holy Mother” from August (1986). This plea for spiritual and emotional comfort even led to a duet with famed opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti.

 

The tragic death of his four year old son, Conor, prompted Clapton’s mournful ballad, “Tears in Heaven,” which became his biggest selling single and won multiple Grammy awards in 1993, including Song of the Year and Record of the Year. He would stop performing the song in 2004.

In 1998, Eric Clapton established his Crossroads Centre in Antigua for substance abuse treatment and would gather famous guitarists from across the spectrum to participate in annual concert fundraisers.

Blake Shelton

Unlike many of the other musicians in this list who have had to deal with substance abuse or alcohol, Blake Shelton has pretty much lived up to his clean-cut image, which has helped to propel him to country music superstardom, a national TV gig on The Voice, and a loving relationship with rock songstress Gwen Stefani, about which tabloids struggle in vain to find dirt to write about.

However, Shelton despaired over his crumbling marriage to country spitfire Miranda Lambert in 2015 and has said in interviews that God spoke words of comfort and hope to him in a dream.  As he awoke, the first four lines of a song that would become his 2017 hit single, “Savior’s Shadow” were already an ingrained earworm that Shelton hummed repeatedly, replete with a message of inspiration that “God is with us” in the refrain:

Though the devil try to break me
My sweet Jesus won’t forsake me
When I’m in my Savior’s shadow
Where I’m supposed to be

“Savior’s Shadow” was the second single release from If I’m Honest (2016). Shelton purposely released the song to spread the message of hope through Christ, not necessarily to become a hit, and his black and white music video was soberly understated compared to the happy-go-lucky playfulness of his other videos and mega hits like, “Honey Bee” or “Doin’ What She Likes.” Nevertheless, “Savior’s Shadow” managed to reach #14 on Billboard’s Christian Music charts and broke the Top 50 on the Country charts.

 

Prince

When the world lost the musical genius that was Prince in 2016, practically every single article and news clip referenced his hit songs, like “Purple Rain,” “Kiss,” “When Doves Cry,” “Little Red Corvette” and “others.” His lyrics and performances were chock full of double entendres and risqué allusions, harkening back to blues artists like Tampa Red. He projected an image of sexual obsession throughout his songs and public persona.

However, the hits comprise only a small part of Prince’s musical output, which is allegedly filled with up to 10 more years’ worth of unreleased material still in his vaults. Of the prodigious number of recordings currently available, there are musical clues to a much deeper person than the public persona may have suggested, and which became publicized after his death: Prince was, in fact, a zealous Jehovah’s Witness.

Prince’s own sinner/saint walk showed clues in some of his earlier songs, such as “The Cross” from Sign O’ The Times (1987):

Black day, stormy night
No love, no hope in sight
Don’t cry for he is coming
Don’t die without knowing the cross

Prince later would change “the cross” to “the Christ” in performance following his conversion to Jehovah’s Witnesses in the late 1990s.

 

While Prince was an extraordinary guitarist, keyboardist, and drummer, he also played excellent bass, inspired by R&B from Motown, Parliament/Funkadelic, Stax/Volt, and Sly and the Family Stone. When he befriended bass icon Larry Graham, who created the funk bass style of slapping, Prince not only approached him for musical collaboration but also for Bible study religious instruction in the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith. The mentor-student relationship deepened throughout the 1990s, with Graham relocating his family from Jamaica to Minneapolis, and with Prince attending Kingdom Hall services.

“The Holy River” from 1995’s Emancipation reflects on the spiritual awakening that Prince was undergoing during this period.

 

Prince’s The Rainbow Children (2001) album delved deeply into Jehovah’s WItnesses teachings and his “Lion of Judah” from Planet Earth (2007) referenced end times as recorded in the Book of Revelations:

Like the Lion of Judah (Judah)
I strike my enemies down
As my God is living
Surely the trumpet will sound

As the Prince estate releases more recordings from its archive vaults, there will likely be much more to follow.

Part Three, the conclusion of this series will appear in Issue 114.

 

Header image of Eric Clapton courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Majvdl, cropped to fit format.

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