Authors: Peter Bebergal
Most important is the belief that the occult's power lies in what is imposed on those who are on the margins or who defy convention held fast. By virtue of not being the music of the church, the blues were believed to raise the devil in their midst. But Johnson's popularity gave a face and a name to the complex relationship between African American music, outsider musicianship, and actual occult beliefs in the form of voodoo.
The legend of Robert Johnson still has the power to ring spiritually true; when you are playing with unseen forces, no matter your intentions, the devil is always close by, maybe even more present than Christ Himself. The devil is so at hand that one could chance to meet him at a highway crossroads on a moonless night and darkly trade one's soul for a gift. It was as if the spirit of Papa Legba knew it was about to be lost forever, and so embraced its new identity as Satan, if only to ensure it would continue to find expression in rock and roll. Better to be accused of being the devil than to be forgotten completely.
When Elvis Presley appeared on
The Ed Sullivan Show
in 1956, the cameramen worked overtime to position the angles of the shots so as to not emphasize his crotch and gyrating hips. But it wasn't merely Presley's display of lustiness that was a concern. American Pentecostalism, the source for much of the early polemic against rock and roll, sees any hint of aberrant sexuality
as an invitation to demonic influence. Ironically, it was the Assemblies of God Church, an offshoot of Pentecostalism, where Elvis was raised. The Pentecostal Church insisted on its congregants striving for a direct connection to God through music, dance, and speaking in tongues. The example was taken directly from the African American churches. While viewed with a deep skepticism by white Christians, the black congregations had a method of worship, which, while infernal in its origins, could be used to holy purpose. One leader of the early Pentecostal Church was heard to have pronounced: “The devil should not be allowed to keep all this good rhythm.” White churches saw the remnants of pagan Africa in the black churches, black churches saw the devil in the blues, and everyone saw the Pentecostals as possessed by the devil. Rock and roll would become the one thing they could all agree was evil by design. From the very beginning, rock would be associated with devilish intent. Throughout its history it would both embrace and challenge this suggestion. Even the churchgoing Elvis would push back.
Elvis was not shy in pointing out these contradictions. In interviews with his longtime friend Larry Geller, Elvis fondly remembered the energy and ecstasy of the hellfire preaching and the congregation that would “jump up and down, stomp their feet, and get themselves worked up to a frenzy.” The very same church would call out Elvis for sidling up to Satan and corrupting the youth of America: “They said I was âcontroversial.' And there were some preachers who actually said that my music was dirty, and I was leading the kids to hell. They even had a bonfire and burned my records and albums. Can you imagine that? Hell, all I did was what came naturallyâwhat I learned when I was a
little kid in church, movin' my body to the music.” What Christians were able to perceiveâunconsciously to be sureâwere the deep non-Christian influences of Elvis's music. On the one hand was the carnal music of the blues and roots music, via voodoo-charmed swamps of the bayous. On the other was an influence even more deeply non-Christian, and it could be heard and felt in the music and worship of their own church. It was the sound of the shout, born in the spirit-conjuring circle chants of Africa, and an early link in the chain of rock and roll's occult origins.
To retain their own heritage, one in which the old gods and their rituals provided a tie, slaves found ways to blend African religious practice with their already malleable Christianity. In the religion of African tribes, gods and spirits permeated every aspect of life. Theirs was an animistic tradition, in which every tree, stone, and river was not merely imbued with spirit but was the spirit's true manifestation. For many Africans, this supreme deity was transcendent, incapable of answering prayers, responding to entreaties, healing or otherwise interacting with human beings at all. The gods and spirits are intermediaries, often chaotic, invoked and tamed through complex rituals involving spirit possession, the sacrifice of animals, and divination. African forms of worship have been described as “danced religions” because all the beliefs are expressed through ritual, with music as the force driving them.
Slaves practiced a form of ring dancing and singing, often in the seclusion of the secret gatherings in the woods or other private outdoor areas known as “hush harbors.” Whites were mostly opposed to this practice and in order for it to remain secret, slaves would either fill a large bucket of water to catch
the sound, or, when indoors, hang a basin from the ceiling to act as a dampener. To worship outside the prescribed time and ways of the church was suspect, but the shout was particularly suspicious. The shout was akin to some devilish African rite that should have been cleansed from the slave's consciousness by Christianity. And if it hadn't been scrubbed away, it meant the masters and the ministers were not doing a good enough job. As one witness to a shout recounted: “What in the name of religion, can countenance or tolerate such gross perversions of true religion! But the evil is only occasionally condemned.”
For the slave, the ring shout presented the most important symbolic moment, a relationship to God unmediated by the master, by the white church, or by any interpretation of the Bible. God can appear anywhere, even in the midst of a plantation, and the shout is the sound of a voice saying what it wants; the dance is the movement of feet unchained.
The ring shout has its own internal constraint, in which the feet shuffle alongside each other very closely, barely leaving the ground. It is in the body, arms, hands, and head where the joyful ecstasy is released. The hands clap and wave, and the eyes look up to heaven. But despite the energy rising out and sustained by the movement of the feet, it was imperative that the feet never cross. If it looked like dancing, the devil's own feet might join. This fear of dancing was part of a much deeper current in which the slave folk songâcontrary to the spiritual songâwas slowly eradicated by forces both inside and outside the slave community.
In the early years of slavery, masters often allowed their slaves to socialize, and this by definition included music and
dance. But this was not always met comfortably by the whites. Many slave owners banned drums and other percussive instruments, believing them to be a call to rebellion. For the white Evangelical Christian community, dance was not only a mirror of sexual desire, it was too much like the slave's African pagan past. As early as 1665, the minister Morgan Godwin of Virginia was appalled by what he witnessed. The dance of slaves was “barbarous and contrary to Christianity.”
Slaves with powerful conversion experiences or even those raised in the Church began to internalize these ideas. Once, Africans and African Americans had made no distinction between secular and sacred dance, but by the mid-1800s the pressure from the Christian authority was beginning to exert real influence. In an 1848 report for the “Religious Instruction of the Negroes in Liberty County, Georgia,” it was abundantly clear what the Church thought of slaves and dancing: “Their dances are not only protracted to unseasonable hours, but too frequently become the resort of the most dissolute and abandoned, and for the vilest purposes.” Christian slaves began to adopt this opinion and many even went so far as to disavow the use of the fiddle, a popular accompanying dance instrument slaves played for themselves and for their masters.
The fiddle itself had already been considered an instrument most useful to the devil, particularly as it was favored for dance, a recreation already suspect. But for many slaves, the fiddle offered opportunities that others could never even hope for. As one slave remarked, fiddling “relieved me of many days' labor in the fields.” It also provided slaves with the ability to travel and gain some basic conveniences such as shoes and tobacco. As
such, for a fiddle player to give up their instrument so as to not offend God represents a great psychic rupture, and furthered the division between secular and sacred music.
The pull of Christianity for some slaves was strong, and as one slave remarked: “When I joined the church, I burned my fiddle up.” Destroying the fiddle was a deeply symbolic act. Dancing, fueled by the fiddle, was one of the truly African traditions kept alive by slaves. For many African traditions, the entire world turns on a spiritual axis and is imbued at every level with divine purpose. How can any part of life be separate from the spirits in every stone, animal, and plant? Nevertheless, the extreme violence that wrenched African people from their homelands and traditions created a vacuum filled easily by the white Christian myth equating slavery with God's will. Christianity was hope in a hopeless foreign land. Whether through whispers in a hush harbor or simply in the way in which culture is encoded in the memory of generationsâeven when the origin of the memory may be lostâbeing human, slaves found a way to retain their impulse to dance. The shout was a bridge between the two worlds.
While the gods and their names were abandoned or forgotten with each generation, the manner in which they were worshipped was etched deep into the slaves' spiritual DNA. It was the shout where the genetic marker was most pronounced. Listening to shouts today, the tension between the ancient tribal rhythms and the biblically themed lyrics is a powerful reminder of how the Christian training of the slave coalesced with the sounds and gestures of a religion finding expression in spirit possession, magic, and divination, the very things governing
whites, which the Church had hoped to drive from the slave to instill not only docility and obedience, but to ensure that the devil had not hitched a ride on the slave galleys. Yet something akin did come with the Africans, but it was not the devil. It was a spirit far older.
While the theology of the African dance and the ring shout of the Christian slave revealed different divine interactions with humans, the structure and rhythm of the shout are deeply African and reflect a vital non-Christian religious spirit. Significantly, the ring moves counterclockwise, a tradition likely drawn from an African cosmology where the spirit world moves in a circle, eternally. There is no final revelation, no second coming that wraps up human history in a heavenly bow. “Rather,” as Jon Michael Spencer explains, “a person begins as this-worldly spirit and returns to the world of the spirits for continued life after death.” This cycle never ends. The slave shout is a way for the slave to be obedient to God through self-agency regarding the work of their own souls. The master does not determine their fate; the slave follows the eternal shape of the universe, a force no white man can stop or control.
The power of the spirit world is most dramatically revealed in the African traditions that allowed the faithful to be overtakenâpossessedâby the gods. Percussion and dance are the means by which the spirit reveals itself, and since each spirit had its own name and personality, the style of dance is a clue as to which spirit had manifested. The shouting and dancing are a result of the worshipper being “mounted by the god.” When the deity inhabits the person, his or her own identity is subsumed.
In the American South, drums were banned, so the slaves
relied on hand clapping and feet stomping. For the Christian slave, it was the Holy Spirit who took hold, but only to make itself known. It was not the voice of gods or of God, but the voice of praise, unrestrained and utterly free. But just as in the African tradition, worship in the slave community was communal, an attribute that extended into every form of popular music its influence reached, most especially rock and roll.
The other essential aspect of the ring shout is call-and-response, a method of song used not only in religious ritual but in work songs chanted in the fields. It was a means through which the group agrees on what is taking place and through agreement are bound by a common truth, one that might even be communicated via the shout and the back-and-forth rhythm. Working on the plantation, one slave would begin a song and then the verse would be repeated by the others; like the spiritual, it could be used to communicate more subversive ideas, such as a hope for worldly freedom beyond a heavenly salvation. In the ring shout, call-and-response functioned to bind song; responsive repetitions served as the moral of the parable, the nugget of meaning transcending the particular of the story.
In the wildly moving shout song “Adam in the Garden,” the leader calls out, “Oh Eve, where is Adam?” and the responders sing, “Picking up leaves!”âa telling of the original story explaining humorously why God could not find Adam, as he ashamedly knew he was naked after the fateful bite of the forbidden fruit. As they move around the ring, the responders bend down as if to scoop leaves from the floor. The shout does not emphasize or even remark on the shame or the sin. While this aspect of the story is inherent in the shout, what the ring dancers are
communicating is something larger about being human, about the everyday task of having to perform the most basic functions to keep your dignity. The shout even reflects on the work of slaves, the constant bending down in the fields. God knows where Adam is, just as God knows where the slave is. He is hunched over in a plantation, singing under his breath to keep the vital connection going. Herein lies the subtle form of spiritual rebellion. The slave shout uses a story of the Bible, told through an ancient and non-Christian form of religious worship, to say that no one needs to be ashamed to do what you have to do to survive. It's easy to hear the fetal heartbeat of rock in this shout, the rhythms circling round and round, punctuated by calls of defiance for a spiritual identity not dictated by authority, with time kept by a drumbeat.