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Music

A brief history of why rock ‘n’ roll is called ‘the devil’s music’

From utterly insane tales of Kiss frontman Gene Simmons having a cow’s tongue to the satanic panic of Judas Priest sneaking hidden messages into their songs, the devil is often depicted as the despicable puppet master who makes the marionette of rock ‘n’ roll move. It was yelled at Elvis Presley when his hips were first thrusting pop culture into existence, and it continues to this day in the mutated form of musicians being accused of being in the Illuminati. We may have secularised the slander, but rock ‘n’ roll has always been tarred with the brush of Beelzebub. 

In New Orleans, at a fateful place called Congo Square, rock ‘n’ roll wove its way into existence. Speaking of its current incarnation, Nick Cave once said: “The great beauty of contemporary music, and what gives it its edge and vitality, is its devil-may-care attitude toward appropriation — everybody is grabbing stuff from everybody else, all the time. It’s a feeding frenzy of borrowed ideas that goes toward the advancement of rock music — the great artistic experiment of our era.”

This Koi Pond of ideas was the source of the vivified frenzy from the get-go. In brief, Catholicism was forced upon the slaves arriving from overseas which meant hymns were too. Rather than drown out their intrinsic Vodou tunes; it merely formed a fusion. The drums and rhythms may well have been abandoned out of necessity, but Gospel songs became a synthesis where Vodou and hymns shook hands. The same sense of profound exultation was present, and the drums were vocalised in the chants and incantations of singalong songs of soul salvation. 

Nowhere was this mishmash of cultures, sounds and spirit more profound than in Congo Square. Situated in the heart of what is now befittingly called Louis Armstrong Park, just north of the French Quarter in swinging New Orleans. This fabled spot is where African slaves would gather when they were permitted Sunday’s off. This foregathering was enforced in 1817 when the city mayor of New Orleans specifically selected the square as the only “gathering ground” permitted.

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Imagine, if you will, how such a joyous cacophony in the heart of the bubbling New Orleans, resulted in the eruption of modern music. It simply burst into song. Jazz, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll came roaring from the swirled mixing bowl of the square, surrounded by crooked tupelo trees, serpentine dust roads and the giant clay ball moon that seems to be a few miles closer to the delta than the rest of the world, presiding in the hot sultry evening air, all leering in to catch the sweet sound of celebration despite dower circumstance.

For this sense of soulful countenance, the blues was born. When those suffering on plantations couldn’t speak, they had to learn to sing. It is this encrypted meaning and the humanised expression of the blues that elucidated the vital necessity of music, both as a means of communication and as a soulful vessel to exultation.

Therefore, if music is, in its own right a religion—a sort of ceremony geared toward the greater good and breaking free from circumstance towards some cloud nine, then it seems fitting that one of its final developing chapters involves a face-off of sorts.

Nowadays, Rockstar are viewed as outlying rebels, and that rebellious spirit has its origins in the hardy folks who pioneered it. The church was always wary of alternative forms of spiritualism being propagated back in the day, and the blues musicians of old, with their Vodou undertones, represented something to keep an eye on, to say the least. 

This all came to the fore when hard times hit. The great depression impact everyone and it also made the sombre tones of a blues player spiritually appealing. Thereafter, a busker’s open guitar case ended up competing for the same kindness of strangers as the pastor’s collection pot. Thus, blues players like Robert Johnson were decreed as being in league with the devil. 

If a pastor was saying you could pray your hardships away and Johnson was crooning that your cursed ways were fated and your best off smoothing them out with song then a face-off for an audience was inevitable. Church attendance dwindled while dive joints attracted an alternative crowd. Thus, suddenly pastors made the matter bipartisan and warned those sitting on the fence of religion and rock ‘n’ roll that Johnson was singing the devil’s and to drop him a dime would surely lead to damnation. 

Rather than turn against this, Johnson and co embraced it and gave rock ‘n’ roll its daring spirit. In some ways, the church had done his promotional work for him. He was then, as he is now, a mystic figure, and you certainly don’t have to be a Satanist to see the appeal of that—particularly when his outsider ways were merely constructed on your long-veiled Vodou roots. If the devil is merely an outsider then that much is fitting, but aside from that, it was purely heavenly salvation that it offered—the same is true now. Nevertheless, I’d still be wary of Gene Simmons. 

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