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Rockers And Holy Rollers

  • Stuart Bailie
  • 8 Aug 07, 12:05 PM

Stuart Bailie.jpgThanks to William Crawley and his ever-questing blog for drawing my attention to an article about American music, its churches and its politics. The author is Camille Paglia, who knows her culture and if you have five minutes for a good old read, check it out here.

She concludes that without some kind of spiritual crackle in the arts, there is no soul. She prepares the way by name-checking Calvin, Luther, Little Richard and Elvis Presley. There’s a coherent thread, she argues. Most of America’s music forms reach back to the holy rollers, getting restless in the woods, back in the day:

“A principal influence was the ecstatic, prophesying, body-shaking style of congregational singing in the camp meetings of religious revivalists from the late eighteenth century on. All gospel music, including Negro spirituals, descends from those extravaganzas, which drew thousands of people to open-air worship services in woods and groves.”

Paglia reckons this gave rock and roll its backbone, and why the Americans had the vigour that mattered. But while she’s drawing us pictures of the southern soul stirrers, I’m thinking that this is still at large in Northern Ireland. We still have our street preachers, our rocking non-conformists, our Pentecostals and charismatics. And of course, it’s deep in the bones of our most famous artist, Van Morrison.

Van says that he took his inspiration from American artists such as Mahalia Jackson, but a similar thing was also happening in the mission halls of east Belfast, and he evidently soaked it up. Likewise with Duke Special’s Peter Wilson, who uses old hymnals and celestial choruses and elevates the heart on a regular basis.

You find it in the more unusual places, like Therapy, who welcome us to the ‘Church Of Noise’, a heretical branch of the same order. More conventionally, it’s all over the music of Foy Vance, the son of an evangelical preacher, who fills his new album, ‘Hope’ with grace and faith and an undented sense of deliverance. Likewise with Iain and Paul Archer, who routinely open up channels to the mystic.

Many of the Ulster acts who are now coming of age were strongly connected to churches such as the CFC on Belfast’s Hollywood Road. A dozen years ago, they took their music to venues such as the Warehouse on Pilot Street and they literally played like missionaries.

I witnessed some of this and I was a little dismayed. The music was flimsy and the art was secondary to the message. The audience was almost cult-like, and I felt this was essentially bad for rock and roll. But several things have happened since then. Many of those acts have persevered. They have become much better writers and players.

And they’ve taken the lead from acts like U2, who express their spiritual views by stealth. If you know the story of Noah’s ark, or about Jewish traditions of renewal, then ‘Beautiful Day’ makes extra sense. If not, then the songs still works. And so the music from Northern Ireland is also littered with clues and ciphers.

So you can hear Peter Wilson making calls to the “born agains” on ‘Low’, which swings like some tent show classic. Or there’s ‘Quiet Revolutionaries’, which is almost a manifesto for the believers, patiently working for “a quiet shift of power”, believing that something all-powerful will come out of the woods and get the healing done.

The plan seems to be working. There is power in the blood. And the circle is unbroken.

Stu Bailie presents The Late show on Radio Ulster, every Friday from 10pm until midnight. See his playlist here.

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