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date: 14 December 2018

Music and Religion in American Public Life

Summary and Keywords

Music in American public life is best understood not simply as the formal arrangement of religious texts in sound but as a fluid arena of exchange between performers, participants, and audiences. In these exchanges we note the transformation of religious traditions themselves, as they navigate contact with their others and the challenges of public life or secularism; we also see the emergence of American religious musics as alternate publics themselves, in which new understandings of authority, tradition, and identity are negotiated. What is more, in recent decades American genre music—from jazz to hip-hop—has become a steady arena in which new forms of religiosity are proposed and debated.

Keywords: music, public, ritual, America, hybridity, blues, jazz, reggae, heavy metal, contemporary Christian music, hymnody, pluralism

The sights and sounds of America’s public religions have been interpreted in a variety of fruitful ways. It remains common, however, to posit that religious music is something that is expressed in the known confines of either a religious tradition (a notion which itself is stamped with the assumption that religions have a separate “sphere”) or of mere entertainment. Careful attention to the topic, however, reveals a number of different formations—not just “religious music,” but music about religion, religion about or against music—that are bound up with identity, the senses, and the contours of an (ostensibly secular) public. These musical expressions have served multiple purposes, ranging from commentary on or intervention into public matters—from gender and race to money and war—to helping establish alternate communities, networks, or practices through expressive means.

Thinking about the ongoing intersections of religion and music in American culture demands comparative analysis on at least two tracks simultaneously. It must tease out some different aspects of music—perception, meaning, aesthetics, and function, for example—that help us understand its importance to the religious, refracting specific sonic understandings of text, community, or practice. It must also think these things contextually, in terms of changes across and between religious traditions, as well as in relation to those broader cultural and political developments with which American religions, and thus their musics, are persistently interwoven. The questions raised and observations made about music may be relevant not just to the study of the arts more broadly, but perhaps also to the study of religion itself.

Music and Religion

It is for good reasons that studies of religious music have often focused on musical text settings and on traditions’ beliefs about the value or function of music. Consider the role of music as a repository of memory in Native American traditions, as a central element in African American community and practice, or as a category faithful Muslims avoid so as not to embellish overmuch the divine abundance they profess is already in Qur’anic recitation. Yet religions in America have persistently been involved in musical expressions more far-flung than these, taking in multiple modes of embodiment, imagination, emotion, materiality, and community in their articulation. This article explores these dimensions and proposes ways of using them in the comparative study of religions.

From its long-standing emphasis on studying the role of the body in religious life, the study of religion has regularly attended to the sensorium of religions. Religious traditions in America have provided ample material for these reflections, ranging from rich soundscapes in the worlds of Eastern Orthodoxy, Pentecostalism, or Italian Catholic street festas, to the abundant lyrical representations of religions in musical genres like country or hip-hop. To practitioners, religious music—whether or not it contains overtly confessional lyrics or is performed in a space marked as religious—is experienced differently, in terms of notes, chords, rhythms, and effects, whether in silent contemplation or public jubilance. This piece elaborates on the production and interpretation of religious musics, delineating the sonic and the sociological by attending to thematic content as well as to materiality, politics, emotion, and ritual.

Basic Orientations

The immersive, permeating quality of sound—which flows beyond physical barriers and often evades language—can seem intimidating when initially approached for analysis. What makes a religious chord sequence different from a nonreligious one? Can a piece of music be religious if it lacks words identifying itself in this way? And what happens when various forms of popular song have their religious origins obscured or overlooked, as with klezmer, Afro-Cuban jazz, or much of the blues? These questions make things interesting as well as challenging, since religions are often both sensorially abundant and difficult to pin down analytically. We do, nonetheless, possess a historical archive of music’s formal properties, communal practices, and the self-understandings of creators, performers, and audiences to guide us. Outside the formal parameters of religious institutions and musical performance, music plays a key role in shaping religious identity, answering questions of meaning, promoting communication, and producing symbolism, while religion often motivates music’s inception, performance, and function.

Writing about these expressions tends to presume that the religious elements are clearly distinct from the musical elements. These descriptions, though, suggest the power of sound and music in lived religions, which do not simply provide a kind of sonic dressing for free-standing “religion”; rather, religious music helps practitioners to organize and navigate their experience of the world. These processes resound through both individuals and communities, in the intonation of calls to prayer, the performance of hymns, the musical offerings to spirits. The regularity and multiplicity of these practices in American religious history makes sense, given how consistently humans express themselves through and in relation to sound: through debates about music’s moral utility, as a means of connection, as a device for contemplation, and more. Indeed, many religious traditions have even posited that the origins and features of the cosmos are at least partly sonic. Perhaps more importantly, many prominent religious traditions (including many to have emerged in the United States) are rooted in sonic/aural/musical experiences, heard not only in the elaborate musics of America’s many Protestantisms but also in the public musical comportment of new religious movements like the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

Soundscapes and Ritual

Listeners usually identify music as religious if they can associate it with what is encountered aurally in particular religious spaces: chanting, recitations, hymns, or even acoustic qualities associated with monasteries, temples, shrines, or natural settings. Yet religious music is produced and takes shape in broader sonic environments, ones not limited to actual song form. R. Murray Schaeffer famously theorized the “sonic properties” of everyday experience.1 The propositional content of a religious belief, or the visual representation of an episode in sacred history, Murray suggested, were often inseparable from the acoustic spaces in which the devout came to appreciate them: the cavernous resonance of cathedrals, the brook in which the converted were baptized, bells or voices ringing out across space. These sounds, Murray notes, establish a kind of affinity among those who recognize them as religious ultimately consolidating what he calls “acoustic communities.” Across American religious history, music has served similar functions both inside and outside of religious buildings. Through performance, setting, intention, and reception, religious music can thus permeate political life through protest and public gatherings; they can clash or harmonize with other communities and sounds, for example, at the Garveyite rally in 1920s Harlem, on Chicago’s South Side in exchanges between evangelicals and the Nation of Islam, in front of D.C.’s monuments at antiwar or pro-choice protests; they help focus attention on particular bodies or social issues, conveying critical principles and moral lessons; and in enriching the interactions between persons in public space, religious music provokes questions about where the public bleeds into the private.2

One of music’s most effective means of accomplishing these varied ends is in its tethering to religious ritual, which serves as a fine foundation for the analysis of religious music.3 No history of the Americas can overlook the centrality of Native American religious practices to the periods prior to European contact and colonization, nor their importance in the centuries following. Despite the vast diversity of Native American religions and the known awkwardness with which the term “religion” even captures the unity of place, history, culture, and ritual, central to them all are ritual and song. From Navajo singing priests to shamanic songs, practitioners exchange communication with divine beings, offer sonic tributes in the form of praise or gratitude, or plea for particular bestowals of divine power. Music is understood here as a repository of culture memory and a medium through which spirits can be made manifest, for communication, guidance, or preparation for the hunt, adulthood initiation, or war. Sometimes the music is accompanied by dance (as with the Pueblo) or focused on a particular object like a sacred rattle used along with chanting in healing ceremonies. Elsewhere it accompanies a procession, as in burial or migration or even a journey to the baptismal river made by North Carolina’s Cherokee Baptists. Further, spirits songs often have specifically pedagogical purposes, meant to instruct (or remind) about the natural environment, the destiny of the group, or the meanings encountered in vision quests. Sound is also integral to a range of additional ritual, as with peyote songs, sacrificial offerings, the petitions of Aztec choirs, kachina songs and dances in the Southwest, or the musical inducement of trance or hypnogogic states.

The sonic habitus of Christianity is, in its psalmody and hymnody, focused on sonic praise for the divine or the annunciation of prophecy, and its considerable musical repertoire was altered in multiple ways once European Christians began to colonize the Americas. Similar to other traditions, Christian ritual music has anchored and familiarized local climes for waves of migrants and their descendants, in vocalized praise offerings, confessions and creeds, or in didactic forms like spoken or sung scriptural recitations that, especially in the early colonies, served crucial purposes in community formation by establishing common forms of interaction and affective bonding.

American Christian ritual has also been perhaps uniquely open to the incorporation of local or vernacular musics. Aside from the formal inclusion of chant and hymns in various formal settings (from Puritan plainsong to evangelical revivals), one sees sonic creativity in the spontaneous music of festivals like the street processionals of Italian Harlem; the singing nuns in Dominican and Marian orders in the mid-20th century; the inclusion of acoustic guitar music in Catholic masses following the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965); the sonic enthusiasms and embrace of rock and soul musics in Pentecostalism; or the slick Christian pop music employed in contemporary megachurch services. Examples like these reveal the adaptations of traditional music and the creation of new idioms to serve traditional purposes.

Attention to non-Christian immigrant traditions in American history reveals, perhaps more emphatically than with Christianity, how for migrant populations music and ritual often serve not just standard communicative and communitarian purposes but facilitate translocation and relocation. Jewish traditions, of course, have long defined themselves through their distance from Israel and the locus of Temple traditions. Whether in the Diaspora or in the flight from European persecution from the 17th through the 20th centuries, Jewish musical recitation and response has been one mode of expressing fidelity to tradition and covenant. While Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Hasidic communities differed over fundamental cultural and orthopractic norms, Judaism in America defined its ritual world not just through the intonation of sacred texts (in the shema and through other means) but through cantorial singing, recitation, the use of song for teaching tzadiks, and the use of shofar, Kaddish, or the Kol Nidre on high holy days.

Islam in America has undergone similar processes of adaptation. Hearing and speaking are central to Islamic consciousness, given the centrality of aural experience in the revelation to Muhammad and the structural importance of the shahadah (the central spoken confession that makes one a Muslim) and the adhan (the call to prayer). Beyond these elements, chant and recitation (though not outright singing) are absolutely central to Islamic practice, understood as means of direct communication with Allah. Islam cautions against music as such in ritual, out of a concern that it might compromise larger religious goals or might prove too enticing to listeners. Yet a degree of melodic improvisation is encouraged in the intonation or recitation (tajwid) of Qur’an passages by Qari (reciters). As Islam settled into American cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it often focused on organization through either organizations rooted in national identity or institutions designed specifically to facilitate adaptations to modernity. Outside of formal practice at mosques, in processions or at weddings, for example, music is not only acceptable but is welcome as is Muslim devotion, provided its context and temperament are appropriately tethered to religious purposes.

As Hindu and Buddhist practitioners arrived in the United States in significant numbers beginning first in the late 19th century and then after the Immigration Act of 1965, their musical rituals have been institutionalized somewhat more haltingly than those of other traditions (a function perhaps of an overall increased difficulty of institutionalizing generally). While it is far less common in American public life to witness Hindu popular festivals or performances of sacred epics than in South or Southeast Asia, American Hindus nonetheless incorporate song and chant in both temple ritual (including the performance of devotional bajans) and public events like Diwali. Lay Buddhists in the United States also regularly chant bodhisattva vows or portions of the Lotus Sutra, as well as (in Japanese Buddhist communities) performing shomyo hymns. Vajrayana Buddhism, particularly popular among converts, makes more room for sonic expression than other, occasionally more austere forms of Buddhism, while Nichiren Buddhism also places considerable emphasis on chanting.

Beyond ostensibly “mainstream” traditions, music also occupies a central place in the abundance of new religious movements that America has spawned. As examples, note the importance of song and dance to the Shakers, contemporary Neopagans, or the celebrants of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Across all these traditions, then, we see music made central to religious practice and to the conveyance of their meanings, as music functions in both narrative and indicative senses. Sacred texts are performed or sung by priests, shamans, imams, or cantors, and the music is also experienced as part of the sacred’s presence itself. Even in those places where semantic meaning is obscured, it is through sound and music that ritual becomes cognitively and experientially immersive.

Musical Publics and Pluralism

The focus on ritual that we discussed tended largely to examine how religious traditions organize and express themselves internally. Equally important is religious music’s engagement of public life and pluralism. One way of exploring these issues is to examine how performances and debates about music have taught American religions how to interact with each other and to their shared setting. Such considerations were present even in the earliest encounters between European colonists and Native Americans, in the performance of sacred music in new communal presences like the Spanish missions of the Southeast and Southwest or the “towns” for “praying Indians” in New England. Sounds competed for attention and loyalty, and the containment of Native American religiosity focused well into the 20th century on the constraint of Native song and dance.4 Perhaps more clearly in the original colonies than in the Spanish or French mission fields, religious music emerges as a medium of exchange and negotiation between different populations (with clearly different religiopolitical fortunes as a consequence). Accompanying Drake’s voyage there are writings that describe Native Americans sitting attentively (perhaps curiously) as colonists sang Psalms and Bible verses.5 And at Jamestown and other English settlements, psaltery, popular dance, and military music blended frequently.6

The centrality of psalmody and hymnody to such episodes suggest, rightly, that these idioms often served as a bridge between religious traditions and different public spheres or institutions. Psalms and hymns were sung different depending on community and time period, to be sure.7 Part of the story quickly became the range of extensions to and improvisations on these traditional materials, first in colonial Christian contributions to liturgical song. Between the 17th and 18th centuries, out of the many English-speaking “free churches” arose a rich musical tradition centered on the popular hymns of the Englishman Isaac Watts or the nascent Protestant “shape note” tradition.8 David Stowe describes how this family of traditions maintained, well into the 19th century, the importance of psalmody and hymnody (adaptations of specific biblical texts) to early American religion, in official liturgy and in other arenas like Revolutionary War songs.9 Despite the importance of such adaptations of sacred music to American religious identities, if we broaden the scope to other traditions and institutions, we see the continued resonance of religious music in public exchanges, social power, and intersubjectivity.

Outside the sphere of proselytization or missiology, religious music after the Revolutionary War was a vehicle for crafting civic identities, and was often the sound of sentimental education. In particular, its regular emphasis on disciplining the individual’s interior dispositions marks an awareness of the symbiotic relationship between that understanding of character and the broader public arenas of state, market, or civil society. In public ceremonies and in schools, hymns and psalms not only reinforced religious identity but were experiential, sensorial ways of fostering good morality and citizenship. Psalters, educational primers, and texts like John Anderson’s 1791 “discourse on the divine ordinance of singing Psalms” or Ann Taylor’s 1813 “Hymns for Infant Minds” oriented listeners in terms of sacred knowledge, public behavior, and personal morality alike.

Beyond such educational activities, the fervent religious growth and pluralization of early America was in many accompanied or directly enabled by religious music. One of the most powerful ways in which the enthusiasms and emotional experience of the revival circuits expressed themselves was through their musical endeavors.10 Primitive Baptists sang regularly in what have been called “miniature sermons.”11 Barton Stone led “singing exercise[s]” at Cane Ridge, in order to inculcate Bible sensibilities more thoroughly.12 These expansions and broad circulations of religious experience were part of a larger process that Nathan Hatch describes as the period’s “reordering of preaching and print communications.”13 This entailed also the proliferation of new communities, many grounded in the kind of personal freedom of interpretation that the revivalists embodied, even if they struck out into wholly different theological directions. Shaker song and dance were absolutely integral to that community’s manifestation of gender complementarity and celibate “families.” The Adventist, or Millerite, tradition in the 1830s and 1840s frequently used a hymnal produced by Joshua V. Himes, The Millennial Harp, distributed at the regular camp meetings held by William Miller before his prophecies proved unsubstantiated. Later, when Ellen Gould White led many former Millerites into the Seventh Day Adventists, that tradition adapted many older tunes and also penned new hymns to reflect its sense of inheriting the Millerite legacy and living under a new judgment.14

One of the key challenges facing newly arriving immigrant populations, which led to huge demographic shifts throughout the 19th century, was adaptation or assimilation to American public life and customs. As suggested earlier, music facilitated these processes while also providing constancy of religious identity. Perhaps the most obvious example of the latter is the Catholic mass, with its rich musical repertoire as a kind of experiential constant that helped Irish, German, Italian, and East European navigate the complexities of American public life, schooling, and commerce. Similarly, in the adaptations of synagogue life first in Reform Jewish communities and later elsewhere, the ongoing role of chanting and cantorial leadership oriented practitioners even as Jews adapted the language, the location, and the social-ethical focus of their practice.

Perhaps nowhere do we see a greater importance of religious music and public life than among African Americans, whose religiosity was active constrained from public expression and participation. In the emergence of spirituals from slave songs, field hollers, and ring shouts, we see a vivid intermingling of scripture, political critique, and emotional abundance that altered American public life in lasting ways. It was through artistic and embodied expression, most powerfully in music, that African Americans demanded the realization “of the justice of God.”15 The words did more than simply promote protests or raise important social questions; according to poet Phyllis Wheatley, sacred songs “‘got all up into’ their bodies, animating them to respond with music and movement to the transcendent God implied in the iconic text.”16 As Edward Blum and Paul Harvey note, the sacred creativity of African American music formed one of the most powerful settings for and mediums of biblical themes of deliverance, even as biblical critics also argued for limiting these practices.17

Religious institutions themselves often remained the primary loci of the music’s cultivation and reception, as with the proliferation of African American denominations after the Civil War or the cultural influence of the Moody Bible Institute. Yet one of the most significant elements in the history of religious music in America, of particular importance to the changing polis, was the dissemination and appropriation of religious music outside of formal religious institutions. The advent of commercial recordings was a signal moment, and one of the most important early recordings in American history documented an 1875 performance of hymns by the Moody Institute’s Ira Sankey and Philip Bliss.18 The earliest wireless radio broadcast in America, in 1906, featured “devotional music and Bible reading.”19 Traveling performance troupes like the Fisk Jubilee Singers—who once even visited the Oneida Perfectionists, who found the music wanting—facilitated the music’s growing popularity, abetting themselves of the same performance innovations that also shaped new eras of revivalism, prophecy, and public speaking. These possibilities opened up not only for traveling gospel retinues but also for the emergence of Yiddish Theater Music; Sacred Harp players; and, as would be crucially important in the coming 20th century, new idioms like rag and blues that regularly took religious origins and sensibilities in new directions.20 Religious music also found an important role in the consolidation of new religiopolitical identities, in protests particularly. This impulse picked up on the prominence of song among abolitionists, as with the Hutchinson Family Singers or the rich tradition of songs associated with women’s suffrage, led by prominent evangelical women in the United States.21

For much of the last century, religious music in the United States has continued to be nurtured in and expressive of conventionally organized religious traditions and institutions. But with the influx of new populations, the explosion of new religious options, the ubiquity of recording technology and the music industry, and the centrality of popular music to American identities, religious music has expressed itself in a similarly wide range of forms. An extended discussion of popular genres follows. Here, however, we can see some examples of this broader musical range as they intersect with religious questions, performances, and self-understandings.

Suggestively, one theme emerging during this period reflects long-standing American obsessions with self-narration. This kind of impulse has mostly been seen in multiple (and often competing) histories produced by different groups of practitioners, not only in common Christian Providential histories of America’s purported uniqueness but Africanist histories (beginning with the Ethopianism of the late 18th century) or Mormon sacred history. Surprisingly, the modern period has produced a large number of musical narrations of American history and religion, ranging from Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha and Duke Ellington’s Black Brown & Beige to Charles Ives’s settings for Protestant Americana, John Adams’s compositions for Walt Whitman or American natural settings (“The Wound Dresser,” “Shaker Loops,” and “The Dharma at Big Sur,” for example), or Anthony Davis’s opera about Malcolm X.

The links between religious music and the communitarian impulse also strengthened and multiplied in the 20th century. The dogged commitment to preserving and maintaining identity against, for example, the leviathan state or the corrosion of capitalism has regularly led to the formation of intentional communities that are separate from culture.22 Not only does this impulse surface more frequently in American music after World War II, but a suggestive confluence becomes more regular as well. Between the 1950s–1970s, there emerged a surprising number of communities or organizations of jazz musicians whose primary character and aspiration were religious. Among them were Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, St. Louis’s Black Arts Group, Los Angeles’s Union of God’s Musicians in Artists’ Ascension, San Francisco’s Church of St. John the Divine, and the Alice Coltrane’s Sai Anantam Ashram. New presences on the American religious landscape often crafted their identity and practice in ways that explicitly foregrounded music. The Process Church of the Final Judgment performed a central ritual poised midway between a Catholic and a black mass, and played solemn folk hymns as part of the affect. The emergence of the counterculture Jesus People USA was buoyed by the movement’s embrace of popular music, resonating with its representation of Jesus as a kind of proto-hippie. And while New Age fellowships and Neopagan festivals are structurally looser than formal communitarian experiments, they too are notable in their use of song and dance in their highly eclectic rituals.

And it is in the development of religious ritual over the last century that one sees another steady index of American religious music. The ritual incorporation of music goes beyond simple settings for creeds or recitation. With it comes new modes of embodied experience and expression, means for establishing relations—with other people or with spirits—through performance, or a focus for contemplation and meditation. The experiential power of these practices would increase in their appeal in the post-World War II era in the United States, as practitioners in greater numbers across traditions would seek out combinative practices that resonated with them subjectively as well as interpersonally. Musical vectors proved uniquely appealing here, seen in the growing popularity of music in evangelical megachurches or Pentecostal communities, in the use of chant among Transcendental Meditation or yoga practitioners, the protest hymns of the civil rights movement, the use of vernacular music in post-Vatican II Catholicism, and the emergence of Rastafarianism as a significant American religious presence.23

Musical Genres and Religion

Collectively, the significance of these developments is amplified when noting how improvisation, that hallmark of American religiosity, led to new and creative fusions of music and religion, increasingly prevalent in ostensibly secular musical genres. Across American history we note not only the frequent use of vernacular music by religious traditions themselves, but the regularity of musical genres defined by their religious concerns and expressions too. This is not limited to any genres in particular but is present in classical music and the avant-garde and the full range of popular and folk musics.

The development of “classical music” in America has often occurred alongside and through its multiple engagements with religion.24 In colonial America, European sacred music was appropriated and modified with the First and Second New England Schools of composition. By the 19th century, conventional formats were being extended and in some cases blurred altogether in new religious music or settings. When William Bradbury included biblical characters in an opera, at that time often derided as vulgar and showy, the result was scandal. Horatio Parker expressed themes common to Walt Whitman and the Transcendentalists when he wrote music celebrations of the natural world, using Episcopalian liturgy song as his setting. James C. Johnson appropriated traditionally religious forms, like the cantata, for nonreligious settings.25

In some ways, such “liberties” were possible because it was not only religious institutions nurturing composition but a new wave of arts organizations that took their cues as much from the volatile American public square as from religious communities. This institutional decoupling extended further in the 20th century, as “classical music” became understood as an independent art form. It did not abate, however, in its religious engagements. Aside from the aforementioned Charles Ives and Joplin, notable American composers have consistently explored religious themes. Aaron Copland and William Grant Still investigated multi-genre synthesis as vehicles for investigating the multitudes of biblical themes in American culture. Émigrés like Kurt Weill and Igor Stravinsky wrote some of their most powerful, searching works in the United States (Weill’s Kiddush, for example, and Stravinsky’s Mass or Elegy for JFK). These trajectories inspired waves of late 20th-century experiments in composition and religiosity, including Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass,” Harry Partch’s “Revelation in the Courthouse Park,” minimalist composer Steve Reich’s use of Hebrew cantillation, Glenn Branca’s multiple masses for electric guitar, and of course John Cage’s multiple investigations of Buddhist meditation and avant-garde sound.

Perhaps the most familiar form of “religious music,” one with extant roots in the sacred music of particular communities, is in the rich lineage of spirituals and gospel music. Initially comprised of compositions that were supplemental to those in the official canon, spirituals and gospel also possess links to the aforementioned tradition of independent hymns, from free churches to shape note singing, from the adaptations of Isaac Watts’s compositions to the extraordinary contributions of African Americans to this idiom. From the historical context noted earlier emerged a distinctive performative style that was as identifiable as its religious thematics. From the late 19th to the early 20th centuries, a steady stream of performers like Thomas A. Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and the Fisk Jubilee Singers popularized this idiom, whose emotionality made especially vivid the music’s use of religious imagery to sustain social and political hope (as in “Go Down, Moses” or “Joshua Fit’ the Battle of Jericho”).26 Later practitioners like the Silvertone Quartet, the Golden Gate Quartet, or the Soul Stirrers sustained and extended this tradition, which abides.

Many of the same cultural and religious factors that shaped the emergence of gospel strongly influenced a range of other vernacular musics.27 Most evident is the growth of blues and country music in the early decades of the 20th century, particularly in the American South. While one common history holds that the blues was the secular counterpart to gospel music, both the performative and the thematic identity of blues calls this into question. Its early practitioners explored religious subjects, most famously with Robert Johnson’s dark musings on salvation and damnation but also with overt meditations like Blind Willie Johnson’s “John the Revelator.” Even during the period of blues’s commercialization in recent decades, religion has not only thrived at the local level (note the quirky regional subculture of pedal steel guitar in Florida’s African American Pentecostal churches) but also in its larger stylistic debts and emotional resonance. B. B. King insisted that, even if listeners are unaware of the music’s historic roots and its links to the sanctified church, the music’s emotional insistence on meaning through suffering derived explicitly from the Bible.28

Both folk and country music are similarly indebted to vernacular culture and have often investigated religious themes and questions. Folk music, indeed, has its origins in the 19th century, when it emerged as a category denoting (broadly) the traditional music of a usually local culture, whose songways had been passed down through multiple generations as a key index of identity. Thus the continued performance and vitality of, say, Native American ritual music, work songs, or Cajun music can be adduced to this category. In the United States, its popular emergence is associated with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Harry Douglas’s 1950s Anthology of American Folk Music, influences which would soon inspire more widely known artists like Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Peter Paul & Mary, or Joan Baez. It was common for these artists to investigate religious melancholy or prophetic critique as part of their emerging counterculture sensibilities beginning in the 1960s. And the folk idiom itself would play a crucial role in shaping the singer-songwriter style that overlapped with early Contemporary Christian Music in the 1970s.29 But the basic idiom, as is exemplary of American religion and music, branched out considerably from its origins. Among a wide range of folk guitar players in the late 20th century, one hears a continued obsession with religious practice and composition. Examples range from John Fahey’s biblical meditations (“Mark 1:15” or “Red Cross, Disciple of Christ Today”) to Robbie Basho’s interest in Buddhist meditation as folk practice. Consistent with this is the appropriation of vernacular musics into religious traditions themselves, as with klezmer, or the performance of Celtic music among Neopagans in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Country music is focused often on narrations of specific identities or regions. Its roots are often traced to the music of the Second Great Awakening, and its flourishing to the emergence of sonically distinctive “hillbilly music” in the early 20th century.30 Early country performances regularly consisted of new versions of traditional religious tunes, like the Carter Family’s “Can the Circle Be Unbroken?” or Jimmie Rodgers’s “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” Interestingly, some of country’s earliest troubadours also thought about the Bible’s meaning in American culture more broadly. Charles Tillman’s “My Mother’s Bible” (1893), widely considered the very first proper country song, did so, as did later exemplars such as Don Reno’s “I’m Using My Bible for a Roadmap” (1951), Kitty Wells’s “Matthew 24,” and the influential work of the Louvin Brothers.31 While country music certainly turns regularly to themes of heartbreak, patriotism, and debauchery, later performers like Hank Williams, June Carter and Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Loretta Lynn, among many others, have created a repertoire ripe for cultural analysis.

Though it is slightly more difficult to assess, owing to the fact that it is a largely instrumental music, one of the must suggestive associations of religion and music is in American jazz.32 One finds even in the genre’s earliest decades—turn of the 20th century New Orleans to 1930s New York, for example—a mix of theological aversion and religious performance. While some religious critics feared that jazz was irreligious or libidinous, for many audiences and practitioners jazz was the sound of African culture and religion, of new American religious identities, or of new forms of freedom and solidarity. Aside from jazz’s role in writing religious history and fostering religious community, the music has been woven into American religions in multiple ways. Duke Ellington composed settings for sacred texts, and wrote pieces to accompany church services. This liturgical trend has been broad, with important contributions from Mary Lou Williams, Louis Bellson, Dave Brubeck, and Deanna Witkowski. The music and its performing networks has often regularly served as a medium of interreligious cooperation or the modification of extant traditions, as with the regular conversion of musicians to Ahmadiyya Islam in the 1940s–1950s, Dizzy Gillespie’s outreach on behalf of the Baha’i, or Herbie Hancock’s and Wayne Shorter’s embrace of Nichiren Buddhism. American jazz musicians ranging from saxophonists John Coltrane and Steve Lacy to pianist Myra Melford and drummer Teri Lynne Carrington have appropriated improvisation as a way of focusing on new modalities of meditation and mindfulness. And on the outer reaches of religious practices, jazz musicians have even improvised on the very possibilities of religion. Percussionist Milford Graves combines Santéria rhythms, pulmonary mapping, and Theosophical speculation in order to realize new kinds of consciousness, while musicians such as Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton, and Wadada Leo Smith have constructed musical systems that are simultaneously notational and metaphysical.

Rock music broadly speaking has similarly reflected on and contributed to American conversations about religions.33 Most obviously this has historically been expressed via lyrics that treat religious themes, with classic examples like Bruce Springsteen’s riffing on Genesis in “Adam Raised a Cain” or Bob Dylan’s extended ruminations on biblical themes (“All Along the Watchtower” nods to Isaiah 21:5–9 with “two riders were approaching”), Leonard Cohen’s “Story of Isaac,” or The Byrds’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” 1980s post-punk music regularly engaged such materials, too, as with the Pixies, the Violent Femmes’s “It’s Gonna Rain,” or U2. And more contemporary artists ranging from Lady Gaga to Nickel Creek, Mumford and Sons, and Sufjan Stevens have vibrantly fused popular song with religious meditations.

But one also notes indelible, public associations between popular musicians and specific religiosities, which—owing to the fascination with celebrities—have rendered some of these artists near-exemplars of their religious traditions. Well known examples include Jerry Lee Lewis and Pentecostalism, Cat Stevens’s conversion to Islam, Tina Turner’s Buddhism, Beck’s Scientology, or hardcore band Bad Brains’s long-standing Rastafarianism. There is also occasionally a communitarian dimension to such associations, as with the link between hardcore bands Shelter and Agnostic Front with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.34 Seen from another direction, equally significant is the regularity with which musicians have critiqued or denounced religion, famous examples of which include Minor Threat, Slayer, and Marilyn Manson. Taken together, these resonances in both performance and audience investment establish something like an alternate public sphere, an arena for debate and identity formation alike.

One of the most interesting resonances between American religions and genre music has been what we might call the adjectival turn: the emergence of specifically Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other traditional variations on popular forms. Elsewhere I have referred to this as the use of religious themes and images in the service of creative mimesis. We see this in klezmer jazz, Neopagan heavy metal, and perhaps most influentially in the broad arena of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM). David Stowe and Shawn Young, among others, have written compellingly about CCM’s emergence from the 1960s counterculture, becoming significantly more than a medium reflecting religious themes through known popular idioms. Like other, smaller scenes—the aforementioned “Krishnacore,” La Monte Young or Terry Riley’s drone music for meditation, or the Jimi Hendrix Electric Church—CCM represents not only a commercial presence (notably in more popular singers like Amy Grant) but a partial blend of the communitarian and the thematic. Vivid examples of this fusion are seen in Seattle’s Mars Hill community and the popular Cornerstone music festival, where religion is on the one hand a clear source of shared identity but also, via its musical variety, fluid in form, articulation, and reception.35

One of American popular music’s most interesting idioms, hip-hop, has proven a rich arena for the cultivation of such religious hybridity.36 Long known for its social commentary and critical voice, the music has negotiated critical anxiety as well as political challenges in crafting a wide range of religious identities. Hip-hop has often served a documentarian function; its long-standing chronicle of urban life has regularly been framed using religious imagery and categories, perhaps most famously with Nas likening the ghetto to the “valley of death” from Psalm 23:4, or Kanye West invoking Jesus’s description of Hell in Matthew 13:42.37 Mos Def has rapped about his own Muslim religious practice and about the legacies of Marcus Garvey and Pan-Africanism, while fellow Muslim Ice Cube has rescinded his former ties with the Nation of Islam but still practices. KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions regularly engages Afrocentric ideas, often with biblical allusions, as with “Genesis chapter eleven, verse ten / Explains the genealogy of Shem.”38 Each of these examples combines critical discourse with religious identity to help underscore further the distinctiveness of hip-hop as a distinctive cultural identity. This is even more evident in the emergence of a coterie of artists—ranging from Poor Righteous Teachers to Erykah Badu to the Wu-Tang Clan—associated with Five Percenter Islam, a branch of the Nation of Islam.

Outside of the African American experience, hip-hop has been no less energetic in engaging religious questions. Even as early as 1985, mainline white Christians in America have tentatively explored rap music, the first example of which was Stephen Wiley’s 1985 “Bible Break.” Famous acts like dc Talk (whose record Jesus Freak is hugely significant) or Lecrae are part of this genealogy. But in the 1990s and thereafter one also sees the emergence of a minor but significant Buddhist idiom, ranging from American “Hoodie Monks” in Japan to the late MCA, of the Beastie Boys. More recently, Shyne and Matisyahu have appropriated hip-hop in the service of their Judaism. Surrounding this ferment is the ongoing critical conversation about the links between rap and certain kinds of sinfulness, or about its ostensibly “fallen” qualities.39

Beyond Genre and Tradition: Religio-Musical Hybridity

The picture that emerges from a focus on music and religion is one in which religious institutions and traditions incorporate music into their practice; distinct musical forms attend regularly to religious concerns; and public engagement of the challenges of identity and authority via sound. In these collectively, we see a range of themes and preoccupations that merit further interpretation: the body as the locus of religious music, whether in the ritual space or the public square; fantasy and the imagination, a suggestive utopic or dystopic undercurrent to the thematic content essayed above; music as discipline in monastic communities or other communitarian spaces (whether new religious movements or in negotiations over, say, gender in Orthodox Judaism); technology and inner soundscapes; or religion and music in conflict, whether exteriorized in censorship debates or in wrestlings internal to traditions.

The variety of examples and interpretive possibilities—across historical period, community, and audience—shows how close are the associations of music and religion in American culture. We see, further, that the associations are often unruly, fluid, and combinative. In this restlessness, it is apparent that religion and music constitutes a fundamentally public nexus of human expression, in their propensity to establish and also divide communities, to construct and respond to religious others, to endorse or decry political projects. Music is clearly not merely aesthetic or experiential in the conventional sense, but reshapes performers’ and audiences’ situatedness in social and cosmological order via specific pedagogies and relationships. So music cannot be understood as a sonic gloss on some free-standing “religion,” nor simply a vehicle for the articulation of texts. Rather, it links relation, experience, and social power in ways that are equally suggestive to scholars, performers, and audiences attentive to the senses, cultural hybridity, and intersubjectivity.

Review of the Literature

This is a fruitful time to be a student of American religions, as the field has in the last two decades moved beyond its original orientations—church history, denominationalism, or identitarian studies—to explore new methodologies, new subjects, and new authorial modes. Studies of music have benefited from this broader enrichment, though there is still much work to be done (and much of what has been done is located in disciplines other than Religious Studies). The literature consulted for and relevant to this article is divided into several different areas.

As important as the study of particular religious traditions is to the subject of music and public life, there are still relatively few book-length monographs treating music and religious traditions exclusively. Michael McNally’s study of Ojibwe hymns remains exemplary in this regard.40 Scholarship on specific traditions tends to be located either in sections of larger synthetic studies or in specific articles, in valuable journals like the Journal of the America Academy of Music, American Music, or Black Music Research Journal. Happily, though, those synthetic studies are many in number and often high in quality. For rich overviews of music in religious traditions generally (not always specific to the United States), the anthologies Enchanting Powers and Sacred Sound provide valuable introductions and overviews.41 Music in American Religious Experience does similarly for the American context in particular, as do important studies by Stephen Marini, Gerardo Marti, and David Stowe.42

There is a particularly rich scholarship on African American religious music. I have found consistently stimulating the pathbreaking scholarship of Samuel Floyd and Lawrence Levine.43 Several excellent and innovative recent studies contain fascinating insights focusing combinatively on utopian thinking, technology, national imaginaries, and sound. Among these authors I would single out George Lipsitz, Graham Lock, Lerone Martin, Ronald Radano, and Guthrie Ramsey.44

Finally, the last decade has seen the publication of several quite rich studies of American religion and various musical genres. Readers will surely benefit from the work of Monica Miller and Anthony Pinn on hip-hop; Eileen Luhr, David Stowe, and Shawn Young on Christian rock; my own work on American jazz; and John Hayes on country music, in addition to somewhat older but still excellent work by Ray Allen and Don Cusic on gospel.45

Further Reading

Bivins, Jason C. Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Cusic, Don. The Sound of Light: A History of Gospel Music. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Ellingson, Ter. “Music and Religion.” In The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 9, edited by Mircea Eliade, 163–172. New York: Macmillan, 1993.Find this resource:

Floyd, Samuel. The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Hayes, John. “Religion and Country Music.” Religion Compass 4, no. 4 (April 2010): 245–252.Find this resource:

Marini, Stephan A. Sacred Song in America: Religion, Music, and Public Culture. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Miller, Monica R., and Anthony B. Pinn, eds. The Hip Hop and Religion Reader. New York: Routledge, 2014.Find this resource:

Stowe, David. How Sweet the Sound: Music in the Spiritual Lives of Americans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Stowe, David. No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Weiner, Isaac. Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Religious Pluralism. New York: New York University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Young, Shawn David. Gray Sabbath: Jesus People USA, the Evangelical Left, and the Evolution of Christian Rock. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.Find this resource:


(1.) R. Murray Schaeffer, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 1993).

(2.) See Isaac Weiner, Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Religious Pluralism (New York: New York University Press, 2013).

(3.) The account below resonates with my “Sound and Religion,”in Material Religion, ed. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 131–150.

(4.) See Tisa Wenger, We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

(5.) See Michael D. McNally, Ojibwe Singers: Hymns, Grief, and a Native American Culture in Motion (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2009).

(6.) Thomas E. Warner, “European Musical Activities in North American before 1620,” The Musical Quarterly 70, no. 1 (Winter 1984): 89–93. See also Nicholas E. Tawa, “Songs of the Early Nineteenth Century Part 1: Early Song Lyrics and Coping with Life,” American Music 20, no. 4 (Winter 2002): 361–380.

(7.) See Mark Noll, In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015); and David Stowe, How Sweet the Sound: Music in the Spiritual Lives of Americans (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 26–27.

(8.) See Stephan A. Marini, Sacred Song in America: Religion, Music, and Public Culture (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2003).

(9.) Stowe, How Sweet the Music, 29, 38.

(10.) See Ann Taves, Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).

(11.) John R. Bowen, Religions in Practice: An Approach to the Anthropology of Religion, 6th ed. (New York: Routledge, 2013), 159.

(12.) Stowe, How Sweet the Music, 255.

(13.) Hatch, The Democratization of American Religion (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 146.

(14.) See James R. Nix, Early Advent Singing (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1994).

(15.) Callahan, The Talking Book: African-Americans and the Bible (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 48.

(16.) Callahan, The Talking Book, 82.

(17.) See Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014); Curtis Evans, The Burden of Black Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); Samuel Floyd, The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); and Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).

(18.) Candy Gunther Brown, “Practice,” in Religion in American History, eds. Amanda Porterfield and John Corrigan (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 308.

(19.) David Chidester, Authentic Fakes: Religion and American Popular Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 30.

(20.) See Kiri Miller, “‘First Sing the Notes’: Oral and Written Traditions in Sacred Harp Transmission,” American Music 11, no. 1 (Spring 1993): 90–111.

(21.) “Songs of Women’s Suffrage.” Online Text. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

(22.) See John Patrick Diggins, The Lost Soul of American Politics: Virtue, Self-Interest, and the Foundations of Liberalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986); Frances Fitzgerald, Cites on a Hill: A Brilliant Exploration of Visionary Communities Remaking the American Dream (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987); and Donald E. Pitzer, America’s Communal Utopias (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

(23.) See Colleen McDannell, The Spirit of Vatican II: A History of Catholic Reform in America (New York: Basic Books, 2011); Robert A. Orsi, ed. Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999); and R. G. Robins, Pentecostalism in America (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2010).

(24.) See Ter Ellingson, “Music and Religion,” in The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 9, ed. Mircea Eliade (New York: Macmillan, 1993), 163–172.

(25.) See Juanita Karpf, “If It’s in the Bible, It Can’t Be Opera: William Bradbury’s Esther, the Beautiful Queen, in Defiance of Genre,” American Music 29, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 1–34; and Jacklin Bolton Stopp, “James C. Johnson and the American Secular Cantata,” American Music 28, no. 2 (Summer 2010): 228–250.

(26.) For a useful overview, see LeRoy Moore Jr., “The Spiritual: Soul of Black Religion,” American Quarterly 23, no. 5 (December 1971): 658–676. See also Jerma Jackson, “Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Evolution of Gospel Music,” in Religion in the American South: Protestants and Others in History and Culture, eds. Beth Barton Schweiger and Donald G. Mathews (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

(27.) See Don Cusic, The Sound of Light: A History of Gospel Music (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1990).

(28.) William Ferris, Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 191–192.

(29.) See David Stowe, No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

(30.) See Robert M. Shelton, “Doing Theology with Willie Nelson,” in Jon Michael Spencer, ed. Theomusicology: A Special Issue of Black Sacred Music, vol. 8, ed. Jon Michael Spencer (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), 254–264.

(31.) Charles Reagan Wilson, “A Larger View: Self-Taught Art, the Bible, and Southern Creativity,” in Coming Home! Self-Taught Artists, the Bible, and the American South, ed. Carol Crown (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004), 81. See also John Hayes, “Religion and Country Music,” Religion Compass 4, no. 4 (April 2010): 245–252.

(32.) See Jason C. Bivins, Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

(33.) See Eileen Luhr, Witnessing Suburbia: Conservatives and Christian Youth Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

(34.) Sarah M. Pike’s For the Wild (unpublished manuscript) vividly engages the intersection of these scenes.

(35.) See Andrew Beaujon, Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2007); and Shawn David Young, Gray Sabbath: Jesus People USA, the Evangelical Left, and the Evolution of Christian Rock (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

(36.) See Monica R. Miller and Anthony B. Pinn, eds. The Hip Hop and Religion Reader (New York: Routledge, 2014).

(37.) Mac McCann, “The Best Bible Verse-Checks in the History of Rap,” On Faith website.

(38.) See Charise Cheney, “Representin’ God: Rap, Religion, and the Politics of Culture,” The North Star 3, no. 1 (Fall 1999), 1–12.

(39.) David L. Moody, Political Melodies in the Pews? The Voice of the Black Christian Rapper in the Twenty-First Century Church (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012), 4.

(40.) Michael D. McNally, Ojibwe Singers: Hymns, Grief, and a Native American Culture in Motion (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2009).

(41.) Guy Beck, ed. Sacred Sound: Experiencing Music in World Religions (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2006); and Lawrence E. Sullivan, ed., Enchanting Powers: Music in the World’s Religions (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).

(42.) Philip V. Bohlman, Edith L. Blumhofer, and Maria M. Chow, eds. Music in American Religious Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). See Stephen Marini, Sacred Song in America: Religion, Music, and Public Culture (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2003); Gerardo Marti, Worship across the Racial Divide: Religious Music and the Multiracial Congregation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); and David Stowe, How Sweet the Sound: Music in the Spiritual Lives of Americans (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).

(43.) Samuel Floyd, The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); and Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).

(44.) See George Lipsitz, Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990); Graham Lock, Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000); Lerone Martin, Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African-American Religion (New York: New York University Press, 2014); Ronald Radano, Lying Up a Nation: Race and Black Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); and Guthrie P. Ramsey, Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

(45.) See, in the order of references made, Monica R. Miller and Anthony B. Pinn, eds., The Hip Hop and Religion Reader (New York: Routledge, 2014); Eileen Luhr, Witnessing Suburbia: Conservatives and Christian Youth Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009); Stowe, No Sympathy for the Devil; Young, Gray Sabbath; Bivins, Spirits Rejoice!; Hayes, “Religion and Country Music,” 245–252; Ray Allen, Singing in the Spirit: African-American Sacred Quartets in New York City (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991); and Cusic, The Sound of Light.