“Cosmic American Music”: Religiosity and Old-Time America

By: Joshua Kalin Busman (University of North Carolina, Pembroke) //

In August 1968, California rock band The Byrds released their sixth full-length recording, an album of mostly country-western cover songs called Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Up to Sweetheart’s release, The Byrds had been primarily associated with two important musical styles of the 1960s. Their first two records drew on the aesthetic and political sensibilities of the American folk music revival, marrying simple musical textures and song forms with politically progressive lyrical messages. The title tracks from their first two albums, Mr. Tambourine Man (1965) and Turn! Turn! Turn! (1965), were written by Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger respectively, both iconic figures within the folk music movement. In early 1966, The Byrds began writing and recording in a new direction, incorporating elements of psychedelic rock experimentalism that would characterize their next three records. In particular, “Eight Miles High” from Fifth Dimension (1966) captures this experimentation by incorporating elements of Indian classical music and free jazz alongside its psychedelically influenced lyrics.

During the recording of their fifth album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1967), two of the band’s founding members left the group, leaving Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman to rebuild the band more-or-less from scratch. Filling the gap left by David Crosby—who left The Byrds to form folk supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young—was Gram Parsons, a 21-year-old singer, songwriter, and Harvard dropout from central Florida. Parsons was an advocate for a peculiar blend of country, rock, folk, and blues that he called “Cosmic American Music,” and his musical agenda quickly dominated The Byrds work on their new album. The recordings that eventually formed Sweetheart of the Rodeo culled repertoire from traditional American ballads, classic country songs by Merle Haggard and Gene Autry, country-inflected tunes from Bob Dylan, and original tunes in a country-western style by Parsons.

In light of the politically-progressive music of their first two folk albums and the psychedelic experimentation of the next three, some of the songs on Sweetheart undoubtedly came to Byrds fans as something of a shock. Many of the songs they chose to cover on the album carry strong traditional Christian messages that were seemingly out of sync with the band’s previous output. In particular, one might consider their cover of the Louvin Brothers’ 1959 song “The Christian Life.”

“The Christian Life” by The Louvin Brothers

Given the overtly confessional lyrics of the song, particularly the refrain of “I like the Christian life,” one might think it natural to ask about the personal, spiritual commitments of the individual band members involved in this recording. The lyrics are first person and discuss a robust sense of fundamentalist Christian faith. Did members of The Byrds experience some kind of conversion in the eight months between the release of The Notorious Byrd Brothers and the release of Sweetheart of the Rodeo? Is this song a testament to their newfound faith? Considering the contents of the rest of the album—as well as the career trajectories of all the band’s members—this seems unlikely. Answering the question also presents a nearly impossible task for music historians. It is extraordinarily difficult to determine the internal life of someone else in the first place, particularly someone you’ve never met and/or someone who may have died several decades (much less centuries) ago.

This is where a “religious listening” perspective is particularly helpful. Rather than thinking about the internal “spiritual” commitments of the band members, let’s consider the external “religious” forces surrounding The Byrds’s choice to include a song like “The Christian Life” on their album. With the release of Sweetheart, The Byrds were attempting to establish themselves as an authentically country-western band after five albums of progressive folk and psychedelia. In addition to being a song about the merits of a pious lifestyle, “The Christian Life” was also originally written and recorded by the Louvin Brothers, an important country music duo from the 1950s and early 1960s. By putting a song like that on the album, especially alongside their covers of Merle Haggard and Gene Autry, The Byrds established themselves as familiar with the country-western tradition and comfortable with its repertoire. In this case, the evocation of “old time religion” is a way of reinforcing the rootsy Americana aesthetic the band was putting forward rather than the internal lives of individual band members.

And, of course, The Byrds are not the only example of this type of “religious” music making. Following psychedelic experimentation on Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967), The Rolling Stones released a rootsy follow-up called Beggars Banquet (1968), which included a cover of Reverend Robert Wilkins gospel-blues number “Prodigal Son.”

“Prodigal Son” by The Rolling Stones

Again, the song’s lyrics are a fairly straightforward expression of biblical piety, but the presumed intent of the song is not to announce The Rolling Stones’s newfound faith in Jesus. Indeed, the most important aspect of the song for The Rolling Stones was not its Christian subject, but rather its connection with a black blues musician from Mississippi. One might also look at the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 triple-LP Will the Circle be Unbroken?, which included a host of gospel classics, often performed with the original artists, and seems to have been a way to rebrand the group after several unsuccessful albums with the band’s “electric” line-up (see in particular the iconic title track or the band’s version of Hank Williams’ “I Saw The Light”).

As each of these cases show, the use of religious language in music is not always a straightforward analogue for the internal spiritual commitments of the person singing. Markers of religious identity are often very complex and multifaceted, carrying a host of information about race, class, geography, and history alongside their expressions of piety. Understanding the ways that these religious markers are used in their myriad ways will enrich our understanding of religious musics from all over the world.

For Discussion

Compare and contrast two performances of the song “Peace Train” written by singer-songwriter Cat Stevens: the first from a concert tour in 1976, and the second from a Nobel Peace Prize event in 2006. In between the two events, Stevens underwent a conversion to Islam and dropped his original stage name in favor of a new moniker, Yusuf Islam. Given that both performances consist of largely identical musical and lyrical materials, how does the religious frame of each provide a different reading of the song? What is the intended meaning of the song in each context? Why might Yusuf Islam have chosen to resurrect this particular song from his pre-conversion career?

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