In yesteryear, it was common for aspiring church musicians to pursue degrees in church music. Those paths of study included music history…and for good reason. Traditional church music is a descendant of western classical music. For those of us who have studied classical music, we all can attest that we are better at our craft of making and performing music because we have studied the ebbs and flows of music history. Through the lens of a singer: one does not sing Handel like one sings Puccini; one does not sing Bach like Vaughan Williams; one does not sing Schubert like Dvorak. Ultimately, it is only a study of music history that can teach you these things. Show me a great classical musician, and I guarantee that they are a tenacious student of music history.
I believe the same is true in this subset of western music known as rock and roll. The best rock artists of any era were almost always ardent students of rock history. Name almost any great rock band/artist (e.g. the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, etc.), and you will find that they were apprentices in the school of rock history.
Modern worship finds itself squarely within the broad rock and roll tradition (personally, I view modern folk music [i.e. 1960s and beyond], which is where the roots of contemporary worship lay, as a part of the rock and roll tradition). If this is true, and if we are called by God to glorify Him with the best of our skill (Psalm 33:3), then we should take the study of our genre seriously. This may sound outrageous to some, but I believe that if Christian colleges and seminaries are going to offer “worship leader” tracks and degrees, a necessary and fundamental element of that curriculum should be a course or two in the history of rock and roll. Again, music history is a foundational element in sacred music curricula. Why is the history of rock and roll being ignored in these new iterations of church music study? Is it too sacrilegious, because rock and roll is “secular”? Is it too silly because rock and roll isn’t a “real” art form? Hmm…
Given that neither college nor seminary prepared me to understand and appreciate the art form that I find myself immersed in as I lead worship week in and week out, I’ve begun a self-study quest. I picked up some DVDs on the history of rock and roll, which were mildly helpful, but gave too much attention to the depraved lifestyles of rockers (which is NOT a good reason NOT to study rock history, by the way…the debauchery of classical music composers and musicians was just as dark*) and not enough attention to the music itself. I plowed through a third of Rolling Stone’s history of rock and roll, but a lot of the same emphases emerged. Furthermore, it wasn’t cohesive, but piecemeal and disjointed in its approach. I’m now 100 pages into Joe Stuessy and Scott Lipscomb’s Rock and Roll: Its History and Stylistic Development, and I’ve found this to be the most satisfying treatment. I’ve begun collecting albums of key figures in rock history. (Muddy Waters arrived in the mail two days ago.) I’m probably going to have to get a book or two on the blues and dive into that, as well. I’m piecing it together and learning as I go. And as I’ve done it, I’ve found my leading enriched, my understanding deepened, and my artistry improved.
Maybe this post piques some interest in some of you, and perhaps we can collaborate and dream up a curriculum or syllabus to propose to a seminary or Christian college with a worship degree or emphasis. In any regard, it’s becoming clearer to me that, so long as the prevailing form of modern worship is rock, every worship leader should study rock history.
*Along these lines, I wonder if some of the negative impact of our fundamentalist roots as evangelicals leads us to devalue the study of rock tradition or consider it an evil pursuit altogether. Hopefully we’re at a stage in our own history where we realize that we can, in wisdom and maturity, discerningly sift good from bad in such a pursuit, so as to not throw the baby out with the bathwater.