Religion permeates American music. Gospel music is a well-known example, rooted, in part, in African-American communities seeking freedom. The blues and jazz drew part of their identity from it. Various other musical genres are based on the European Protestant heritage, notably on the hymns and psalters composed in the early days of the Reformation. They inspire some of the hymns presented here in two-minute covers.
There are of course great classics such as Amazing Grace or Go down Moses. One of the first American composers in history, James Lyon (1735-1794) is featured with his hymn The Lord Descended (Psalm 18), as well as Johnny Cash or Joan Baez, who covers a Bob Dylan song denouncing injustice, With God on Our Side. Contemporary Christian music has not been forgotten: What a Beautiful Name is a most recent hit.
The Lord Descended (James Lyon) – 1548
Singing hymns and psalms was the most common way of making music in the early days of the United States, with the European Protestant repertoire and choral singing still being the main inspiration. Congregationalist James Lyon (1735-1794) is credited with having taken up a hymn from 1548 putting into music Psalm 18, particularly these words: ” He bowed the heavens also, and came down: and darkness was under his feet”. Lyon was one of the very first American composers.
Amazing Grace (John Newton) – 1773This hymn is one of the most famous in the United States. Its words were written in 1779 by a slave trader who renounced his past after a shipwreck from which he miraculously escaped unharmed. As the title indicates, the author is moved by the surprising grace of God who saved him, despite his behavior. The melody takes up a later popular tune. Aretha Franklin masterfully interpreted this piece and made it one of the most popular tunes of the 20th century.
Simple Gifts, (Shaker Dance Song 19e siècle) – 1848
This song originates in the Shaker community, a branch of the Quaker family from which it takes most of its traits: strict gender equality, the practice of non-violence and sometimes shaking during prayer. Shakers would dance to express the outpouring of the Spirit, as is suggested by the lyrics from Simple Gifts. This song is so popular that it was performed at the inauguration of Presidents Reagan, Clinton and Obama.
Joshua Fit The Battle of Jericho (Mahalia Jackson) – 1865
This famous Negro Spiritual hymn was composed by slaves in the middle of the 19th century. The allusion to the victorious battle of Joshua, leader of the Hebrews, against the walls of the city of Jericho, which crumbled at the sound of trumpets, refers to the destruction of the walls of slavery. Various great performers have covered this tune, including the great Mahalia Jackson. The Spirituals composed by African-Americans blend African and European musical traditions.
How Can I Keep From Singing (Robert Lowry) – 1868
This famous song from the American repertoire has long been credited to the Quaker community, but a historian demonstrated that at the time of its composition, Quakers would not sing at church. In fact, they are rather known for their mostly silent services. But its melody is so pleasant that is has often been used for non-Christian songs that would replace the name “Christ” with the term “truth”.
Go Down Moses (Paul Robeson) – 1958
Go down Moses is the most famous of the Negro-Spiritual hymns, which were part of the slaves’ oral tradition and helped them endure their burden. It alludes to the Exodus in the Old Testament: Moses asks Pharaoh to let his people go. It would become the rallying cry generations of African-American slaves for freedom. “Go down Moses” was even used as a password by runaway slaves fleeing from the South towards the North of the country.
It was Jesus (Johnny Cash) – 1959
Johnny Cash (1932 – 2003) was one of country music’s most important singers and composers. The grandson of an itinerant preacher, he was very religious in his youth and knew the Bible very well. The success he encountered (with more than 90 million records sold) led him to an excessive lifestyle that he tried to fight by going back to church. He composed ” It was Jesus ” in 1959: six catchy and balanced verses which are enough to tell the whole destiny of Christ.
With God on Our Side (Joan Baez) – 1963
Bob Dylan wrote this song to denounce violence committed in the name of God. From the massacres of Native Americans to Nazi crimes and the Cold War, his targets are numerous but it was not until 1980 that the Nobel Prize for Literature winner added the Vietnam War to his list of “holy wars”. By performing this song as a duet in 1963, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan came out both artistically and sentimentally. It was not to last but both would continue singing for peace and justice.
What a Beautiful Name (Hillsong Worship) – 2015
Christian rock music developed considerably at the end of last century. English language evangelical churches have seized this musical genre to attract new generations of believers. There is a certain international appeal of this type of Christian music, as demonstrated by What a Beautiful Name, which was composed by the Australian Hillsong Worship team. It was awarded two prestigious Dove Awards by the American Gospel Music Association.