I was delighted that so many people (about 100) turned up for my talk on Friday 24th March and that we were able to share not only in my Musical Mystery Tour but in the Gospel Sing-a-Long with the Praise Band afterwards.The journey I took traced the origins of ‘popular songs’ from C18th & C19th hymns through to the ‘pop charts’ of today, highlighting the spiritual influences along the way and the religious significance of the lyrics of many chart hits of the past 50-60 years.
I talked about AMAZING GRACE and ABIDE WITH ME, the first hymns to ‘cross-over’ into popular culture, and the way hymns, folk & work songs evolved into Negro Spirituals like SWING LOW SWEET CHARIOT as the slaves in the American South sought to deal with their misery & suffering.As sound recording developed in the early C20th, music in all its forms and styles became available to a mass market and the true age of popular music began. Public interest in ‘pop’ music mushroomed after the Second World War prompted by the easy availability of portable radios & record players, juke boxes in cafes & coffee bars and the 45 RPM record. This led to an insatiable demand for new songs – many of which were re-workings or re-inventions of old ones. It is difficult to believe today, but the British ‘Pop’ Charts of the 1950s & 60s contained songs like I BELIEVE and YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE – unfortunately the use of this song as the Liverpool Football Club anthem has meant the religious significance of the words has been lost. In the 1960s the Civil Rights struggle of black people in America inspired a whole new generation of songwriters – most notably Bob Dylan – to write songs like WE SHALL OVERCOME and BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND. The most poignant of these songs was for me A CHANGE GONNA COME by Sam Cooke. No one knows what Heaven is like but pop music has done its best to equate it with the highest aspirations of human love with songs like 3 STEPS TO HEAVEN, SPIRIT IN THE SKY, HIGHER & HIGHER AND ANGELS (Robbie Williams) – Do you believe in angels? I wonder how many people realised what he was actually singing about at the time? Thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice, the Bible has been the inspiration for Musicals like JOSEPH & HIS AMAZING TECHNICOLOUR DREAMCOAT and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR with spell binding songs like I DON’T KNOW HOW TO LOVE HIM. Religion has also infused pop songs with Mystery & Mysticism, just listen to songs like EVERYTHING IS BEAUTIFUL & MY SWEET LORD. At the root of all this is Gospel Music and pop music can provide many fantastic examples of this like AMEN, O HAPPY DAY & AMERICAN TRILOGY - and Elvis wasn’t the only famous pop star to believe in Divine Intervention, just listen to the Beatles on LET IT BE. What we all need in times of trouble is support, and pop music has given us a wealth of wonderful material here. Just listen to I CAN’T STAND UP ALONE, LEAN ON ME, PUT YOUR HAND IN THE HAND, PUT A LITTLE LOVE IN YOUR HEART, BRIDGE OVER TROUBLE WATER, THE WIND BENEATH MY WINGS & YOU GOT THE LOVE – and feel the spiritual power of those lyrics! At the end of the day, we all hope that Jesus will guide us safely to our Heavenly Home and 2 songs in particular express the sentiment about that journey better than any others: I’M ON MY WAY TO A BETTER PLACE & PEOPLE GET READY. Many pop stars in America had their origins in the Church and were heavily criticised for ‘crossing over’ and playing the ‘Devil’s music’. A number like Little Richard & Al Green returned to the Church as Ministers and many more ‘saw the light’ in later years. In Britain, our own Cliff Richard has managed to have a long and successful musical career and maintain his faith, and in the words of one of his songs “Why should the Devil have all the good music?” Well by playing you all this spiritual pop music (all of which has featured in the pop charts over the years) I hope I have been able to prove that he doesn’t! And to prove that God’s love and inspiration are still with us in popular song, I ‘completed the circle’ by playing Neil Diamond’s 2008 recording of AMAZING GRACE, written nearly 240 years after John Newton first wrote about it – and what an amazing declaration of faith it is! I hope you enjoyed travelling on this musical journey with me and that you found some true inspiration in the songs that I played. God Bless. Stuart Whittle PS. Thank you Stuart for a very entertaining and informative evening, everyone really enjoyed it and look forward to another one.