Jesus People Music, Vol . 1

On November 27, Aquarium Drunkard and Org Music present Jesus People Music Vol. 1: The End is at Hand. Culled from the BlackForrestry’s AD mixtapes of obscure ’60s and ’70s Jesus People psych, rock, folk, and country, this collection is available only at record stores on Record Store Black Friday, limited 1,000 copies electric blue colored vinyl. In advance of this collection’s release, we’re presenting its liner notes, written by curators Josh Swartwood and Doug Cooper with Jason P. Woodbury.

Jesus. People. Music.

That was the sequence of things. First the faith, experiencing a revival in the Summer of Love. Then, people gathered in song, raising their voices over the rock & roll sounds that came naturally to them. All along the West Coast, then throughout the country, tiny fires of the Holy Spirit began catching among longhaired youths. Their fellow hippies labeled these countercultural Christians “Jesus Freaks,” but before long, Jesus People were self-identifying using the term.

Religious questing was routine in the burgeoning Aquarian Age. All manner of spiritual seeking was permitted; the doors were wide open. Psychedelics were expanding worldviews, broadening young heads’ perceptions of consciousness, the universe, and their own souls. While many hippies turned to the Eastern traditions and the occult, some began examining Christianity from far out and deeply personal angles. Here was a Jewish rover who preached cosmic love, hung out with the unwashed, turned water into wine, and was executed by the state for challenging the status quo—only to rise again in psychedelic glory? Dig it!      

It didn’t take long for followers to begin combining the holy with the heavy. In 1969, high school journalist Joyce Tracewell reviewed Mind Garage’s revolutionary ‘Electric Mass’—the first-ever Christian Rock worship service that would eventually tour the United States, stating:

“Sun shines through stained glass and colors bounce until the kaleidoscopic vision is suddenly shattered by incredibly swelling music. Smiling musicians with flowery clothes, jeans, long hair, beards and sunglasses play deliberate alien music, the kind that makes you shiver. It fills the room to the ceiling, pushing against the walls. They sing in voices that should have belonged to Druids or Incas, or Gypsies under a night sky, and you see Jesus smiling at them. When you leave you feel somebody has been dissecting your soul and everything is clearer.”

The need for clarity was clear. Things had grown murky. The Manson murders, the bloody chaos of Altamont, the deaths at Kent State, the breakup of The Beatles…the utopian hopes of the hippie ideal were slowly beginning to morph into a bad trip, leaving many feeling duped. You can hear that sense of dissolution in the music, in songs like “Death In The City” by Houston’s Hidden Manna: 

“Lately everybody seems so restless/Everywhere I look they are bored/People trying to wrestle with the madness/Man looks up at me says, ‘What’s the score?’/I know that the world is full of darkness/I have felt the pain that people share/I have found a joy in my savior/At the offering of my prayer.”

Earthen Vessel, another Jesus People band from Michigan, expressed similar sentiments in Life Everlasting:

“I’m so tired of grabbing for false hopes/I need strength in existing/Christ appearing, reaches out for me/‘Follow Me, I’m your meaning/I give strength no power can upend/I give life everlasting.’”

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, Christian leaders had mostly denounced rock music, holding record bonfires and condemning the lasciviousness of Elvis and the throngs of screaming young girls clamoring for The Beatles. Churches weren’t places for outsiders or freaks and loud music. But unlike many mainline churches, Jesus People communities welcomed wanderers, offering even the most lowly a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. 

“I had left the church by the time I was 17,” says Mike Messer of the Spokane-born The Wilson McKinley, who’d become one of the most popular Jesus People rock groups, turning down reported major label deals in favor of their ministry. “I was totally unacceptable. I was in a band, I had grown my hair a little bit, you know, and I could never be ‘saved.’ They were always trying to ‘get me saved’ but I played rock & roll. I was honest about who I was.” 

Sideburns and amps were not only permitted in the movement, they were embraced. Iconography and gestures bloomed, with the Greek ichthys or “Jesus fish” becoming a standard fixture on jewelry and bumper stickers, and the widespread adoption of the “One Way” sign: a raised index finger pointed upward. 

Word got out that hippies were welcome and the movement grew. House churches sprang up, leading to spontaneous oceanside baptisms, sidewalk meetings, homespun street mags, and coffee house collectives. In 1972, a U.S. News and World Report story noted that “Suddenly it was hip to be holy. It was hip to get high on Jesus.” 

Music was at the core of the wave, a means by which to convey a message of acceptance and often, apocalyptic prophesy. Not all Jesus People adhered to precisely the same doctrine, but it was easy to feel like the world was ending in those days—society was in flux, attitudes were morphing, and a cataclysmic rupture seemed close at hand.

“We once played a place called the Fire Escape,” says James Krabill of Rebirth, who united their Mennonite pacifism and protest studies with spiritual folk rock and found a willing audience of Jesus People at the club in Los Angeles. “It was up I don’t how many floors, in a building on the strip. We had to lug all our equipment up there, and when we got up there, the walls were all painted with the fires of Hell—it was fire and brimstone stuff.”

The need to proclaim the End of Days produced some of the most fiery music of the genre—fuzzy hymns backed by cosmic choirs and heavy psych populated with frightening scenes from the Book of Revelation—but the songbook and its lyrical focus was varied, populated with lo-fi loner folk, simmering with yearning hope, and tripped out countrified songs about eternal devotion as well. 

As the ‘70s drifted on, the Jesus People were largely subsumed into mainline Christian culture, but the movement’s legacy lingers on. A quick search engine query for “Xian psych” will reveal that Jesus People Music Vol. 1 presents only a taste of the wider catalog. But don’t fear: the selections here provide enough fuel to light up the joint for more than a good while. No matches required, just drop the needle. The Jesus People and their feral faith music will do the rest. 

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