1.2 The New Religion, pp 12-18.
Lori Taylor, “The Politicized American Legend of the Singing Hero.”
Entertainment has, in many ways, become the religion of the age. The evolution of the singing hero from Joe Hill forward gives a clue to the origin of the tendency to look for a musical messiah. The stories of these singing heroes have become the sacred legends of their people, the hero being “the official sacred power of the society [that] resolves the conflict in the plot” (Jason 1872: 135). This emphasis on leaders and heroes, should not detract from the role of every individual in the movement, but to a certain extent, the individual gives up identity for the group—group identity is then attached (accurately or not) to a person who embodies the group ideal.
Journalist Jeff Smith recounts his search for the source of the Seeger magic that has not reached him by mechanical means.
As one who never thought a great deal of Seeger’s voice on record, I was probably more interested than most in discovering the source of the renowned “magic.” And I found, as number followed number, with the audience singing lustily on the slightest provocation, that the more analytical I became, the further I withdrew from the answer. But as soon as I relaxed and let Seeger take over, I was spellbound. The answer, I believe, is that Seeger is that phenomenon, a real popular—as distinct from “pop”—artist. He doesn’t get up on a stand and perform to you—he stands among you and you express yourself through him (Smith 1959: 13).
What Smith writes quickly and passes by cuts through phenomenon and performance to the point at which the power of Pete Seeger touched him, the point when he “relaxed and let Seeger take over”—he allowed himself the mystic absorption typical of religious experience. The singing heroes have power over their audience because each member of their audience lets them. This account of Bruce Springsteen in concert describes the common experience of every person who has fallen under the spell of a singing hero, but not just the audience is absorbed in the experience.
He grabbed the microphone and you almost believed he’d forgotten where he was, and wailed into it and you’d almost forgotten where you were. And then you remembered, and looked around, and the faces were transfixed. And you quit worrying and fell back in (Knobler 1975: 35).
Singing heroes are seen by many as prophets, people with peculiar insight worthy of reverence. “God is speaking in every age through His prophets and He speaks in the language that the people understand. Today some of God’s prophets are found among the popular folk-rock singers.” This perception is not so unusual in itself, but the writer is a Methodist Minister who played rock music for his sermon one Sunday. He compared Biblical prophets and folk rock prophets, discussed the effects of the sermon on his congregation, and interpreted several songs he felt were particularly prophetic: “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Sounds of Silence,” “We Shall Overcome,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” among them (Justice 1960: 13).
When the saints and prophets of a group are attacked, even questioned, members of the group fight back. Irwin Sonenfield, a professor, wrote of his making disparaging comments about Bob Dylan to his college students, expecting some kind of intellectual response. He witnessed a religious fervor that surprised him, until he took the time to analyze what was happening among his students in their social context.
Dylan is, after all, an important figure, not for any outstanding musical, literary, or sociological contribution, but rather for what he symbolizes for a substantial number of the young. In this case, as in so many others, the symbol is more important than the fact. What people believe to be true is often considerably more significant than what is demonstrably true (1973: 27).
Audiences go beyond accepting music religiously—followers expect singing heroes to be their messiah(s). In reporting on her visit to Joe Hill, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn implied a great deal in a few words. “I had never met Joe Hill before I went to see him in jail. He was tall, slender, very blond with deep blue eyes. He was 31 years old—‘the age when Jesus was crucified,’ he said to me” (1955: 192).
Singing heroes take on the messianic role, though not always so willingly as Joe Hill. Bob Dylan “knew people were making him an idol; that thousands of men and women, young and old, felt their lives entwined with his because they saw him as a mystic, a messiah who would lead them to salvation” (Scaduto 1971: 224). The examples of writer, singers, fans, and editors referring to Dylan as messiah are legion. An actress Dylan spent time with in Perth, Australia, spoke in an interview of her messiah:
I came to believe that Dylan was Christ revisited. . . . I felt that what he had to say about living and communication with other people was the truest, most honest Christ-like thing I’ve ever heard. I began to feel that Dylan was sacrificing himself in his whole philosophy, his thinking. That he would eventually die or that something horrible would happen to him. . . . I know he didn’t want to think himself any sort of prophet, or that important, but he knew other people thought it of him and he was afraid of it. So was Christ. He was afraid of it, too (Scaduto 1971: 238-9).
Dylan sang in familiar language of ideas and issues that touched people, giving his words immediacy in his time, as expressed in this letter to the editor of Melody Maker:
Bob Dylan (and not, as previously reported, Jesus of Nazareth) is the living messiah of today’s young people. Dylan calls his parables poems. We term them songs. But they are everything: truths. They allow us disciples to catch some glimpses of existence. You can learn more about life from Dylan than from 10 Jesuses. Because he is speaking to US, living here today (Payne 1970: 21).
Bruce Springsteen fans are openly religious in their devotion to the musician. Perhaps this can be traced to what Dave Marsh called Mike Appel’s (Springsteen’s manager’s) “bad attitude,” which he spread from the beginning of Springsteen’s professional career (1973). “’Remember,’ Appel told a new CBS employee, ‘Bruce Springsteen isn’t a rock act. He’s a religion’” (1979: 58). The devotion of fans echoed Dylan’s fans. From a letter to the editor of Crawdaddy: “Re: Springsteen. Listen only to his songs and watch his eyes, you just might see the Prince of Peace returning” (Boykin 1973: 6).
Irwin Sonenfield concluded that music provides the source of absolute conviction formerly found in conventional religion; his students displayed the fervor and the certainty of fundamentalists. In many ways, the music and the politics of this group have become religion.
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Lori Taylor, “The Politicized American Legend of the Singing Hero: Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen.” M.A. thesis, American Civilization. The George Washington University, 1990.