Religion, Rock, and LSD: A Brief History of Jesus Freaks

These days, Christian music and pop culture are so deeply intertwined, it’s easy to assume that it’s a marriage tested by time. In fact, it’s a relatively new phenomenon, and like many things that are now a part of our society’s status quo—the internet, meditation, health food—it reaches back to the hippie revolution. As scholar and writer Erik Davis points out in the liner notes to the Wanted: Jesus Christ compilation, “Many acidheads had ‘Christ trips’ in the sixties. Some went on to become Jesus People: hippie born-agains whose faith offered ‘One Way’ out of the chaos of the times. While rejecting the hedonism of the hippies, these long-haired converts also epitomized the countercultural dream of personal transformation through ecstatic and collective spiritual encounters.”

Jesus People—or Jesus Freaks, as they proudly called themselves—initially were a California-based movement. As a result, their formative sounds are rooted in the Golden State’s utopian mix of wispy folk-pop and psychedelia. Larry Norman’s 1971 anthem “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” is a fragile meditation laced with strings and the singer/songwriter’s Neil Young-like cry. On the other hand, Agape’s “Wouldn’t It Be A Drag/Change Of Heart” is fiery, funky acid rock packed with soul-jarring organ and smoking guitars. Especially sublime is Azitis’ “Judgement Day,” which boasts Byrds-style harmonies, jazzy flute, and a freak-out middle section drenched in wah-wah.

America’s older Evangelicals were perplexed, troubled, and often hostile to far-out hippie preachers like Lonnie Frisbee and their shaggy followers, who tended to eschew traditional worship and living for natural settings and communal homes (this issue is covered in great depth in Larry Eskridge’s engrossing tome, God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America). Nevertheless, over the course of the ’70s, the two groups did become one. This evolution is mirrored in how Jesus music gradually became less eccentric and weird and more professional and mainstream. By the decade’s end, the movement was churning out polished hits like “You Put This Love In My Heart,” a deliciously infectious tune from soft-rock tunesmith Keith Green, and “At The Cross,” from Maranatha! Music—slick, blue-eyed praise featuring the voices of Harlan Rogers and future solo star Kelly Willard.

Nowadays, a good deal of the early Jesus music is only known to those older converts who were a part of the movement or to hardcore record collectors who specialize in hippie obscurities. But it has to be noted that the massive, global industry now labeled contemporary Christian music—or CCM—certainly wouldn’t exist were it not for the long-haired visionaries found on this playlist.

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