In My Time of Dying: Rock Music, the Devil, and Tritones

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I decided to make this blog post about my specific music taste because it has such a bad reputation, and for good reasons. That I won’t deny, and yet, many of these reasons as to why it’s so looked down upon are just primarily misconceived notions. Others however are not. They in fact bring a little bit of music theory into these notions, and with a lot of thought, I’m going to try and explain Rock Music, the Devil, and Tritones.

Back in the Medieval times, we are all aware of those tedious church modes that I certainly still don’t understand except the basic concept of them. There was one mode, however, that was not allowed to be played in the church, or used to make music for the church, and that was the Locrain mode in which the tritone was a defining feature of. Considering that tritones were not allowed to be played in the church (probably because they sound ugly more than anything) they were finally considered ominous, evil…”Satan’s scale.”

Fast forward out of the Medieval times to Mississippi in the early 1930’s. It was a very hard time in America, especially for African American’s and people of color. During this period, blues music was rising derived from the pain of the south. In the midst of blues guitar players was a young man named Robert Johnson. Many considered Johnson to be the worst guitar player’s they ever heard. They’d often tell him, “Boy, put that down…” until one day Johnson left, and returned playing tunes on the guitar like no blues player had heard before. Most often wonder how Johnson had gotten so good at guitar over night. To many, it’s a mystery, but to others, they claim Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to play, and be the best player there ever was. For what it was worth, he was, but ultimately, songs like Crossroads with lyrics like, “I went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees. Asked the Lord above for mercy, ‘save me if you please.'” or even Hellhound on My Trail began to hit the studio, and phonographs of blues music listeners. Why were these songs written? Some may say that his time was coming and he knew it. He had sold his soul, and out of his fame, it was his time. Robert Johnson was the first to join the “27 Club,” yet considered one of the most influential guitar players ever, for out of his music was born what we know today as Rock and Roll.

It has come a long way since the blues days of the early 1930s, however, the legend of selling one’s soul to the devil hasn’t been shaken off. Many people believe that today’s rock music is the reason why it’s so associated with the devil with all the screaming, and constant (and ugly in my opinion) “chug-a-lug” guitar riffs. That I hardly even consider a branch off of Rock music. Rock music has always had such an ugly reputation. Kids were often told to turn down that little Richard, that Chuck Berry, those Beatles, dirty Led Zeppelin, satanic Black Sabbath, evil Kiss and so on. Rock to many was loud noise they didn’t want to hear, to others in the more conservative era, the devil’s message. Because, yes, with lyrics like “Back in the classroom, open your books
Keep up the teacher don’t know how mean she looks!” and “I wanna hold your hand,” are so evil. One may think that I’m over looking that dirty Led Zeppelin from their most famous song about a pied piper leading a lady to the Stairway to Heaven, or that scary Black Sabbath song about seeing a dark entity in the night that freaked one of the guys out, but really, that’s as bad as rock music gets concerning the devil. Anything else people may think is just a misconceived notion really.

Now, is this music edifying? I don’t think so. Many songs promoted things that may just be considered immoral, but I feel like that can be overlooked because so does pop, and it’s not essentially considered the Devil’s music. I’d like to call Christian rock out to the stand to testify. Rock music is considered evil because of the sound above anything else, and surprisingly, those evil tritones. Black Sabbath was so bold to make their first song ever released and use a tritone as the primary interval heard in the “riff” through out the song. The argument can be made that Christian rock’s lyrics glorify God, and yet I won’t get passed the fact that it is deliberately rock music using those same evil sounds and putting “glorifying lyrics over it.” I’ve literally heard this argument over Country music, pop music and what have you. I don’t care for the argument because I can knock it out with various Rock songs that certainly claim God as authoritative.

In My Time of Dying (as seen in the title) is my prime example today which certainly does claim God as a deity of authority, and a savior, and yet the if someone who considers Rock the Devil’s music, they will immediately put it off when they hear Led Zeppelin’s rendition of it due to the heavy rock sound. What someone might not know is it was originally written by Blind Willy Johnson, a blues player who probably went to church on Sunday morning, and played the song in the evening. It was then covered by the Jewish Bob Dylan, and finally Led Zeppelin. It’s all based on sound. To also knock off the whole “but if you play it backwards” if you play pop music backwards it’s just as creepy and has a “hidden message” as well. It all cracks me up.

To conclude, I’m not trying to convince people that Rock music is not the Devil’s music, but to consider, what components really make music God’s and the World’s.

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3 thoughts on “In My Time of Dying: Rock Music, the Devil, and Tritones

  1. Very interesting blog post, Josie. These are really important questions to wrestle with, I think. What exactly is it that makes some music morally good and others morally bad? Lots of different answers are given by lots of different people, and it’s not clear. The whole tritone thing is interesting, but certainly wouldn’t fly now. Pretty much any type of music after the Renaissance period features tritones all over the place (at least any time there’s a V7 chord!). But, it strikes me that any purely musical standard anyone could craft would be faulty in the sense that it would exclude music thought to be “good” and include music thought to be “bad.” Of course, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t standards that should be applied to our music making, but I think we should be very thoughtful about them. Thanks for sharing!

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