White Rockers in Search of Soul Salvation

Let it rock, let it roll, Let the Bible Belt come and save my soul

Fifty-eight-year old rock veteran John Mellencamp recorded his latest record live, in three different sacred spaces: a legendary studio (Sun Studios in Memphis), a hotel room in San Antonio (where blues legend Robert Johnson cut some epochal sides in 1936), and, most significantly for this article, the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia.

The first two are hallowed ground of American musical recording history. The third is the oldest black Baptist congregation in the country; so far as I know, it has no history of being used as a backdrop for popular recordings. All three, though, have deep mythical meanings for white Americans in search of authenticity.

For those who could not escape Mellencamp’s older hits—when he still called himself “Cougar”—the rocker’s comeback may not be entirely welcome. For many (well, for me at least), Mellencamp covered much the same ground as Bob Seger. They reached out to mythic territory, Midwestern Bruce Springsteen wannabes. Occasionally, they came within range; if it hadn’t been so overplayed, “Jack and Diane” might be appreciated as the modest Indiana version of Springsteen’s Jersey anthem “Born to Run”—but Mellencamp’s song was more about the aftermath of the myth than the glory in pursuing it: “Life goes on, long after the thrill of living has gone.”

More often, Mellencamp and Seger’s aims exceeded their grasp. Their earnestness, juxtaposed with their modest talents as singers, stamped a shelf life on that music. The irony and distortion of grunge and the boastful fantasies of rap left Jack and Diane and their ilk stuck on classic rock radio; Muzak for a generation.

And commercialism backfired for them. Bob Seger (“Like a Rock”) and John Mellencamp (“This is Our Country”) both got hooked up with Chevrolet, the moribund brand of a failing car company from the dying Rust Belt. The Americana here seemed to be about sticking up for those who had no future. Seger’s was industrial blue collar, Mellencamp’s small-town, but both had little hope of uniting audiences across class lines in the way that Springsteen does. (People don’t show up for Mellencamp and scream out demands for “Small Town,” the way they congregate en masse at Madison Square Garden for Springsteen and demand “Hiding in the Backstreets.”)

And now, for No Better Than This, Mellencamp is following Springsteen and numerous others, in moving into the realm of roots music, or Americana, or “No Depression.” Authenticity could once be conveyed through Springsteen’s “Wall of Sound,” or Cougar’s elaborately recorded and multilayered “Jack and Diane.” Now, authenticity comes often from imitation, from replicating the songs of past masters of American folk song—from recording as Mellencamp did, old-style, live and in mono.

I Ain’t Been Baptized”

The choice of First African as a recording place was somewhat accidental; Mellencamp and his wife have long owned a place on Hilton Head Island, and were familiar with Savannah and the Georgia lowcountry. It was not an obvious choice for this kind of nouveau-roots record, as Sun Studios was. And it was not chosen for some particular sonic quality, as with the gigantic church organ featured on Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible. Rather, Mellencamp follows the easy, just-sittin-around-playing-some-music style, favored by his producer T-Bone Burnett. The aim is for relaxed roots chic.

What does it mean when a place like First African comes to serve as a stand-in for authenticity? The answer lies in the myth that undergirds much of the Americana revival.

On The Tavis Smiley Show, Mellencamp discussed his experiences while recording at the church:

Tavis: What was it like—I know this church in Savannah, the First African Baptist Church. What’s it like recording in that particular locale? This is a place, as you mentioned earlier, that’s part of the Underground Railroad. There are still holes, to this day, holes in the floor. They put those holes in the floor so that the slaves, my ancestors, could breathe and not suffocate underneath the floor where they were being hid out. Tell me about what it was like recording in that place.

Mellencamp: Well, even better than that, I’ll tell you what it was like to be baptized in that place. I have a song that said, “I ain’t been baptized, I ain’t got no church,” and one of the congregation, one of the women, came up and said, “So, John, you’ve not been baptized?” I said, “Well, I was christened when I was born.” She says, “Well, would you like to be baptized here?” And I said, “Yeah.”

So this was unbelievable. This congregation is so unbelievable, it was like a Wednesday and I would say probably 20, 30 people took off work. Because I thought I’d go in there and the minister would baptize Elaine and I. But they had attendants for me. People came and sang. It was like a whole big thing. The kindness of this congregation was I think what makes the church last, because it was so kind and so understanding. I don’t think there’s been a lot of white folks in there, but to be baptized there, I was so honored, Elaine and I were so honored, and the minister was fantastic.

I had a couple of guys, great, big guys like you, wanting to change my clothes. It’s like, “Guys, I can get dressed myself.” (Laughter) But they stood there, they were my attendants. It was part of the deal.

Tavis: That’s how they do it in the black church.

Mellencamp: Yeah, it was great. (Laughter) I wasn’t anticipating it, and it was just absolutely a lovely experience, and the congregation, I can’t say enough nice things about them. As far as recording going on there, there were ghosts all over the place.

The lyrics he refers to are in the song “Each Day of Sorrow”:

Well, I ain’t got baptized, I ain’t got no church
No friend in Jesus and what makes matters worse
I’ve lost myself in the dark
Scared and alone with no love in my heart

It was this tune that inspired Savannah’s church people to offer John his baptism. The characters coming out of his songs seem to need it, too:

I know Jesus, and I know the devil,
They’re both inside of me all the time
This ain’t no picnic that I’m living
Just a resting place before it’s time to go

Only one tune on the record—the worst one, lyrically—offers optimism and hope, but does so with clichés. (“Try to keep your mind open and accept your mistakes”—okay, I’ll work on that, John.) The other most positive lyric comes when a man and his son beat the crap out of some dude at a diner on Easter eve, winning the gratitude and the heart of the man’s battered ex-wife. In the rest of the songs, characters struggle, look for their lost lovers, wonder if there’s a heaven, and keep moving from blues falling down like hail.

Keeping it Real

Mellencamp’s search for authenticity in sound and character takes him to the heart of the two sides of black American popular culture in the twentieth century: to the blues room of Robert Johnson, and to the spiritual side of Savannah’s First African Church. Both have produced myths aplenty, from the well-worn “crossroads” Faustian bargain of Johnson (selling his soul to play the guitar) explored by generations of musicians and lyricists now, to the “Underground Railroad” stories from First African.

The fact that there is considerable embellishment in both of those myths makes them work better as myths, and allows them considerable leeway to service contemporary lyricists and musicians seeking to tap into an America beyond little pink houses.

But of course, congregations such as First African have a deeply conflicted history, arising as they necessarily did under the tutelage of the slave regime. This church originated when one of the first black Baptist converts in Georgia, George Liele, converted a lowcountry slave named Andrew Bryan. When Bryan first began to exhort near Savannah, city authorities arrested, jailed, and whipped him. City laws mandated that black Christians worship only between sunrise and sunset. The disruptions of the American revolutionary era, when many slaves ran for freedom or fought for the British side, made the American whites in the region suspicious of independent black religious activity. Jonathan Bryan, Andrew’s owner, licensed Andrew Bryan to preach and vouched for him; after his master’s death Andrew Bryan won his freedom.

Andrew Bryan eventually became a slaveholder himself, one of the very small class of free black slaveholders in the nineteenth-century South. After his death, Bryan’s nephew, Andrew Marshall, took the pulpit at First African Baptist, and became one of the best known (and most controversial) black ministers of the antebellum era, leading to a major schism of the church body.

In the early twentieth century, First African was rather famous for its fights and dissension, but eventually became known as well for the effective pastorate of the Reverend Ralph Marks Gilbert, who revived the state NAACP and carried on civil rights work during the interwar years.

Mellencamp and a host of other white musicians are trying to keep it real by connecting into these historic institutions. More importantly, they are doing so by connecting into the myths which have spun from these places: from Robert Johnson’s hotel room recording venue, to the racially miscegenated music produced by Sun Studios, to Savannah’s home for black Baptist history.

Black culture and institutions provide a history and a sense of authenticity that white artists cannot find elsewhere. It’s a powerful blending of religion and myth in American history: black people are there to save the souls of tortured white people. It’s one of the most powerful redemption myths of popular culture.

It’s a far cry from, and a lot better than, the failed Woody Guthrie-ism of “this is our country,” but it’s a myth with its own costs, for ultimately it is all still about the white soul.

Like many others over the past two generations, Mellencamp has been “redeemed” by the blood of the black past.