By Larry Eskridge
The Jesus People movement emerged in the 1960s within the hippie counterculture as the Flower Children rubbed shoulders with America’s pervasive evangelical subculture. While the first major pockets of the movement appeared in California, smaller groups of “Jesus freaks” popped up—seemingly spontaneously—across the country in the late Sixties. After a heavy dose of publicity in the early 1970s, the Jesus People became a national evangelical youth culture that spread across the United States, appealing especially to church-going youth within conservative Protestant circles which had, until that time, strongly resisted the blandishments of worldly entertainments and the allure of youth culture.
One of the most important elements of this popular religious movement was the music which emanated from within its ranks. Hiley Ward, a Detroit reporter who toured a number of Jesus People communes and groups in the early ‘70s noted their “preoccupation with new music,” and a Time cover story in the summer of 1971 noted that music “was the special medium of the Jesus People.” Not only did they write songs for their own devotional edification and worship services, but they utilized the new music to evangelize—and entertain—their generational peers in home Bible studies, coffeehouses, impromptu street concerts, high school auditoriums, and concert halls. In the process, an entirely new subgenre of American pop music—“Jesus Music”—developed around an army of musicians that included an assemblage of guitar-plunking coffeehouse troubadours, straight-on hard rock bands with regional followings, and secular rock musicians who had undergone a conversion experience and left the mainstream music business behind.
While it was dwarfed by the larger world of big time rock ‘n’ roll, Jesus Music nonetheless became its own parallel universe featuring networks of local venues, recording contracts and record labels, annual music festivals, and artists who sold hundreds of thousands of records to the dedicated Jesus People fan base. Eventually, Jesus Music would attract the attention (and dollars) of major music corporations and—as it morphed into “Contemporary Christian Music” in the 1980s—go on to claim a larger share of the American musical market than classical, jazz, Latin, and New Age music combined.
Below is a guide to some of the most popular music acts of the 1970s that many American youth of that era never heard of—the stars of Jesus Music:
#1: Love Song:
Suburban Orange County, CA, was one of the Jesus movement’s earliest hot spots. Love Song was the major house band at the biggest Jesus People center in that area, Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa. Their eponymous 1971 debut album sold over 250,000 copies and had a revolutionary impact on evangelical teens’ music listening habits and tastes.
#2: Larry Norman
Larry Norman is considered the “grandfather of Christian rock.” A former member of the San Jose-based band People! (their 1968 hit “I Love You [But the Words Won’t Come]” placed in the Billboard Top 20), Norman became a major component of the Los Angeles Jesus People scene and developed a national following. Fans of Contemporary Christian Music still consider his 1973 album Only Visiting This Planet one of the best the genre has ever produced.
A five-member rock unit hailing from the Indianapolis area, “e” was an example of one of the Jesus rock bands that developed a strong regional following at coffeehouses, concerts, and music festivals throughout the Midwest in the early and mid-70s.
#4: Barry McGuire
An example of someone with mainstream music success that lent an added dose of “street cred” to the new genre was Barry McGuire, a former member of the New Christy Minstrels who rocketed to the #1 spot on the national charts with his 1966 hit “Eve of Destruction.” Bottomed out on drugs, McGuire found Jesus in 1970 and became a major star in the developing Jesus Music scene.
#5: Jeremy Spencer
Fleetwood Mac guitarist Jeremy Spencer was an early convert to the Jesus movement from the world of British rock. While his conversion was avidly-touted in early Jesus People sources, his involvement with an increasingly marginalized group called the Children of God put him on the outs with the gatekeepers of the fledgling Jesus Music business and kept him from developing into a major figure in the world of Jesus Music.
#6: Nancy “Honeytree” Henigbaum
The first generation of Jesus People musicians was dominated by male singers and bands. One of the exceptions was Honeytree (Nancy Henigbaum—“Honeytree” was a literal translation of her German surname) who started out as a secretary for the Adam’s Apple coffeehouse in Ft. Wayne, IN. Armed with just her voice and guitar she began leading “worship times” and eventually began performing on the coffeehouse circuit. Honeytree’s first album—produced on a budget of $2,500—was picked up by Texas-based Word Records in 1973, fulfilling a national musical niche for a Jesus People version of ‘70s singer-songwriters like Carole King.
#7: Keith Green
The catchy pop of piano-playing, singer-songwriter Keith Green made him the artist many Jesus Music fans thought might become the first “crossover” onto the secular charts. But Green became increasingly “prophetic” in his renunciation of sin and materialism as the ’70s moved on and strained his relationships with the executives of the nascent Contemporary Christian music industry. He was killed, along with two of his children and nine others, in a 1982 plane crash in Texas.
A “Stars of Early Jesus Music” playlist:
Larry Eskridge was born in North Carolina and raised in the Chicago area, where he was involved with the Jesus People movement in the 1970s. A student of evangelicals’ relationship to mass media and pop culture, he has been on the staff of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College since 1988. He is the author of God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America.