The Devil's Music?

There has been much debate recently about Popemart - Bob Dylan's miraculous appearance before John Paul II

There has been much debate recently about Popemart - Bob Dylan's miraculous appearance before John Paul II. It's certainly a bit of a mystery to Dylan fans who are now re-examining the lines - "Don't follow leaders, watch your parking meters." A question of mistaken emphasis now arises. Maybe it was the line about leaders which was the throwaway, funny and meaningless one? Maybe His Bobness actually intended to focus Sixties consciousness on the cost of parking your car? Maybe this? Maybe that? But then Bob has always been a conundrum and that's entirely his business. To tell you the truth, I'm more worried about the Pope.

When he arrived recently in Brazil and waved from the door of the plane, I was amused to see that the Pope's aircraft had been named in honour of Nicolo Paganini - the virtuoso violinist who according to popular myth had sold his soul to the devil. Paganini was apparently so good on the fiddle that only some kind of diabolical pact could possibly explain it. To this day, parts of Paganini's Caprices are considered virtually unplayable - unless that is, you've been to the crossroads yourself.

Paganini played up on his image. He whitened his face for performances and what with the long hair and the unnaturally dextrous fingers ("like a white handkerchief tied to the top of a cane" according to his doctor) he looked particularly Satanic. They say that when he died the church wouldn't bury him and that his body was passed from devotee to devotee. Whatever the truth of it, it seems that the local clergy were rather wary of him - and certainly would have advised the Pope to wait for the next flight.

Perhaps the most famous Faustian bargain in the lore of popular music is that allegedly made by Delta blues singer Robert Johnson. The story was that he couldn't play a note until that night he made his pact with the devil. He went down to the crossroads at midnight and began to play his guitar. The devil arrived, Johnson handed him his instrument, the devil tuned it and handed it back. The deal was done and Johnson was to sing about it with genuinely terrifying emotion on his quite extraordinary recordings. The myth was later confirmed when Robert Johnson died in mysterious circumstances - some say stabbed, some say poisoned, others say he died on his knees, barking like a dog. The devil had returned with the contract in his hand.

Both the music of Robert Johnson and his legend pervade popular music. Many musicians learn from his recordings and include his songs in their repertoire. Others won't touch his songs at all. The blues singer Louisiana Red once told me in an interview that he wouldn't play anything by Robert Johnson. He was a believer. Others too will swear blind that Johnson wandered from town in a perfectly pressed suit that never got stained or creased. More evidence of the supernatural - to explain the supernatural talent. Now that I think of it, I first discovered Robert Johnson when I saw him on the cover of Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home. Spooky or what?

Blues music was, of course, once referred to as The Devil's Music. Jumped-up songs, as they were known, were forbidden as sinful and it was the inevitable strain between the sacred and the secular that resulted in the great popular musics of this century. The black churches were hard on blues singers and some were converted. One was famously transformed from Georgia Tom, the singer of some very bawdy songs, into Thomas A. Dorsey, composer of Precious Lord and Peace In The Valley. Others happily sang both sides - Brownsville Son Bonds became Brother Son Bonds depending on where he was. Many others gave up completely, tormented by notions of sin and damnation. The story is full of twists and turns but the common thread is that struggle between the holy and the unholy. And the unholiest racket in history was made by Little Richard. Richard has crossed back and forwards so many times that you're never quite sure if you're dealing with The Reverend Richard Penniman or with Little Richard the True King and Queen of Rock 'n' Roll. He once declared that the music was demonic, that the beats were taken from voodoo and that God wanted people to turn from rock 'n' roll to the Rock of Ages. Next thing he was back screaming Tutti Frutti like a man possessed. An unholy but truly glorious racket.

The boom years of Gospel music had been the 1930s and 1940s. Singers like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson were moving into theatres and had huge followings. They blazed a trail for groups like the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Swan Silvertones and the Soul Stirrers which featured a young singer called Sam Cooke. And then he defected, started to sing about girls and parties and became a huge star. When he returned one night to sing with his old group he was, in a typical display of charity, booed off the stage. He was working for the devil now.

People like Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin and Solomon Burke were more or less singing the blues in a gospel idiom. The result was irresistible. They say that Ray Charles was on his way home from a show and he heard a song on the radio by the gospel singer Alex Bradford. The lyric was something along the lines of "I got God". Brother Ray changed it to I Got A Woman and he was away - the secular and the sacred came together spectacularly and the music became known as soul. As far as I'm aware, the Pope stayed out of it.

Bob Dylan was apparently considered appropriate for Popemart because he has consistently dealt with spiritual themes. There's no doubt that he has wrestled the odd demon in his time and a quick glance through his back pages will indicate that he has more than flirted with Christianity - all the more fascinating in that he is of the Jewish faith. But then Bob Dylan usually doesn't do what you'd expect him to do. I just wish he'd thrown a wobbler at Popemart. Imagine the scenes if he had abandoned Hard Rain and started into Rainy Day Women with its subtle invocation "Everybody must get stoned!" What sort of scenes would have ensued then? The Pope on television tearing up a picture of Dylan? Cardinals suggesting that they should have booked the Spice Girls after all?

What I'm saying is that whenever music bangs up against religion something bizarre usually comes out of it. Now the Pope is flying around in a plane called after a fiddler who sold his soul to the devil. As I write this I'm listening to Robert Johnson singing about the crossroads. There's a photograph in front of me of Bob Dylan strumming his guitar as the Pope seems to float behind him. And people said it was Dylan who was wearing the funny hat?

John Kelly is a writer and broadcaster.

READ MORE