Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Crossposting from Ile Oxumare: Have a Blissful Day

This is a crossposting of an essay and compilation that originally appeared on one of my music blogs.

Perhaps because it's when I came of age, I have long been fascinated by the decade of the 1970s. Long reviled in the popular imagination, it seems to be the decade that cultural historians would like to erase. It's laughable how, for instance, the reviewers over at the All-Music Guide will tend to leave the 1970s output by many jazz musicians off their discography, and when an individual album from that time is covered, unless it happens to be a collection of standards harkening back to the classic era, it tends to get written off as "not so-and-so's best album." Disco music has come to symbolize the seventies in a sort of warped way: portrayed as the effete frivolity of coke-snorting polyester-clad airheads, its reality as a kind of ecstatic mass egalitarian communion for a new generation of proud black and gay urbanites is overlooked. The corruption of Nixon and the weakness of Ford and Carter are remembered, not the progressive community and consciousness-building organizations that flourished until repression, hard times, or eventual exhaustion laid them low. And the 1970s is most definitely remembered as the era of the religious cult, which brings us to the compilation at hand.

In those days before the megachurches of Christian fundamentalism, spirituality in America was in a vast state of flux. As the younger generation came to reject the political and cultural establishment in the 1960s, so it rejected the religious establishment. Everybody knows how the Beatles flirted with eastern religion: newly expanded higher consciousness inspired the newly aware to explore spiritual paths that would have been unimaginable to whitebread America a few years before. Astrology and numerology became mainstream; "eastern" concepts like auras and karma and reincarnation became widely accepted.

Nature abhors a vacuum. Into this wide-open spiritual openness stepped preachers and teachers and gurus and holymen, and a host of evangelical organizations, many of which eventually being accused of manipulation and mind-control. On the eastern front, gurus like Swami Satchidananda and Sri Chinmoy gained a huge number of adherents, Sri Chinmoy in particular influencing many in the music world. The Hare Krishnas, eventually the International Society for Krishna Consciousness lead by Swami Prabhupada, became ubiquitous. There were Christian-derived societies like the politically conservative Unification Church of Rev. Sun Young Moon (the so-called "Moonies") or the ill-fated left-wing People's Temple of Rev. Jim Jones; there were the Jesus Freaks and Jesus People. There was the cult of Scientology for sci-fi geeks; there were Egyptian revivalists promising health through colon cleansing; there were African cultural nationalists redefining black cultural identity. There was Transcendental Meditation; there was Nichiren Buddhism and its prosperity chanting. There was the beginnings of New Age philosophy with theories of healing and medicine outside traditional "Western" pharmacology. All these new ideas competed for the attentions of young people, especially those adrift in confusing cultural times.

The dark side of all this is undeniable. When I was in junior high school my best friend John went off on a picnic with a group--maybe they were Moonies--who offered him an afternoon of food and fraternization. We didn't see him again for six months. When he returned he wouldn't talk about what happened, but he was changed and brooding. The religious cults had a predatory aspect, requiring their devotees to change their behaviors and their lifestyles. In some cases this turned devotees into beggars, like the Hare Krishnas haunting the airports giving out "free" books and then demanding a donation. Other cults turned into tragedies, like the hundreds of poor people who moved to Guyana to build a new world with the People's Temple who ended in an orgy of mass suicide and murder.

But it wasn't all mind control: in those innocent days nobody followed an alternate spiritual path or joined a cult for negative reasons, they did so out of hope, out of the desire to be spiritually uplifted and fulfilled; out of the desire to find like-minded people with whom to share, to celebrate, to build, to learn, to teach. Which brings us to the music.

The music of this world of spiritual exploration in the 1970s is actually pretty awesome. It can be spiritually meditative or joyously upbeat. It crosses musical genres ranging from jazz to rock to folk to disco to funk. It's got a blissful positivity that I find inspiring: "free" is probably the word sung most by this diverse collection of spiritual optimists.

Several of the artists represented here might actually be considered representatives of "cults:" Ananta, Rasa and J.O.B. Orquestra were all adherents of ISKCON and their records were sold directly by Hare Krishnas. The People's Temple Choir song is from an album recorded several years before their emigration to Guyana. The bonus track recorded by George Harrison's London Ashram will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen Hare Krishna devotees chanting on the street. Some of the lyrics here are fascinating: JOB's "Dont Want That Illusion" is the most peculiar (anti) love song I've ever heard.

Other artists represented here were personal adherents of evangelical eastern religions: Turiyasangitananda Alice Coltrane, herself a swamini, or teacher, was a devotee of Swami Satchidananda (this is, by the way, one of her few recordings on fender-rhodes electric piano). Devadip Carlos Santana and Narada Michael Walden, the producer of the Don Cherry track here (himself a Buddhist), were devotees of Sri Chinmoy.

The remainder of the artists here are examples of how widespread the ideas preached by the cults became. I wasn't able to find evidence that members of Odyssey, Shanti, Seawind, Karma, etc. were actually involved in specific groups, but the content of these songs makes it clear these are all fellow travellers to this world. Perhaps the most strange of these is the track from the "mighty burner" Charles Earland which will change your opinion of him forever.

"Cult" is a word with terrible connotations. As someone who is himself a practitioner of a religion outside the mainstream, I choose to identify here with the people who are singing about their love of God, their hope for a better world, their joy at life, their mastery of the spiritual realms; and pull from these songs inspiration rather than doubt, and joy at revelation rather than fear of manipulation. Better this open celebration of life and spirit than the harsh dictates of many of today's right-wing fundamentalists. In a world of fanatical suicide bombers, communal and sectarian violence, churches mobilizing to deny rights to gays and immigrants, and self-righteous hypocrites preaching hellfire, the spirit of this "cult" music is refreshingly forward-looking and life-affirming.

I'm not gonna shave my head, renounce the world, and start chanting for money on the corner, but with music like this I'm sure gonna celebrate life a little more.

The originally posting, with track details and links to a download, can be found here.

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