Louvin Brothers Part 3

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“THE CHRISTIAN LIFE”: SACRED SONGS OF THE LOUVIN BROTHERS.            Charlie and Ira Louvin’s music retained the identifying characteristics borrowed from shape-note singing and balladry that set them apart from their peers, and the brothers successfully created a sound rooted in tradition while building a reputation for innovation. The religious, or sacred, music genre was a common element of much of country, bluegrass, and folk music during the mid-20th century. Artists regularly performed hymns and gospel music that they had been raised to appreciate at venues as small as schoolhouses and as large as the Grand Ole Opry. The article “‘Just A Little Talk With Jesus’: Elvis Presley, Religious Music, and Southern Spirituality” describes a 1956 recording taken from what has since become known as the “Million Dollar Session” at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, featuring a selection of current stars such as Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash “improvising” and singing from “the common body of southern religious songs” that they had been raised with (Wilson 75). Author Charles Reagan Wilson points to such events as concrete examples of precisely how crucial the role music plays in creating a specific “spirituality” which “infuse[s] . . . culture far beyond the church doors”. This underlying mentality not only created a distinctive way of life, but also caused the music of the area to incorporate aspects of the sacred music sound. Although Wilson specifically identifies this cultural phenomenon within the perceived boundaries of the South, Appalachian scholars such as Loyal Jones readily acknowledge the same process, stating that daily “Appalachian social values and mores have been greatly influenced by religion and the scriptures”, and while the Alabamian Louvins, located within the southernmost corner of the Appalachian region but also situated within the reach of the American South, fall into both regional identities, I will focus on the Louvins within the context of Appalachian religion.
The Louvin Brothers were especially drawn into the themes of religion and sacred music in their own lives. The heritage of the family was strongly faith-based, and Charlie and Ira’s upbringing gave them a solid foundation to use the themes that the boys heard every week in meetings to give their songs an uplifting and exhorting message to their listeners. When the brothers recorded their first album with Capitol Records in 1952, effectively launching their career into stardom, they relied strictly on these sacred pieces that they had grown up performing to fulfill their first three years of the contract alongside a stellar group of sidemen, including Chet Atkins. As a result, the duo became associated with their gospel hits over time and represented a religious ideal, despite the fact that they did not always live up to their message. Charlie Louvin described how both he and his brother were “always running into people who said that Louvin Brothers music caused them to live in a Christian home . . . I run into people constantly that make you feel like you’re a preacher”.  The duo embraced this role with their many sacred recordings, encouraging their listeners to live godly everyday lives through their preservation of the concept of musical spirituality.
The role of acts like Louvin Brothers within this capacity is particularly noteworthy to many music writers, such as Michael Grimshaw, Nicholas Dawidoff, and Ted Ownby. Grimshaw points to country music as “the voice of the past in the present,” and observes that “to ignore [country music’s] rich vein of contextualized theology has been to marginalize an ‘everyday’ theology that both articulates and underwrites the sitz en lieben [setting of life] of millions—both within the United States and around the world. Dawidoff agrees, stating that that “some popular music was designed to help you escape from the world. Country forced you to wake up on Sunday morning and confront your life”. Likewise, as Ted Ownby claims, these artists were not only the musical heroes that their fans admired, but they were also “the best spokespersons,” thanks to their relatability. Charles Reagan Wilson states that the duo consistently relied on “such tenets of . . . evangelical culture as a familiarity with biblical characters and stories, moralistic expectations seen in song lyrics, and the peculiar dynamic of sin and salvation at work in evangelical faith” to craft their pieces, and an examination of several Louvin Brothers songs corroborates in a way that both religious and secular listeners could both enjoy.
The Louvin Brothers’ song “Satan Is Real” has become one of the duo’s most recognizable and enduring hits, and it has also gained more recent recognition for its vivid album cover. While it is not the most accurate representation of the brothers’ music throughout their career, it nonetheless such an iconic song that it would be a considerable oversight to omit it. Ira, who was responsible for the graphics of many of the duo’s album designs, created a design that closely paralleled the brothers’ personal conceptions of Hell, with a menacing twelve-foot plywood devil surrounded by fiery “old tires . . . soaked in kerosene” to make them burn quickly and dramatically. To the Louvins, who were quite active in their family’s Baptist church, discussions of the devil were not only frequent, but crucial for believers to hear. The fundamentalist traditions and fiery preaching that inspired author Dennis Covington’s exposé Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia also impacted the young brothers within their thriving and devout religious community. Ira’s zeal for recreating the scene he had so vividly etched in his mind spoke to his strong feelings about the presence of the devil and the wary nature that Christians must have to avoid damnation. By placing this polarizing image on the cover of the album, as well as choosing to title the record Satan Is Real, the Louvin Brothers effectively showed that both their beliefs and the presumed beliefs of their fans could be used as not only a proclamation of faith, but also as a valuable advertising technique.
The song, which was the title track of Charlie and Ira Louvin’s 1959 album, begins as a duet that warns the listener of the perils of the devil. The singers depict Satan as a present danger to Christians, lurking to deceive and “lead astray” those who fall prey to his wiles. After the chorus of the song, the tempo dramatically slows, and an organ holds drawn-out chords while Ira Louvin narrates a fictional anecdote. The storyline details a church service whose pastor is interrupted by an old man who feels that the teaching omits an important part of the Christian lifestyle—avoidance of the devil. The man speaks from his own life experience to show the preacher and his congregation that Christians may easily backslide and fall into sin if they are not careful. The song concludes with the chorus to reinforce the importance of the song’s topic.
The lyrics in “Satan Is Real” depict views of the three main subjects of the song—the “little old man” who tells his testimony, his heavenly Father, and the deceitful and devious Devil. The speaker, whom the narrator takes care to depict as a man with a great deal of life experience, does not explain precisely why he has succumbed to Satan’s wiles, but he does illustrate how his life has taken a downturn since he has rejected God’s ways. As he finishes his advice to the congregation, he shows that while the preacher is correct in attributing God’s blessings and love to those who choose to follow Him, hell and “everlasting punishment” awaits those who do not (35). The character’s plea to his peers corresponds to the steps he is taking in his own life. The very fact that the old man is attending church again shows signs of a contrite heart, and his call to remain in God’s love and reject Satan’s temptation paints a picture of the devil as one who constantly lurks in the shadows of a man’s life, waiting for even the smallest lapse in faith to lure believers away. This rhetorical strategy plants an implied seed of fear within the congregation members to obey God rather than fall into evil, but it similarly provokes the listener as well in a way that proved to be a recurring theme within the Louvins’ many sacred songs. The tradition of many denominations to avoid discussing the devil and evil is effectively criticized by Ira and Charlie Louvin, and the “call to arms” that they issue to their godly listeners is plainly told in this relatable parable.
Interestingly, the lyrics of “Satan Is Real” show a perspective on the dangers of sin and temptation that also comment on the listener’s responsibility through a critique of the song’s characters. In the spoken-word narration, the man who is telling his life story explains that his life has been ideal before Satan entered into his life. However, the lack of personal responsibility that the speaker takes is notable. He effectively blames the devil for wreaking havoc on his life, but as he does so, the old man removes the burden of accountability from himself for resisting him. This avoidance alludes to an external danger of temptation that is blamed on the devil making one do certain acts, rather than the believer taking responsibility of their personal duty to maintain their own holiness.
Incidentally, the perspective on evil that “Satan Is Real” shows varies significantly from another of the Louvins’ hits that discusses sin and temptation. A prominent track on the album, Edgar L. Eden’s “Satan’s Jewel Crown,” came to be associated with the duo (although the track listing on the back album cover of Satan Is Real lists this song as “Satan’s Jeweled Crown,” the sheet music to the piece titles it “Satan’s Jewel Crown,” which is what this song will be referred to for the remainder of this work.) In the 1958 recording of this song, the persona speaks in the first person about the saving power of their heavenly father. The main character in the song states that their life has been changed for the better because of God’s love and saving grace. They tell the listener about their previous sinful lifestyle, describing it as a metaphorical crown that they wore (1-2). However, this crown that the persona used to find such pleasure in is now a past transgression that they acknowledge, admit, and have sought forgiveness for. Their quest to find the missing piece in their life ended with the realization that a drunken lifestyle or “running around” with women was not the solution to their problems (13). The speaker realizes that they must first take responsibility for their sins, for they are effectively “giving [their] soul for Satan’s jewel crown” of earthly rewards and pleasures.
This song has several biblical allusions in it that provide powerful imagery. The reference in the first verse to becoming a “king and ruler of nations” through Satan’s power is lifted from the temptation of Jesus in the book of Matthew (Matt. 4:8-9). As ruler of the world, Satan has offered Jesus the glory of the world’s kingdoms if he would only worship him, and the narrator of “Satan’s Jewel Crown” states that he too could be tempted in like manner but would not renounce his status as a child of God. Likewise, the lifestyle that the narrator has been leading, while seemingly free from care, is in fact a trap set by the devil to take individuals captive to do his will. The converted speaker has resolved to give up “the will of the devil” as mentioned in the song’s final verse for the will of God.
Like “Satan Is Real,” the subject matter of this duet shows a somewhat darker portrayal of the Christian faith. Satan is in fact mentioned more times throughout the lyrics than God is. This sobering perspective gives credence to the spiritual wars that Christians are urged to fight against the devil. The disconcerting admittance that the speaker makes in the second verse’s final line, which states “I was giving my soul for Satan’s jewel crown” accentuates the seriousness of their sins and also emphasizes the impact of God’s act of reaching out to them and claiming them again. The paradoxical depiction of God that is shown in several of Charlie and Ira Louvin’s songs is likewise visible in “Satan’s Jewel Crown.” The speaker begins the song by depicting God as gracious and merciful, stating that he “reached down” to the sinner and “helped [them] cast off” the titular metaphorical crown (3, 6). However, a key element of this individual’s relationship with God is found in the first verse. “I’d rather know that I had salvation / than to know my reward is Satan’s jewel crown,” the narrator asserts. While the chorus speaks to God’s love and acceptance, this line points to the fear of God, as the main character expresses that they would rather serve God and be sure of his acceptance than to receive only the fruits of worldly pursuits and not gain eternal life. This relationship is therefore partially reliant upon a component of fear of punishment—a terrifying thought for those aware of their own guilt and shame. Only after the persona has taken responsibility for their sin are they finally able to receive God’s forgiveness and love. This love, which the singers depict as a grace extended to save those who humble themselves before God, proved to be the fulfillment that they sought. Despite the many worldly pleasures that they abandoned, the speaker states that no amount of riches or power could convince them to renounce their faith, and they would “rather know that [they] had salvation” than to continue in their former lifestyle and fear of punishment. Still, the song ends happily, rather than with the foreboding tone of “Satan Is Real,” showing the peace and relief that can come from this approach to dealing with sin.
Another Louvin Brothers song which shows the joy of resisting the devil is “Satan and the Saint.” While it is one of the lesser-known religious songs that the Louvin Brothers recorded, it nonetheless fits comfortably into the thematic categories of salvation, repentance, and sin that the duo so frequently wrote about. The 1958 recording consists of a conversational format held between the speaker in the song and the devil, who is trying to lure his target from their faith. Each of the four verses begins with a statement by Satan spoken by Charlie and a response sung by Ira to counter the declaration and resist temptation. In the first verse, Satan claims “I have the world to offer you,” which is quickly squelched by the main character. The speaker reminds the devil that while he does reign over the world for the time being, this power will last only until God wreaks vengeance upon the earth on the Judgment Day, and asks “what will you have to offer then to a dying soul?”. Satan then responds in the second verse with “but think of all you’re giving up” and in the third verse “you don’t sin, you’re good enough” to convince his victim, but to no avail. The speaker confidently asserts that the only thing that they are giving up is “the chance to die” and states that while all have sinned, they “think that God has made a way” out from the terrible fate that awaits the unrepentant and godless. In the fourth and final verse, the speaker rejects Satan for the last time with the confident conclusion “everything you offer me / don’t mean nothing to my heart . . . take the world and get behind . . . Jesus is my choice”. The piece effectively acts as a lyrical depiction of the biblical adage “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” while placing Jesus at the forefront of the character’s decisions as the “way” to everlasting life (Jas. 4:7, Jn. 14:6).
In “Satan and the Saint,” the Louvins utilize the combination of spoken word and melodic lyrics that they had become recognized for in many sacred songs. However, the opening declarations from Satan (set apart through heavy reverb from the rest of the verses) are notable for the exchange that follows—instead of the brothers simply stating what believers should do to resist the devil, “Satan and the Saint” acts as a roadmap through one individual’s fictional experience. The speaker takes a more active role in this song, counteracting the devil not by actions but by dialogue in a way similar to the temptation of Jesus in the gospels. In the fourth chapter of the book of Matthew, Satan tempts Jesus by offering him “all the kingdoms of the world” if he will only worship the devil (Matt. 4:8-9). While the song does begin with Satan coercing the speaker with the line “I have the world to offer you” in a similar way to “Satan’s Jewel Crown,” the devil’s appeals primarily speak to the idea of opportunities that the believer will miss out on, such as the final verse’s opening “life will be too dull for you”. This is the common complaint of many sinners in the Louvin Brothers’ songs, such as “The Christian Life.” However, the speaker ignores this final ploy to contrast the difference between the worldly pleasures that the devil offers and the “peace of mind” and “everlasting joy” that God gives his children. With Jesus shown as the “way” to escape everlasting punishment and their “choice,” the persona accepts the responsibility to remain faithful to their savior and reject the sinfulness of the world for God’s love.

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