The Library of Congress recently added the work of Christian rock innovator Larry Norman to the National Recording Registry, an elite collection of recordings marked for special preservation as “cultural, artistic, or historical treasures.” Norman is the first Christian rock artist to be chosen, making the list with his groundbreaking 1972 folk-rock album Only Visiting This Planet. Of the 25 artists selected this year, Norman keeps company with the likes of Stephen Sondheim, Bing Crosby, and the Everly Brothers.
Many Christians today have never heard of Norman, though his influence on Christian music is vast: More than 300 artists from Rebecca St. James to DC Talk have covered his songs. CCM Magazine assessed, “it is certainly no overstatement to say that Larry Norman is to Christian music what John Lennon is to rock-and-roll or Bob Dylan is to folk music.”
The Library of Congress noted Norman’s somewhat “controversial” tenure. Indeed, he was a veritable lightning rod in his day, for a couple of reasons. First was the rock music itself, which excited profound suspicion among people of faith. It was through rock-and-roll, after all, that the social and sexual revolution of the 60s thrived and found expression.
Enter Norman, with an unabashed love for rock’s driving beat, which he hilariously defended in his well-known boogie-woogie, “Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music?” With hippie hair down his back, Norman stymied many with his cry, “I want the people to know/that he saved my soul/but I still like to listen to the radio!” Norman recounted how often church folks insisted he was wrong: God and rock music didn’t go together. But Norman grew up in an African-American neighborhood in San Francisco and remembered how when he first heard rock-n-roll it seemed to him that “Elvis was trying to steal the music of the black churches in his songs. So, I decided to steal it back.”
Norman was also controversial for his biting social critique. Crafted in the midst of the Vietnam War, his Dylanesque folk ballad “The Great American Novel” provoked many with questions like, “Do you really think the only way to bring the peace/is to sacrifice your children and kill all your enemies?” In later years, however, he focused more on spiritual reflection than political provocation. He explained to Strait Magazine that true social commentary was talking about lust, greed, and bitterness because “that’s what wars are. Sin is sin. There is no sophisticated, high tech sin … it’s all just silly, greedy, selfish, snotty sin.”
Near the end of his life, Norman would become controversial for different reasons, as stories of infidelity and harsh business practices came to light. Nevertheless, Norman was without question one of the very first (and best) musicians to combine a bold, electric-rock sound with an equally bold presentation of gospel truths. He avoided the copycat syndrome with inventive bluesy arrangements that still sound fresh and forceful today, while his sharp-witted lyrics covered a wide range of topics. Norman wrestled at various stages with political and personal demons, but he fiercely maintained that ultimate hope could only be found in one place: “Don’t ask me for the answer I’ve only got one/that a man leaves his darkness when he follows the Son.”
Listen to The World and Everything in It talk about Larry Norman's influence on Christian music: