A Simple Song of Freedom?:
Music in Peoples Temple

by John Brackett

Music was a constant presence in Peoples Temple. As heard on the many surviving tapes that document the history of Peoples Temple, music hovers in the background during Temple services, as chords played on a piano or organ can often be heard accompanying the words of Jim Jones. Many times, the congregation will pick up on the hymn, spiritual, or popular tune suggested by the keyboard player (who is following the lead of Jones’ words) by breaking into song.

With the release of He’s Able in 1973, music was also used as a way of spreading the word of Jim Jones and the gospel of Peoples Temple to a larger audience. Comprised of music drawn from a variety of styles and genres – gospel (“Walking With You Father”), hymns (“Down From His Glory”), late 1960s singer-songwriter/folk (“Sing a Simple Song of Freedom”), soul and rhythm and blues (“Hold on Brother”) – He’s Able was carefully crafted to appeal to a diverse audience which would otherwise have never heard of Peoples Temple or had no intention (or interest) in religion. For listeners at this time and place, He’s Able – with its nondenominational presentation of Peoples Temple as “spiritual” but not “religious,” an interracial choir and soloists singing songs about freedom and love, and an impressive rhythm section capable of playing in any style – was sure to attract many people who were still dealing with the vanishing ideals associated with America in the late 1960s, from Black Power and civil rights, to gay rights and women’s rights, and the anti-war movement. By opening the album with “Welcome” sung by the children’s choir, listeners were transported to (what they might have imagined to be) an actual Temple service through sound. For these post-Woodstock (really post-Altamont) listeners, He’s Able represented a carryover from an earlier time mixed with a strong serving of nostalgia.

The prominent place held by music within Peoples Temple is most certainly derived from a Pentecostal tradition of worship, a tradition that is emblematic of not only Jones’ sermonizing but also Temple services in general (notably the healing services). At the same time, as I suggest above, the musical themes expressed during Temple services – themes of freedom, love, and universal brotherhood – resonate with the overall aims and goals of various rights movements in America that rose to prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s (not to mention the cultural atmosphere of California in general and San Francisco in particular). To view the role and function of music in Peoples Temple in this manner is to identify sources, traditions, and precedents.

While it is true that an examination of the place of music in Peoples Temple that seeks to uncover traditions and/or contemporary cultural contexts is certainly valuable, this mode of research can only be viewed as preliminary, as a background that tells only part of the story. When it comes to interpretation, music, like all of the arts, is essentially Janus-faced, and in the case of music in Peoples Temple, it is difficult – if not impossible – to hear the songs and music without filtering them through the tragic events that occurred in Jonestown on November 18, 1978.

The present work is part of a larger project that examines the various ways a group of musicians, politicians, and critics have used the notion of freedom in the creation, depiction, and use of music in America in the second half of the twentieth century. Therefore, in an effort to make some sense of the forward and backward looking tendencies of music in Peoples Temple, I am relying upon the idea of freedom (along with many of its political, ethical, and artistic shades of meaning) as a lens through which to view these complex tendencies.

The idea of freedom is an almost constant point of reference in Jones’ sermons and Temple doctrine from the earliest days of Peoples Temple until its violent end. In the Introduction to Pastor Jones Meets Rev. M. J. Divine (1959), Associate Pastor Rev. Russell Winberg describes Jones as “one of the least and most bound men I know. He is bound to Jesus Christ and consequently free.” In the pamphlet entitled “A True Follower of this Activist Christian Ministry,” Jones outlines a series of principles expected of himself and all members of Peoples Temple including “ATTEMPTS AT ALL TIMES TO BE FREE … free from jealousy, free from egotism, free from any need for exultation, free from pride, free from sorrow and self pity, free from fear of any man or any thing.” Finally, while reflecting upon events from earlier in the day and while preparing himself and more than 900 inhabitants of Jonestown for their deaths, Jones remarks: “That’s not living to me. That’s not freedom. That’s not the kind of freedom I sought” (Q 042).

For Jones and the members of Peoples Temple, the word “freedom” meant many different things at different times. Given that the majority of Temple members were black, freedom came with meanings carried over from black worship traditions that stressed freedom from bondage. For many of these same people, this understanding of freedom was associated with the civil rights struggle and the Black Power Movement (and this was especially true for Jones and his interpretations of “revolutionary suicide,” as described by Huey Newton). Widening the circle a bit, freedom was also understood and used as a promise or goal for everyone who felt disenfranchised or who had been treated unfairly, including many minorities, women, the elderly and the very young, the poor or unemployed, drug addicts and alcoholics. Freedom also meant freedom of religious assembly as freedom from dominant religious attitudes and organizations. Jones’ ridiculing of a “Sky God” and certain prominent religious leaders in America (notably Billy Graham) was an attempt to free the idea of religion away from dominant institutions and their associated belief systems. Finally, the socialism espoused by Jones and Temple members was an attempt to free themselves (and others) from the oppressive economic and social inequalities that accompany capitalism. Seeking to free their actions and modes of thought from the constraints imposed by capitalism, members of Peoples Temple pursued a form of socialism where everyone had the potential to be free and equal.

The music performed in Temple services and by groups such as the Jonestown Express provides us with one way of making sense of the various and diverse ways Jim Jones and Peoples Temple understood the idea of freedom. My research thus far has involved cataloging all of the musical performances and references to music and singing in the available tapes and transcripts. This cataloging involves noting the song referenced, original songwriters and/or composer, date performed (if known or an approximation), performers (if known), and any significant changes from the original (see the attached spreadsheet). It is this last category that is the most revealing as any changes to an original (or, sometimes, different performances of the same song) provide present-day listeners and interpreters with a glimpse into the mindset of Temple members or performer at a particular time. Noteworthy examples of these changes include a performance of the Burt Bacharach/ Hal David song “Alfie” performed by the Jonestown Express in April 1978 (included on Q 174) where the lyrics are changed to “As sure as I don’t believe there’s a heaven above.” Elsewhere, a line from “Sing a Simple Song of Freedom” (written by Bobby Darin) is changed from “Hey there, mister black man, can you hear me?” to “Hey there, mister rich man, can you hear me?” This single change (sung by Norman Ijames on the He’s Able release) is filled with meaning as it reflects a desire to get past divisions based on skin color by making it a non-issue and choosing instead to foreground divisions based on socio-economic factors. At the same time, Ijames’ version deletes an entire verse from Darin’s original, a verse that begins with the line “Brother Yareshenko, are you busy?” While it is not clear why this verse was deleted (it doesn’t appear on Tim Hardin’s 1969 version of the song either), it is possible that, despite the Temple’s outspoken advocacy of socialism and Jones’ admiration for Russia, a reference to the Russian-sounding name Yareshenko would be a bit too blatant given the intended aim of the He’s Able record (that of attracting new members from diverse backgrounds).

I still have a great deal of work to do as this project moves forward. There are numerous recordings and transcripts that still need to be examined. I also need to devote a significant amount of time perusing other primary sources held at the California Historical Society in San Francisco. Finally, I do hope to hear from former Temple members or other researchers who may be willing to share materials, reminiscences, or insights that relate to my project. Of course I also welcome questions and criticisms.

When considering the role of music in Peoples Temple, the music itself functions in multiple contexts and interpretive frameworks simultaneously: where it came from, what it meant at the time, and what it became. A responsible examination of the place(s), role(s), and function(s) of music in Peoples Temple and Jonestown must recognize these various frameworks. At the same time, the temptation to reconcile these frameworks must be avoided, for I do not believe they can be reconciled. Instead, the many tensions brought about by these different strategies of (and for) hearing their music must be uncovered, for it is the dissonances themselves that best reflect the difficulties many of us experience when trying to make sense of the many paradoxes and incongruities presented to us by Jim Jones and the history of Peoples Temple.

(John Brackett is an instructor of Music at Vance-Granville Community College in North Carolina. He may be reached at brackett.john@gmail.com.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on February 18th, 2021.
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