Friday, March 8, 2013

Witchcraft, Rock 'N' Roll, and Mission Lore

The Rock 'N' Roll Fireside was possibly the most enduring urban legend on my mission. Elders spoke of it in hushed tones. Some claimed to have heard it, or to having a previous companion who'd heard it, or to know a missionary who had a companion that had it on CD. Everyone seemed profoundly affected by it, although nobody I spoke with ever seemed to own a copy. Most missionaries agreed that it was simply insane, though a few took it very seriously. Demons. Witchcraft. Devil worship. Sorcery. Dungeons & Dragons. Ouija boards. And rock 'n' roll. For the longest time I doubted that it even existed. Sure, I was certain that somewhere out there was a recording of a speaker denouncing popular music. Two minutes on Google helped me find this from then-apostle Ezra Taft Benson, so clearly fear of rock 'n' roll is an established, if somewhat outdated, component of certain strains of Mormon thought. Surely, though, the rest of the lore surrounding the alleged fireside was just gossip and exaggeration, two things missionaries are very good at.


Then I heard it. I'd been on my mission for a long time, maybe twenty two months, when one P-day, in the course of whatever conversation we were having, an elder in my district mentioned that he had a copy of the infamous Rock 'N' Roll Fireside. Well, that was that; regardless of our other plans we simply had to listen to it now. We did. The stories weren't exaggerated. Demons. Witchcraft. Devil worship. Sorcery. Dungeons & Dragons. Ouija boards. And, yes, rock 'n' roll. I was now an initiate: no longer a second-hand repeater of myth, I was a witness to the madness. The legend was real; I knew it for myself! Unfortunately, my time was short and I had few chances to spread the word. I don't know how many times the missionary who owned the recording shared it after that, or whether stories of the Rock 'N' Roll Fireside persisted. Maybe elders there speak of it in hushed tones today, maybe it's been forgotten.

Missions are strange like that, with missionaries arriving, leaving, and moving around so quickly that the mission's reality seems to exist outside of history in a kind of premodern mythological state. Besides the 18-24 months a missionary serves, his or her main connection with the mission's past is stories told by older missionaries, which themselves only go back a year or two before becoming stories those missionaries learned from even older missionaries, and so it goes. Facts get blurred quickly. Missionaries tell competing, sometimes conflicting stories. Institutional memory fades quickly. Members can sometimes fill in gaps, but they also exist too far outside the world of the mission to contribute to its past meaningfully. Thus, history easily blends with legend and myth, and it's impossible to guess how long any particular legend will survive.

Still, the missionaries whose time on the mission overlapped with mine still know the legends of our day. Some were fellow Rock 'N' Roll Fireside initiates. On a whim, I recently set out out to find the fireside again. Luckily, the world of Facebook allows for much quicker investigation than the old missionary communication system of zone or district meeting gossip (or, if you were really savvy, schmoozing the office missionaries). Although my inquiries initially seemed to prove that the fireside is as chimeral today as it was on the mission, I finally found it after messaging twenty or thirty people. If there's a word that combines "awesome" and "absolutely bonkers," the fireside is just as that as I remembered.


Having rediscovered a small part of my mission lore, I present it below for public consumption. It's an incomplete recording that cuts out in a few places, and I have no idea who the speaker is except that he refers to himself as Brother Bryson. Mission legend states that this individual got himself excommunicated, but I have no way of verifying that. I don't know when or where the fireside was given, although I'd guess it's from some time in the mid 80s. If you happen to know more, share in the comments.

Now, prepare to be stunned (or at least incredibly bemused) to learn about the great sorcerers John Lennon and Adolph Hitler, about the hidden satanic messages embedded in Stairway to Heaven and Hotel California, about the evils of spellcasting in D&D books (did you know that they contain the same spells Pharaoh's priests used?), about the mass suicides of Helter Skelter, and about the importance of not taking advice from floating tables. Sadly, the recording abruptly ends just as it starts discussing the dangers of bisexuality and Boy George, but maybe the ending is out there somewhere, part of another mission's lore.

The Rock 'N' Roll Fireside
Click to play mp3:
Part 1 | Part 2
At least listen to part 2 to fully enjoy the insanity.

Update: The individual responsible for this recording has also been discussed here and here; see the comments section on those posts for more.

18 comments:

  1. That would be Lynn Bryson of "Winning the Testimony War" fame. I'm not sure of his final church status, but there was some form of church disciplinary action taken at some point. He died a few years ago in Alabama. At one point he had a whole series of tapes. I've been trying to find them, so thanks for posting this!

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    1. That is excellent information, and a good launching point for further investigation. Thanks.

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  2. According to the Social Security Death Index, Lynn A. Bryson died on 26 Aug 2005, he was living in Birmingham, AL at the time. A cousin of mine knew the family down there. Last I heard his wife was still living in Alabama.

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    1. It's crazy I never heard of this guy. I served in Alabama from '06-'08. I guess I'm gonna have to give these tapes a listen.

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    2. Have you listened to them yet?

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  3. Nothing much to add except to say that there is a small academic literature on missionary folklore. William A. Wilson's article in 'Contemporary Mormonism: Social science perspectives' is a good example.

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  4. I love this. According to my brother, a stake president in Boise once gave a very similar discourse. Alas, I was too young to have heard it.

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  5. Would love to get a hold of the full 16 cassettes in his tape series! Fond memories from the 1980s!

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  6. Just found your blog today, looks fantastic! Unfortunately the mp3 files aren't playing on my computer though :(

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  7. Thanks and welcome! If the MP3s don't play when clicking on them try doing a right-click > Save As to download the MP3s in whatever browser you prefer, then open them from iTunes or Windows Media Player.

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  8. Thanks Casey, I was able to listen from another device to part 2. Some outrageous stuff there! Makes me wish I was born a decade earlier, just for the omg factor. Must look much more quaint from our perspective though, with these songs being so dated. Wish he was around to give an opinion on today's music!

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  9. I just listened to both parts. This is a different recording than the one I heard on my mission circa 2002. Definitely the same guy though. In the one I heard he had a deeper voice so he was probably older than he was here. He also played more songs and his presentation was more polished and entertaining, and to be frank, a lot less bonkers. I have looked for it on and off since then, and never had much success. It's kind of nuts that people have been looking for it since about 2005 according to some of those links and this is the first time someone has actually found a recording. Good work and thanks for passing that along!

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  10. I assume that those posting here are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Not much of what he says (of course there are many personal views of Bryson's that he expresses) is not directly backed up by authoritative Church sources. Many things he presents are based on a very specific set of vocabulary. Keeping that in mind is important. Not to mention that much of his presentation is intended to be humorous -- Not false, but presented in a zany format.

    It's fine to be ignorant of lesser known truths but don't scoff at them.

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    1. This may not be the blog for you, Ender. Scoffing at silliness is our specialty, regardless of the perceived authoritativeness of said silliness.

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  11. ...or scoff at them. That's cool, too. (feel free to do as you wish)

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  12. I had the privilege as a teenager in the early '80s of seeing Lynn Bryson at one of his firesides. Our stake invited him to speak in Austin, Texas. I remember it being really entertaining. It was pretty powerful stuff, especially when he actually played a popular song backwards and you could hear the words "Smoke Marijuana" (after he told us that's what it said, of course). Now that I think back on it, it sounds like a bunch of hoodoo, but as a teenager, it was pretty cool stuff.

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  13. Haha, man I remember hearing it my first time. I'll admit, I got caught up in the moment. It didn't take long for the shock to wear off and reality to set in, but *while* I was listening, this guy had me sold.

    Except for MTG, my brain found a number of convenient loopholes even as I listening. I think it would take an angelic vision to pull me away from that.

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  14. I remember hearing this guy on my mission. He freaked me the heck out! I was really taken by his "arguments." I remember vowing to go home and purge my music collection.
    I now have a Ph.D. and teach students critical thinking. I find him to be laughable--indeed, embarrassing. I doubt Church leaders today would tolerate a fireside like this--at least, I hope not. I can only imagine that back in the 1970s and early '80s many local Church leaders knew zilch about rock music and deferred to Lynn Bryson's supposed expertise. Today we're all too experienced with media.
    P.S. I will say that after my mission (1990) I found two of his tapes for sale at The Book Table in Logan, Utah. I think they were called "Winning the Testimony War." The first was similar to the one linked here. The second contained more of the same, although it didn't have the power of his original talk.

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