4 April 2015


Peter Berbergal. Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll. Tarcher, 2014.

Music, it has been said, is the only art that engages our entire brain. Whether this is true or not, it can certainly reach into us and touch emotions in a way that other art forms may miss. It is something that can surprise us by reaching into our memories in an abrupt and unexpected fashion to resurrect past times and moods.
Especially in this day and age, music now accompanies us from the cradle to the grave, a permanent soundtrack to our lives. It has become a constant in a changing world; something to console and comfort when other things shift around us.

Rock and roll derives from that modern subset of music that was born from African-American slave beginnings, merging gradually with mainstream popular music via vaudeville then going on to shape the dominant genres of music consumed by the majority of the listening public. Therefore jazz, coupled with the timely invention and spread of radio, record players and talking pictures, exported the fledgling art form worldwide in the period between the two world wars. Consequently, musicians everywhere picked up and recorded their own take on this new phenomenon. After the Second World War, aspects of jazz and other popular music, combined with the still novel electric guitar, fused to bring rock and roll as we know it to the world stage.

It is mainly from this period onward that Season of the Witch looks at rock and roll, and how otherworldly forces may have shaped it. Time is spent looking right back at both the African and African American origins of the music that was the grandmother of the rock we know today. The relevance of religion, again from the paganism originating from Africa and American Christianity of the time, is examined for the effects that it had on the chrysalis of slave music. There is then quite a leap to what we can start to see as the beginnings of rock and roll proper, as it were. From then on music is examined so as to note the effects of the liminal upon it.

The author has quite a way with prose. His emotional investment in this subject shines from the enthusiasm and intensity on the page, making this a book that will whisk the reader along in its wake as the spirit of the bands and musicians is almost poetically, and most vividly, evoked. His analysis of the ‘Crossroads’ legend that was woven around the influential blues musician Robert Johnson, who was supposed to have sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads in return for remarkable guitar playing skills, is looked at in as much detail as can be gathered together, given the paucity of information about a founding myth of the Blues. 

From then on he turns his eager gaze to most of the major groups and musicians, bringing the same level of exuberance to each of them. Not only does his coverage of the bands and individuals convey his zeal, but also his involvement in investigating the occult movements and personalities whose otherworldly influence moves and touches the music makers is just as strongly pursued.

It has to be remembered that this is a personal odyssey for Peter Berbegal, and it’s a subjective account in some ways. However, there has obviously been a large amount of research, which is impressive, considering the scope and range of the subject. There is a decent index and end notes, as opposed to numbered references in the body of the text. If your interests lie in the direction of magickally-affected popular music then you could do a lot worse than to read this avid and entertaining book. -- Trevor Pyne.

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