Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches Us about Suffering and Salvation

Written by Stephen J. Nichols and Eric T. Brandt Reviewed By William Edgar

Can God’s praises be sung in a foreign land? This question is raised in Ps 137, and the answer given is no, at least not when your oppressors force you to sing your own religious music as if everything were all right. But does that mean music should never be sung under oppression or during suffering? Hardly. Indeed, music is often the only appropriate response, next to silence, when everything is not all right. The blues were generated in the cotton fields, on the levees, or on the front porch of a people who has born unspeakable burdens of privation and destitution. Yet the blues is not bitter or vengeful. Plaintive at times, yes, even mournful. But the blues are profoundly hopeful. Both the misery and the hope of the blues are well explored in this fascinating account by Stephen Nichols.

The blues has been called many things. Notoriously, some have called it “the devil’s music” or simply “sinful tunes.” Its critics are both white and black. The black church had become the principal institution giving meaning and hope to the enslaved African people. The church was the strongest single force in the transition from Africans to African-Americans. Even after emancipation, the Christian faith was the deepest consolation for black people, still enduring oppression and racial prejudice. But there was a parallel world to that of the church. Giles Oakley calls it “a world of secular amusement” that lay alongside the church in a difficult relationship. It is in that parallel world that the blues are sung (Giles Oakley, The Devil’s Music [2nd ed.; New York: Da Capo, 1997], p. 46). Singers were called to repentance, and parents told their children to stay away from the blues and its associated lowlife. But that world has grown and taken on a life of its own.

Still, there is another side to this dichotomy. First, the sin is not necessarily all on one side. Blues singers can and have asserted that there is plenty of hypocrisy in the church, and that not every preacher was a righteous person. Someone needs to sing about that. Second, the blues allowed people to articulate feelings and evoke subjects not always directly addressed by the church. For example, lost love. Indeed, abandonment is a constant theme in the blues, and for good reason. Not only do lovers turn away and cause jealousy, anger, and sadness, but white oppressors brought the slaves to North America and as it were abandoned them there to the fate of the cruelty of chattel-slavery in all its guises. Race and lost love are coupled together in African-American folklore. In I’m Just a Bum, the great Big Bill Broonzy sings about rejection:

Eeh, when my mother died, my dad give po’ me away,

When my mother died, my dad gave po’ me away,

Lord, I’m just a bum baby, that’s why I got no place to stay

Sometimes I wonder why my dad give po’ me away,

Sometimes I wonder why my dad give po’ me away,

Lord, because I was dark-complexioned, Lord they throwed me away.

(Originally issued by Bluebird [B6III], 1935)

If the church was the most important outlet for emotions and the strongest advocate for education and status, the church was not altogether unlike the blues world it so often denounced. This is true both in style and content. T-bone Walker comments that the blues in a way comes out of the church. For example, he says that he heard boogie-woogie piano for the first time in the Holy Ghost Church of Dallas. The preacher also preached in a blues-like tone (Shapiro and Hentoff, Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya [New York: Reinhart, 1955], p. 223).

Many other such connections exist. A number of the greatest blues singers either came out of the church or went back into it. Two of the most remarkable gospel singers who began as bluesmen are Georgia Tom Dorsey (Thomas A. Dorsey, not to be confused with the swing band trombonist Tommy Dorsey) and Blind Gary Davis. Ethel Waters began as a blues singer and ended up singing gospel with the Billy Graham campaigns. It works the other way as well. Sister Rosetta Tharpe sang gospel-tres in nightclubs. Blind Willie Johnson sang “judgments songs” during the great influenza of 1918. J. B. Lenoir and Elmore James were itinerant preachers when they were not performing the blues. Jerry Lee Lewis grew up in the Assemblies of God. Although never becoming a preacher as did his first cousin Jimmy Swaggart, instead he ended up on the rock-and-roll stage, singing the blues.

Much more than these commonalities, the two worlds overlap at the very deepest level. Although a sacred-secular dichotomy did develop, that is not what African-Americans believe at their best. Rather, there is a more heavenly and a more earthly perspective, both under the same Lord. In the blues, there may be a more earthly gaze. But it is never disconnected from worship and first things. This complementarity stems from the diversity in the Bible itself, for example, in the way the wisdom literature of Scripture overlaps with the Psalms. The difference is one of focus, not of fundamental worldview. Ecclesiastes, Job, James, these are so many blues texts from the Scripture: looking at evil square in the face, sometimes puzzling about it, sometimes prophetically denouncing it. The Psalms direct our praise, as well as our deepest concerns, straight to the Lord in worship and meditation. Interestingly, both use a poetic device known as parallelism, in which a line is followed by a second one like it; then a third drives the point further.

In his wonderful book Getting the Blues, Stephen Nichols makes many of these connections. It is a kind of Christian apologetic for the blues. He quotes liberation theologian James Cone to the effect that the blues is hardly the devil’s music. The spirituals, Cone argues, provided the raw material for the blues, both musically and thematically. Not that they are identical. But the blues comes from the same soil.

This is a welcome piece of scholarship. It is a curious fact that much of the study of blues has been done by white people. Since World War II a host of British scholars has explored the blues with great dedication. We owe them a great debt since before them very little was known about the blues outside of the work of folklorists such as Alan Lomax (Roberta Freund Schwartz, How Britain Got the Blues [Ashgate, 2007], pp. 104ff.). Key authors such as Paul Oliver wrote seminal works introducing Europe and even America to this wonderful music. More often than not, though, such authors are of a Marxist persuasion, seeing blues singers as victims of colonialism, semi-literate, struggling under oppression in a post-colonial context.

Nichols is not the first, of course, to set forth a more balanced, Christian interpretation. In an earlier generation Hans Rookmaaker developed an interpretation of jazz, blues, and spirituals, which was a pioneering endeavor in connecting all three genres to the Christian faith (Hans R. Rookmaaker, New Orleans Jazz, Mahalia Jackson and the Philosophy of Art [The Complete Works 2; Carlisle: Piquant, 2002]; the original, in Dutch, was published in 1960). There is also the groundbreaking study, Blues and Evil by Michael Jon Spencer, a book to which Nichols refers (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993). Spencer attempts to see the blues as a folk-theological way of grappling with the problem of good and evil in the world, a theodicy.

But Nichols’s book brings its own fresh perspective to the study of the blues. The author’s experience as both a theologian and a historian of the South contributes nicely to his study of the blues. Extremely well-researched, the book stems also from something of a personal journey. Nichols has traveled to the famed landmarks of the blues, particularly in the Mississippi Delta. Instead of giving abstract theories about the blues, he pauses at length over several of the key ideas, and of course the singers. He explores the history and the myth of Robert Johnson, a sinner, a “son of Adam” blessed with common grace. Johnson gave us such masterpieces as Cross Road Blues. While his recorded music is unfortunately not extensive, it is worth its weight in gold. His music was the definitive inspiration on Eric Clapton and the Cream. He discusses Son House, a “man of sorrows,” who in his suffering yet knew the outcome of the story, giving us John the Revelator, an American masterpiece. There are also the women singers, like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, who are dubbed “women of sorrows.” Nichols powerfully weaves in the story of Ruth and especially the plight of Naomi, a sort of OT blues woman! And the book is touchingly dedicated to the memory of Charley Patton, the “Father of the Delta Blues,” whom many consider to be one of the twentieth century’s most significant musicians.

Nichols covers the Northern migration, although the Chicago blues receives less emphasis than the roots in the Delta. But describing the move North affords him the opportunity to discuss Muddy Waters, and the musicians who experienced the disappointments and hope deferred in the industrial jungle. The final chapters discuss gospel more than they do the blues, which is fine. Among the great candidates for this blues-like spiritual music are my own heroes, Thomas A. Dorsey and Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington. Dorsey returned from the blues to gospel and almost single-handedly moved church music from the spiritual to urban gospel. He gave us such great songs as Precious Lord, Take My Hand. Duke Ellington wrote various kinds of gospel songs, including the masterpiece Come Sunday, which he worked into his three Sacred Concerts. Some readers will probably be surprised at the Christian faith of the duke, but his life makes no sense without it.

The content is great, but so is the form. I loved the way Nichols weaves theological discussion through the pages of this book in a way that is neither preachy nor abstract or flatly conceptual. Nichols uses the redemptive-historical understanding of Scripture to make sense of the world of the blues, and he tells it like a story, the same kind of story told in the blues. There is original sin; there is the suffering of Christ; there is the resurrection; but these are a part of the fabric, rather than academic imports from on high.

I have only two regrets. The first is a problem common to most books about music: we don’t really hear the sounds. The lyrics are absolutely crucial, but the distinguishing feature of the blues is surely the passionate music. No doubt it would have proved prohibitively expensive to provide an accompanying CD. To make up for that, we do have a brief discography to go with each chapter. The reader really should download the music in order fully to “get” the blues. The second is that there is no index. In a book of this nature, the information should be more accessible at a quick glance, at least for serious blues scholars. There are plenty of footnotes, but it would have been helpful to make the names and subjects available without paging through the whole volume each time you need something specific.

But these are minor quibbles with a truly marvelous book. It deserves to be widely read, not only by Christians, who can be encouraged to “get” the blues from a balanced, yet loving presentation, but for unbelievers as well, who may be prone to think of the blues merely as secular entertainment, or as some sort of pure protest music. Can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? Yes, particularly if it carries the misery and the hope of the blues.

William Edgar

William Edgar is Department Coordinator and Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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