03 June 2007

Lovin' the Blues

Blind Willie Johnson

As a long time lover of the blues, I found this piece at Reformation 21 engaging. Not alot of new information for someone who listens to the blues but possibly for someone who has been under the impression, like many, that the blues is the Devil's music. In The "Spirituals and the Blues," James Cone debunks the thesis that while the spirituals are church music, the blues is the Devil’s music. In some ways, as Cone readily admits, the disjuncture is legitimate. For instance, Son House was confronted with a crossroads decision: Should he take up the guitar and be a bluesman or should he pick up his Bible and be a preacher? He chose the former, but at least he sang about the latter in his song “Preachin’ Blues.” Cone quickly points out, however, how overdrawn the disjuncture is and argues instead for a symbiosis of the two. To put the matter directly, the blues wouldn’t be the blues without the spirituals. Continuing....The spirituals provided the blues artists with the musical experience out of which they could craft their art. The spirituals further provided the blues artists with the content out of which they would craft their lyrics. The spirituals were filled with hope and longing, all the while facing head on the realities of sin and the harshness of life. Faulkner titled his work on the conflicts in the Delta during the exact same decades as the birth of the blues Go Down, Moses (1942). Through the spirituals, the people of the Delta had become one with the grand story of redemption in Exodus. They had appropriated it so often that it had become their story. They also knew all too well the biblical theme of exile, a dynamic sociologists refer to as marginalization, a sterile term for oppression. Blues artists appropriated the themes of exile, bondage, and oppression (sin) against the theme of hope and promise (redemption) throughout their music. “They call it stormy Monday,” but, the song continues, “Tuesday’s just as bad, Wednesday’s even worse, Thursday’s awfully sad.” But then, “Sunday I go to church where I kneel down to pray,” adding, as if taking a line from The Book of Common Prayer, “Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy on me.” The blues artists may have left the church, but the church, and especially the spirituals, hadn’t left them. They were developing a distinct theology, a theology, like their music, that was set in a minor key.

Certainly, like many things, there are the blues today that are very far removed from what this article is describing. Yet, the root of all blues (and rock) is a theology set in a minor key. Give this piece a read and listen to some blues because...The blues invites us not only to embrace the curse but also simultaneously to embrace the cross. To see the broken made whole, the lost found. We see the exile and stranger make their way back home. “I was blind, but now I see,” goes the classic. Not through some cheap happy ending, but in the identification and the defeat of all sorrow and sin in the Man of Sorrows on the cross, the most solemn minor key ever sounded in human history. In short, the blues helps us understand what theologians call redemption, all of the realities of life under the cross.

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