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ideaExchange Transcript 4.30.05


The Psalms, The Blues and the Telling of Truth
Jamie Howison 4.30.05

It was almost as if he felt things so acutely he found it almost unbearable.

"I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson. His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice, really. I know that when I first heard it, it called to me in my confusion, it seemed to echo something I had always felt." (Eric Clapton cited in the liner notes to Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings)

This evening we're going to take a bit of a crash course in the blues. The blues is one of the forms of music born in the deep South of the USA, out of the African-American experience of slavery. Generally thought to have come into being in the very late 1800's, the roots of the blues go right back into African music traditions. Rooted in Africa, blues music is forged on Southern soil, in a context of poverty and despair, with the memory of slavery just beginning to fade and institutionalized racism ("separate but equal") replacing it as the new social reality. Blues is also shaped in the context of faith and resilience, with some strong notes of subversion carried over from the days in which "church singing" was one of the few music styles permitted by the slave owners. There is something about this crashing up of the pain of slavery against the narratives of the scripture that produced a spiritual tradition of both strength and resistance. In an article entitled "David was a Bluesman," Glenn Kaiser writes the following:

"Perhaps the most basic theological truths ever preached in African-American society came straight out of the biblical accounts of Moses setting Israel free from the bondage of pharoah. The obvious connection between his/her daily lot and that of the children of Israel was immediate and absolute. God offered the only possible hope of freedom, whether in the next life, this or both... Hope. A Saviour. Deliverance from excruciatingly painful bondage. Dignity restored..."

Musically, the blues is a pretty basic form. The standard is the "twelve-bar blues," in which verses contain twelve measures built around three chords. It is, to the ears of most people, an instantly recognizable form. However, that doesn't mean that it is easy to play, or easy to play well. There have been some virtuoso blues players over the years, though that tends to be a later development in the tradition. The early bluesmen - and early on they were mostly, though not exclusively men - were all about feel, and feel is not something you develop through practice drills.

There is an anecdote - maybe apocryphal - of how one of those technically brilliant jazz guitar players from the '70's or '80's - someone like Larry Coryell or Al DiMeola - asked an old bluesman how he got his sound. The answer went something like this: "Put down your guitar for a year, and go out and live. Get drunk, meet some women, live out there awhile... then pick up your guitar again and play what you know."

Needless to say, this not only says something about "feel," but also moves us into the question of the oftentimes-unholy reputation of the blues. While it might well have been music rooted at least in part in the experience of the African-American church, the blues has often been thought of as being the prodigal brother to the developing black gospel tradition. In fact, the two ran on more or less parallel tracks, with gospel purists appalled by much of what drove the blues, to say nothing of the character and life of many of the blues players. In the words of Jesse Jackson,

"Gospel and the blues both have very sad origins, born of pain. The difference is, in the blues, you go down twice, you come up once. In the gospel, it's always a 'good news' ending. There's always some resurrection beyond the crucifixion. There's always some brighter day ahead, beyond the clouds of today."

There were certainly exceptions to the "go down twice, come up once" rule; people like Blind Willie Johnson and Rev. Gary Davis, but in a large part the blues was for, and about, the backsliders. Some of those backsliders even delighted in taking what their grandmothers would have seen to be blasphemous liberties with the language of the church. Take Texas Alexander's "Justice Blues" for example:

I cried Lord my father
Lord, Kingdom come
Send me back my woman,
then thy will be done.

There is a lot of blues written about women and drink and women and sex and women, and it had precious little to do with the "husbands love your wives" that the preacher was dishing out on Sunday morning. In fact, if the stories are to be believed, amongst the bluesmen, it may well have been closer to "men, love someone else's wife." A few samples from Robert Johnson, often thought to be the most influential blues player of all time. Firstly, from the ironically titled, "Kindhearted Woman Blues,"

Ain't but the one thing
makes Mr Johnson drink
I's worried about how you treat me, baby,
I begin to think
Oh babe, my life don't feel the same
You breaks my heart
when you call Mr. So-and-So's name.

Or this, from "Traveling Riverside Blues:"

You can squeeze my lemon 'til the
juice run down my leg
That's what I'm talkin' 'bout now.

Not so subtle, that Mr Johnson... And running through this material, there is a pretty strong theme of violent jealousy. From the "32-20 Blues:"

'f I send for my baby
and she don't come
'f I send for my baby
and she don't come
All the doctors in Hot Springs
sure can't help her none

Ah-oh baby where you stayed last night
You got your hair all tangled and you ain't talkin' right
Got a .38 special, boys, it do very well.

Any wonder the community preachers were more than a little concerned to keep the flock out of the juke joints and away from the likes of Robert Johnson? Part of the Johnson mythology has him selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads, trading away his eternal salvation in return for his considerable musical gifts. Part of the verifiable Robert Johnson story is that he died at age 26, after being poisoned by the jealous husband of a woman to whom he had been paying just a little too much attention.

Yet just as in the world of rock and roll, Jerry Lee Lewis always drew on the sounds he had first heard in the church of his youth - the church he attended alongside of his cousin, Jimmy Swaggert - something in the sound and feel and even lyrics of players like Robert Johnson is tied to those African-American church roots. Maybe that is because one of the great lessons these players learned was that you have to tell your story, you have to speak your truth. When you read or hear the scripture with all of our polite middle class assumptions stripped back, you begin to realize that this is in fact some pretty raw material. Start digging in the Psalms, and you find that over a third of them are what are counted as "laments;" are what tonight I'm calling "blues-psalms."

Listen to Bono's take on the psalms.

At the age of 12, I was a fan of David. He felt familiar, like a pop star could feel familiar. The words of the psalms were as poetic as they were religious, and he was a star. Before David could fulfil the prophecy and become the king of Israel, he had to take quite a beating. He was forced into exile and ended up in a cave in some no-name border town facing the collapse of his ego and abandonment by God. But this is where the soap opera got interesting. This is where David was said to have composed his first psalm - a blues. That's what a lot of the psalms feel like to me, the blues. Man shouting at God - 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me?' (Psalm 22)

Set verses from Van Morrison's "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" alongside of an excerpt from Eugene Peterson's translation of Psalm 13, and this becomes no stretch at all.

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Long way from my home

Motherless children have a hard time
Motherless children have-a such a hard time
Motherless children have a hard time
A long way from home

Long enough, God
you've ignored me long enough.
I've looked at the back of your head
long enough. Long enough
I've carried this ton of trouble,
lived with a stomach full of pain.
Long enough my arrogant enemies
have looked down their noses at me.
(from Psalm 13, The Message)

Sometimes I feel like freedom is near
Sometimes I feel like freedom is near
Sometimes I feel like freedom is near
But we're so far from home

Listen to how the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann characterizes the Psalms:

"The speech of the Psalms is abrasive, revolutionary, and dangerous. It announces that our common experience is not one of well-being and equilibrium, that life is not like that. Life is instead a churning, disruptive experience of dislocation and relocation."

By merely trading the word "blues" for "Psalms," you would have a fairly good description of the function of blues music in its original social and cultural context. "David as bluesman" is hardly a stretch at all. Never mind the scholarly arguments about who actually wrote the Psalms - and remember, the Psalms themselves give writer's credit to various other authors alongside of David - the tradition has always seen the figure of David as being inextricably linked to the heart of this material. Part hero and part bandit; both faithful and fallen; a decisive, compelling leader and a compromised womanizer... who better to sing the blues?

And like the blues, many of the Psalms are all about lamenting the state the writer is in. Sometimes that state is due to the attack of enemies, or of situations outside of immediate control. Recall those words from Peterson's translation of Psalm 13, or maybe a more conventional translation of Psalm 22:

For dogs are all around me;
a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shriveled;
I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
they divide my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.
(Psalm 22:16-18, NRSV)

Here, by the way, Rene Girard makes the observation that these Psalms of lament represent a kind of breakthrough in the story of God and humanity. Girard speaks of the "extraordinary originality" of the Psalms of lament, and suggests that they "may be the oldest texts in human history to let the voice of the victims, rather than that of their persecutors, be heard." In the ancient mythological systems, you pretty much get what you deserve, and things play out as has been determined by the gods. In the lament Psalms, the community is called to reject that kind of determinism, and to stand with the suffering, struggling writer. No small step, that... and pretty much the very thing that the blues asks of its listeners.

There are other voices heard in these blues-psalms, which confess that the writer is very much responsible for his own misfortune.

While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,'
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
(Psalm 32:3-5, NRSV)

Or in the case of the blues, here is Robert Johnson again, from a song called "Drunken Hearted Man":

I'm a drunken hearted man
my life seem so misery
I'm a drunken hearted man
my life seem so misery
And if I could change my way of livin'
it t'would mean so much to me.


I'm a drunken hearted man
and sin was the cause of it all
I'm a drunken hearted man
and sin was the cause of it all
And the day that you get weak for no-good women
that's the day that you bound to fall.

Interesting to note that here Johnson still wants to place at least a portion of the blame for his fall on "no-good women." In pretty much direct contrast is Psalm 51, which is associated with David's affair with Bathsheba.

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse my from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgement.
(Psalm 51:1-4, NRSV)

That's a bit closer to the "nobody's fault but mine" of Blind Willie Johnson's song of that name, recorded by Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead, Ben Harper and various others.

Nobody's fault but mine
Nobody's fault but mine
If I don't read my soul will be lost
Nobody's fault but mine
My sister, she taught me how to read
My sister, she taught me how to read
If I don't read my soul will be lost
Nobody's fault but mine

Now I got a Bible in my arms
Now I got a Bible in my arms
If I don't read my soul will be lost
And it's nobody's fault but mine

In the Psalms of penitential lament, the underlying theology is that if something is wrong it is because something has gone wrong in the relationship between the person (or community) and God. If life has become a mess, if enemies circle, if there is no peace in the heart of the writer, it is because God has allowed things to unravel due to an infidelity in the relationship. It is "nobody's fault but mine."

Still, whether it is due to the psalmist's own failings, to circumstances of undeserved attack or persecution, or to something more random and plainly tragic, the experience is one of disorientation and dislocation. Other psalms sing of being safely oriented and located in God, but these laments - these blues-psalms - dare to speak out of dislocation and disorientation. These are voices that say, "this ain't how it is supposed to be... oh Lord have mercy." It is truthful speech, in its naming of how life is. And life is like that.

But it doesn't end there. With only one notable exception (Psalm 88), the laments all do turn to God in hope and trust. All evidence to the contrary, they say, we will be relocated. As in the Book of Job, the spirit here is, "I know that my redeemer lives," which can often be less a statement of secure faith and more of a stubborn challenge to the redeemer to show himself.

The power of this willingness to transparently name the truth, "help(s) people to die completely to the old situation - the old possibility, the old false hopes, the old lines of defense and pretense - to say as dramatically as possible, 'That is all over now.'" Then, and only then, the possibility of singing new songs - songs of surprising reorientation and relocation - becomes real. But before the new song, the blues. "Heaviness may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning," (Psalm 30:5) It is just that you need to be prepared to sing the blues till that sun begins to rise. To do otherwise is to risk being caught in an endless twilight, mute and paralyzed, afraid of the night ahead.

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