The blues make an ideal soundtrack for these days of economic angst and turmoil. Who couldn’t find solace in a song like “Rollin’ and Tumblin,’” “I Be’s Troubled,” or “Hellhound on My Trail”? The blues can also articulate our deepest suffering as broken humans in need of redemption, says Stephen J. Nichols, professor of Christianity and culture at Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Bible College and author of Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches Us about Suffering and Salvation. He talked with Sojourners associate editor Molly Marsh about the theological story contained in the blues.
Molly Marsh: How do you define the blues?
Steve Nichols: I was down in the Mississippi Delta staying at an amazing place called the Hopson Plantation, and I met blues man Johnnie Billington. I’d been all over the Delta, talked to a number of blues musicians, and I put the same question to all of them—what is the blues?—and his answer was wonderful: “Blues is truth.” That’s a great insight. I think what he’s saying is that it speaks truthfully to human experience. He also said the blues is community—you could be feeling bad, you just lost your job, problems at home—and you go to the blues bar and here’s a guy up there singing, and he’s got it just as bad as you do. You realize that you’re in this thing together.
You write that “blues is a theology that lingers over Good Friday,” and that many American Christians—evangelicals particularly—may be missing out on a fuller view of humanity, that we’re anxious to slide toward Easter but not dwell in Good Friday.
I’m an American evangelical, I live among American evangelicals, and I teach American evangelicals, and one of the things I observe is that we tend to have a fairly triumphalist theology. Speaking about it musically, it’s a theology or view of life that’s always in the major key. Some have referred to certain elements of praise and worship music as “happy-clappy” music; what’s missing is the full picture of life—even the full picture of Christ. That’s what blues music contributes. It helps us not just dwell on life in the minor key, but at least to acknowledge and recognize it. In the recognizing of it we have a more holistic, true, and authentic sense of who we are as human beings, the human condition, and even life.
We tend to gloss over the place of sorrow in Jesus’ own life and his seeming abandonment by God. You write that Jesus’ cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is probably the greatest blues line of all time.
That’s the most poignant moment in all of scripture. Jesus is suspended between heaven and earth at that moment. He’s been rejected by humanity and is abandoned by God, and so he has this ultimate cry of desperation. That’s something listening and being engaged in the blues helped me connect with. You see it in other places in scripture, too. Bono has referred to David as a “blues man,” and of course the Psalms have that minor key. David was a musician; he played an instrument that was actually a precursor to the guitar, so he’s about as much a blues man as you can get.
I was surprised at the number of blues musicians who were also preachers—and also the number of times phrases such as “Lord, have mercy” come up in blues songs.
These musicians went back and forth between the world of the blues and the world of the church. You had the “juke joint” where the blues were played Saturday nights, and then you had the church on Sunday mornings. There’s a great story—I think it was Son House, another one of these giants of the early Delta blues—who was at a juke joint Saturday night and nobody left. Sunday morning he wakes up, sees people sleeping all over, jumps up on the bar, and starts preaching a sermon because he realizes it’s Sunday morning. It’s a great image.
This line you hear a lot—“Lord, have mercy”—I don’t think is musical filler. It’s really the “heart’s cry” of many of these musicians. They had incredibly hard lives. Living between the world wars in the Mississippi Delta, life really was a 20th century version of slavery, the sharecropper system. In all of that hardship there’s a desperate cry for God’s intervention, for God to notice, for God to show mercy to them.
Many, many blues songs are denunciations of injustice.
Musicians would use code words to refer to the sheriff and the plantation owner. Charley Patton had a song called “Tom Rushen Blues”—Tom Rushen was a real sheriff. It’s essentially a protest song about the injustices Rushen inflicted on the poor blacks in that Mississippi county. For Patton to name him in this Jim Crow South, this segregated South, was a pretty bold move.
Bessie Smith had a number of songs that addressed issues of poverty and social injustice. She has a great line in one song, “give a poor man a chance.” You find this even in post-World War II blues because a lot of African Americans were enlisted to fight and then came home to the South, where they’re treated incredibly poorly. When he was a young man, B.B. King observed the German POWs who were used in Mississippi on cotton farms. King noticed that the Germans POWs were treated better, given better quarters and more food, had fewer work hours, and less rigorous jobs than the American blacks. This was a very poignant image that never really left him.
Strains of this later became important for the civil rights movement.
Martin Luther King Jr. talks about this wonderful singing family called the Staple Singers. After he first met and heard the Staple Singers, King is said to have responded, “You can do in one song what takes me speeches and speeches to try to pull off.” Historians who look back on the civil rights movement recognize that it’s really this soundtrack that empowered the people to get behind the movement’s major figures.
What are some differences between blues songs and spirituals?
Some of it would be the content. There’s a lot of double entendre in the blues, and a lot of the content is sexual, so that differentiates it from spirituals. Musically the blues developed that minor key note that isn’t as much in spirituals.
But people tend to play up the differences. In James Cone’s book The Spirituals and the Blues, he acknowledges that they look like very distant cousins, but there’s more of a connection than people give credit to—musically and content-wise. He draws attention to the “Lord, have mercy” phrases, but he also says that what holds these together is the underlying hope that’s present in the spirituals, that someday all this will be set right, a sort of eschatology to where the kingdom—in which justice and mercy flow down—will be realized. Cone says that impulse drives blues.
In Hungry for Heaven, writer Steve Turner picks up this theme in rock and roll, too—the idea of a longing for the kingdom, a recognition that this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, and a recognition for God to break in and bring the kingdom into realization. Willie Dixon, an old blues man, said, “The blues is the roots, and everything else is the fruits.” The blues is behind jazz, black gospel, soul, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, the folk movements of the ’60s—it’s clearly behind the British rock bands of the ’60s; the Rolling Stones take their name from a Muddy Waters lyric. And of course you have Eric Clapton, who says he owes everything to [early blues musician] Robert Johnson.
But they’re not just imitating guitar riffs and the music. They also picked up that theme. The whole idea of a rolling stone in Muddy Waters’ lyric is the idea of rootlessness, the idea that this is not the way it’s supposed to be, and a longing for something more.
At the end of your book, you write that “the blues is a realized eschatology and also a future eschatology.”
There is a sense in which it’s in the future when the realities of the kingdom are fully known, but we don’t have to sit on this side of Jordan’s shores and wait for the other side. We can seek God to be at work now, and we can even seek to be instruments of bringing that future kingdom life into the world as we know it, into our own experience. And we can enjoy some good music along the way.