Over the last year or so I have been laboring at the intersection of church and culture, writing here in The Cresset under the provocatively put statement “Why God loves the Blues.” In my first installment, I told the story of Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit,” showing the ways the blues have expressed the sorrows of an oppressed people. As the story continued in a second installment, I showed how the blues revival (especially in England) positioned the blues as the “devil’s music,” a characterization distorted by British scholars unfamiliar with the complex culture of African American religion and culture. In this last installment, I offer another interpretation of the blues, one that sees the intimate connections between Saturday night and Sunday morning.
Most white scholars, as ethnomusicologist Jon Michael Spencer notes, confuse the “so-called ‘atheism’ of the blues as nothing more than a polemical moment for blues singers to stand in opposition to a history of oppression by white ‘theists’ (Christians), a polemical moment that by no means precluded blues being fundamentally religious” (1993, xv). The truth is, however, that the (white) Christian bifurcation of good and evil, soul and body, church hymns and the blues, deeply marked the culture of African Americans and the blues players themselves. Alan Lomax, the extraordinary folk music scholar whose field recordings helped popularize many early blues players, recalled this encounter on the Smithers Plantation near Huntsville, Texas in the 1930s. The manager brought in a man by the name of “One-Eye Charley.” Lomax continues:
The manager said: One-Eye, these gentlemen want to hear some real, old-time nigger singin’, not hymns, but some of the songs you’ve sort of made up out in the field, choppin’ cotton or plowin’ with the mules.
By this time One-Eye had strained his head up and away from us until it was impossible to catch his eye. Through his patched and tattered shirt, one could see the sweat bursting out and streaming down his hairy chest.
I ain’t no kind of a songster myself, boss. ‘Cose I do hum dese here sancrified hymns sometimes, but I’se a member of de chu’ch an’ I done clean forgot all de wor’ly songs I ever knowed. (Lomax, 10)
The question of what it might mean that One-Eye, faced with a white man who wanted to record his songs, claimed to have “done clean forgot all de wor’ly songs I ever knowed” divides scholarship on the blues.
One perspective is to read the divide as strict separation. The relation of blues to the gospel, of Saturday night to Sunday morning, Paul Oliver argued in his 1960 study Blues Fell Like Morning, is literally like night and day. The blues is a secular form cast out from the church: “blues that is performing a specifically religious function may scarcely be said to exist” (117–118). For a case in point, he turned to “Foolin’ Blues” by Texas bluesman J. T. “Funny Papa” Smith:
Some people tells me that God takes care
of old folks and fools (twice)
But since I’ve been born he must have
changed the rule.
I used to ask God questions, then answer
the questions myself (twice)
‘Bout when I was born, wonder was
there any mercy left?
Y’know until six months ago I hadn’t
prayed a pray since God know when
Now I’m asking God everyday to please
forgive me for my sins.
You know it must be the devil I’m
servin’, I know it can’t be Jesus Christ
‘Cause I ask him to save me and look like
he trying to take my life. 1
Oliver responded to this lyric by claiming that “blues is somewhat bereft of spiritual values.” “Lowerclass Blacks often had to decide whether to accept with meekness the cross they had to bear in this world and to join the church with the promise of ‘Eternal Peace in the Promised Land’ or whether to attempt to meet the present world on its own terms, come what may.” “The blues singer,” Oliver concludes, “chose the latter course” (117–118).
Part of the problem here is simply Oliver’s too simplistic outsider reading of the culture and context of African American life. Angela Davis takes appropriate offense at Oliver’s portrayal of southern black people “primarily concerned with the business of living day-to-day, of ‘getting along’ with the Whites, of conforming and making the best of their circumstances” (Ibid.). There is no excuse, Davis retorted, for representing blacks as merely victims of circumstances. Blacks did indeed survive by what W. E. B. DuBois called a “two-ness” or a “double-consciousness,” one used in relation to the master to survive and another when out of earshot (1989, 5).2 But to confuse one mode for both is to confuse the meaning of both—the foil of “getting by” made space for all manner of resistance tactics even in the time of slavery and the disappointment of the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era out of which the blues arose. But Oliver wrote in the late 1950s, as Davis notes. “Such a position is especially offensive,” Davis retorted, “considering the fact that the era during which [Oliver] wrote this book—the years following the Montgomery bus boycott—was the beginning of one of the most influential social movements in modern world history” (1998, 93).
Such misreading of the overall cultural context directly relates to Oliver’s misreading of the stark divide between spirituals and the blues, between sacred and the secular. Blues scholar Jon Michael Spencer argues that rather than a divide between preachers and blues singers, a more accurate understanding would see one culture that includes both spirituals and the blues contains an ongoing dialog often within the blues singers themselves. Responding to “Foolin’ Blues” quoted above, Spencer writes that speaking the truth, a virtue rooted in a shared moral universe between church and the blues, called at times for what seemed to be a sacrilegious critique of God. Quoting bluesman Henry Townsend, Spencer makes his point:
Some people think that the blues is something that is evil—I don’t. If the blues is delivered in the truth, which most of them are, if I sing the blues and tell the truth, what have I done? What have I committed? I haven’t lied. (1990, 122)
Here, Spencer argues, we hear a version of the beatitudes—“Blessed are those who bear no false witness”—articulated by the blues over against the “hypocrisy and self-righteousness of the churched” (123).
In the moving last chapter to his famous work The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois characterized the slave spirituals as “sorrow songs” in a way that shows their interconnection with the culture that produced the blues. They are, DuBois wrote, “the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.” Yet time and again, DuBois noted, through the Sorrow Songs, the “minor cadences of despair” turn to the “sound of Jubilee” in anticipation of the justice of God and another world beyond the reality of daily suffering. This haunted DuBois, sensitive to the fact that they had precious evidence in the midst of their lives to justify such hope. Wondering aloud in the face of this seemingly blind hope that “sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins,” DuBois rhetorically asks: “Is such a hope justified? Do the Sorrow Songs sing true?” (1989, 186).
In the first serious treatment of the blues as religious music, theologian James Cone picks up on DuBois’s question of the spirituals singing true. He contends that when the blues and the spirituals are considered together, it is clear that “the blues and the spirituals flow from the same bedrock of experience, and neither is an adequate interpretation of black life without the commentary of the other” (1972, 100). Calling the blues “secular spirituals,” Cone points out how the blues take as their subject the “secular” in the sense that they chronicle “the immediate and affirm the bodily expression of the black soul, including sexual manifestations.” Yet they are “spirituals” insofar as “they are impelled by the same search for the truth of black experience” (100). The particular truth of experience leading to the blues, Cone argues, was the frustration a generation after emancipation in the face of the social and legal disenfranchisement of black people.
Still, despite constraints on every side, the basic freedoms allowing choice in love and marriage, as well as of movement from town to town, meant new gathering places emerged beyond the church, and from these new sites the blues preachers “proclaimed the Word of black existence, depicting its joy and sorrow, love and hate, and the awesome burden of being ‘free’ in a racist society when one is black.” The center of this Word, Cone says, is their character of truth telling. The blues, Cone argues, is synonymous with speaking the truth of life, the life of “being black in a white racist society.”
The complexity of the connections between the spiritual and the blues, between Saturday night and Sunday morning, between the pain of life and the struggle to sing truthfully about it, comes to life in the lives of blues singers themselves. Don and Emily Saliers, father and daughter musicians who cross the church-culture divide, agree. “Saturday night and Sunday morning are always in an ongoing conversation, sometimes quarreling, sometimes in mutual respect. The cliché is that they are somehow incompatible” (see their beautiful 2005 book A Song to Sing, A Life To Live, p. 155). Framing these reflections by asking why God loves the blues counters the deaf ear much blues scholarship has turned to religion as a key thematic element that is shared by both the spirituals and the blues.3
Christian Scharen is Assistant Professor of Worship and Theology at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota. He is currently writing Broken Hallelujahs: Imagination, Pop Culture, and God.
1. J. T. “Funny Papa” Smith lived in Texas and recorded a number of blues songs with Vocalion in the 1930s. His first and most famous song, The Howlin’ Wolf Blues, was recorded in 1930.
2. “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” (DuBois, 5).
3. A recent happy exception to this tendency is Stephen Nichols, a professor of Christianity and culture at Lancaster Bible College. See his excellent 2008 book Getting the Blues (Brazos).
Cone, James. The Spirituals and the Blues. Boston: The Seabury Press, 1972.
Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.
DuBois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folks. New York: Bantam Books, 1989 .
Lomax, Alan. “‘Sinful’ Songs of the Southern Negro.” In Selected Writings, 1934–1997, Ronald D. Cohen, ed. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Nichols, Stephen. Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches Us about Suffering and Salvation. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2008.
Oliver, Paul. Blues Fell Like Morning: Meaning in the Blues. London: Cassell, 1960.
Saliers Don and Emily Saliers. A Song to Sing, A Life To Live: Reflections on Music as Spiritual Practice. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2005.
Spencer, Jon Michael. Blues and Evil. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993.
_____. Protest and Praise: Sacred Music of Black Religion. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.