It’s been said that America, as South Africa did, must confront its past, especially in terms of white supremacy and racism, and hopefully through honest, deep dialogue across the chasm of race. How do you do that? Well, maybe a start is just looking at our shared past from all angles and ALL sides. Can one learn from the past? Learning can be a choice, but I think it’s one worth making, even in the face of possible failure.
I’m writing this not only in terms of racism, but also because it seems we all have been suffering from a sort of doldrums due to the temporary or maybe permanent loss of our usual way of life and acting due to the Corona Virus pandemic and resultant “lock down”. This isolation for many of us can result in pent up energy and frustration just waiting for release, if not self-destruction, and possibly lowered self-esteem. But I truly believe that isolation and “aloneness” can also lead to inward looking and asking, even as things now open up, “Just how am I living my life, and is this how I want it to continue?” I originally started writing about blues music because I love it. Now, however, I’m thinking a brief history of it may have a deeper meaning and purpose for our nation.
It’s my opinion that when the soul feels, or in fact IS, abased, many things can result, depending on the individual and/or society. Our inhumanity to one another usually has devastating effects; however, it can also bring out our indomitable nature as well. I have to think here of the 19th century Russian novelists and thinkers like Fyodor Dostoevsky and others: crushed under the tyranny of the Czars and often expelled to horrid conditions in Siberian camps… what was the result? As I see it, this squeezed out of them some of the most significant, deep, and meaningful writing, literature and political thought the world has seen. But the unfortunate denouement of it all was revolution: violent, harsh and destructive. Bertrand Russell once commented to the effect that the Soviet government after the revolution was the only kind that could handle the characters Dostoevsky wrote about!
But perhaps we here in America have a chance to create a different future for ourselves… and the world. The Bolsheviks figured their only option was to tear everything down and begin anew, erasing the past and, in effect, denying human nature. Can we come up with a better solution?
I don’t know. But I want to present here a snapshot of something from our past, and hope that maybe if we look at it again in the light of the present, we’ll see some basis to promote common dialogue and begin to face our most despicable sins. I think psychology, and even religion, would agree that talking about ourselves and our “most grievous” faults promotes healing. (Besides, it’s also been said that history is the autobiography of a madman!)
So, here goes. The music and lyrics of the blues singers, while not as refined as Dostoevsky’s prose, still said a lot about life and was also “squeezed” out of them by the injustices they experienced. Poverty, oppression, and exploitation are perennial.
Stephen J. Nichols published a book, Getting the Blues – What Blues Music Teaches Us about Suffering and Salvation in 2008. In it, he tries to span the gap between the lives and music of old blues singers and songwriters and the “heart and soul” of the Christian Gospel, to derive some parallels. (Of course, the divide between the two can, at times, be huge and not easily breached!)
The Mississippi delta bluesmen (and some women) of the early 1900’s lived life as best they could, even though they were often black sharecroppers under white Jim Crow domination and oppression. They had a good grasp of their hard realities and sang about them with honesty, something the organized church chose hypocritically to deny and suppress at times with its “pie in the sky” preaching. These men were independent, rootless and rebellious. They were calamitous, having run-ins with the law, often in trouble with women, but nonetheless pleading with the Lord if they had to.
Their names and nicknames could be as telling as their music: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Mississippi John Hurt, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Lead Belly, Ma Rainey (“Mother of the Blues”), Billie Holliday, Son House, Sonny Terry, Bobby Blue Bland, Big Mama Thornton, and a “string” of others. Most played guitar, others threw in a harmonica as well (which could be easily strung around their necks), a few fiddled and some just sang.
Some of the early bluesmen were blind. The only thing a blind, black man could do to make a few dollars was learn to play the guitar (and/or harmonica) and sing to workers in the fields. Some of them were Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell… up to the recent (blind) Ray Charles.
Many of the early bluesmen, like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Son House, fled the Mississippi delta area to head north, especially after the extensive and disastrous Mississippi River flood of 1927. Robert Johnson, another notable delta blues singer, died at an early age, probably while stuck outside in a Chicago winter snowstorm. (Some even say he has three separate graves!)
But the bluesmen (and their women) left not just to escape southern segregation, but also to search for something new, something available to all. Especially finding themselves in Chicago, they got “electrified”, electricity for their guitars and harmonicas with resulting amplification. A few lucky ones secured meager record contracts and small concert appearances. While they themselves had composed these melodies, lyrics and riffs (usually jointly, or passed around), on the whole, most of them received little money or recognition for their efforts, except perhaps a later footnote on a white rock band’s record label.
Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield) was an exception. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones said that Waters had been the sole inspiration for the group’s music and that he “always thought that Muddy ran the band”. In fact, Muddy’s lyrics “like a rolling stone” or “a rolling stone gathers no moss” inspired a Bob Dylan song, and the name for the iconic Rolling Stone Magazine. The Stones did a joint London stage concert with Muddy in the 1970’s and Waters also performed for President Jimmy Carter at the White House.
Whiskey, weevils and women, says Stephen J. Nichols in his engaging book, Getting the Blues, were the three great banes of the bluesmen. The boll weevil insect, which they could do nothing about, migrated from Mexico into Mississippi, and eating up cotton flowers and heads, destroyed many of their fields. The bug ruined the black sharecroppers, but put many of the white plantation owners out of business as well. The black farmers gained some consolation knowing the bugs were not selective… or prejudiced!
But whiskey and women entered the picture as more of a choice… although not totally, especially the latter! The bluesmen lived their lives to the full and sang woefully about them. Hooked on whiskey and often going from woman to woman, they lived hard and fast. Muddy declared the blues had to do with a woman leaving a man and “not under the best of circumstances”, according to Nichols. Many died young. But whiskey and women could be the only consolations and pleasures a black man had, Nichols states. Most by then had rejected the tenets of formal religion, although a very few like Son House later became preachers. And too, many famously sang, “They call it Stormy Monday… but Sunday I go to church.”
Sickeningly, a black man could be hung by the neck for talking to or just looking at a white woman… or merely being accused of doing so. And multitudes were. Billie Holliday, and later Etta James, sang “Strange Fruit”, a song about a black man hanging from a tree. The temperament of the country was such that even in the mid-1930’s, President Franklin Roosevelt wouldn’t push an anti-lynching bill for fear of losing southern congressional support. African-American males stuck to their own way of life. Whiskey and women dulled the pain for a while.
While many bluesmen of this time strayed from church, Nichols claims, almost all had been “dragged there” early on by grandmothers. In this manner they learned bible lessons and the great negro spirituals. Religion being “thumped” into their heads, it later came out in many of their blues songs… if even just “Lord, help me” or “O, Lordy”.
Nichols says the great contribution of the bluesmen and their music to an understanding of the Gospel comes from their depiction of the pain, alienation, cruelty, and isolation of segregated, bottom-feeding life. The unintended injustices of Reconstruction and then Jim Crow followed hard on the bitterness of slavery. Many African-Americans saw little hope. But the story of the oppressed Israelites slaves and their Exodus to the Promised Land gave them hope and persistence. As exiles, the bluesmen were acquainted with desperation, wandering, and the search for a better home.
Many of them, male and female, couldn’t see an end to their suffering, nor the salvation of God on earth. Some sang, “The blues ain’t nothing but a good man feeling bad.” Yet they have provided an understanding of sin and suffering that today is often denied or dismissed. Theirs was no glib, smug or self-satisfied view of life. They cried out under its weight, just as Christ did while hanging from his own “tree”: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) and like David: “Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?” (Psalm 22:1). But they, like David, were revisited by a past that produced some of their own troubles.
Southern African-Americans might have identified personally with portions of Psalm 22: “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people” (22:6) and “Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me…” (22:16). Psalm 69:4 adds: “Those who hate me without reason outnumber the hairs of my head…” These words, of course, also described and foreshadowed the sufferings of Christ.
Furthermore, the writer of the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes, not denying the harsh realities of life, could speak despairingly too. Witness such verses as: “…No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun…” (8:17); “…a man’s misery weighs heavily upon him…” (8:6); “… the hearts of men… are full of evil…” (9:3); “…I saw the tears of the oppressed – and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors…” (4:1); “If you see the poor oppressed… and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised… (5:8); “I have seen a grievous evil…” (5:13); “…when a man lords it over others…” (8:9); “…in the place of justice – wickedness…” (3:16); “So I hated life…” (2:17); and finally, “Meaningless! Meaningless! … Everything is meaningless!” (12:8).
Out of the hard lives of the blues men and women was pressed the bitter-sweet, moving music known as the blues. A hidden hope lurked within the strict, repetitious, soulful, often plodding four-verse stanzas, that hope wailing forth in talented, intricate guitar and harmonica interludes. The melodies could be hard-driving, seasoned with tough lyrics, but this was the genre which birthed and shaped the 20th century’s jazz, rock n’ roll and hard rock music scenes. Their songs were adopted, adapted and made popular by white singers like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Winter, and Eric Clapton. “A Man of Constant Sorrows”, for example, was first recorded by blind fiddler Dick Burnett then later covered by notables Bob Dylan; Peter, Paul and Mary; and Rod Stewart. Led Zepplin did a version of “Gallows Pole” credited to Lead Belly (Huddy Ledbetter). Mick Jagger sang the spiritual “You gotta move”, the Allman Brothers did “Whippin’ Post”, and the list goes on.
Lest we forget the female blues singers like Maggie Jones and others, radical African-American feminist/activist Angela Y. Davis published her 1998 book, Blues Legacy and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holliday, featuring their contributions.
Muddy Waters claimed: “As long as people hurt, [the blues] will be around” and “You can’t lose what you ain’t never had.” Many like Johnnie Billington believed, “The blues is truth. The blues is living”. Lead Belly followed that with, “It takes a man to have the blues to sing the blues”.
Author Stephen Nichols summed it up pretty well himself: “The blues teaches us what it means to be human.”
And lest we forget Mr. Dostoevsky himself, he often used his sometimes despicable, downtrodden, alienated novel characters to illustrate his similar view that salvation can proceed from suffering.
It has been said that the study of history can relieve feelings of isolation and lead to resilience, courage and fortitude. So, what conclusions are there to all this? I leave them up to whoever may read this. I think this might be the best way to encourage further dialogue.
Putting all of this aside, however, I think if one is going to use and discuss history, George Orwell’s 1984 admonition is paramount: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
[All bible quotes are from the New International Version (NIV), cy 1986.]
Guest blog posts are the opinion of the author and may not reflect the opinion of the CSBV. They are posted to stimulte comment and dialogue.
Roger Karny is retired and lives near Denver, Colorado, USA. His interests include history and good literature. Guest blogs are invited to stimulate discussion and comment and should not be assumed to represent the views of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence.