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Volume 17, Issue 3: Thema

A Case For the Blues

Douglas Wilson

During the heyday of the blues in American black culture, respectable blacks called the blues "the devil's music."1 They did this because the blues represented blacks to the predominant white culture, and the representation tended to reinforce a boatload of negative stereotypes. And so of course it was in the interest of these good folks to overthrow all such impressions. When John Lee Hooker sang about "whiskey and wimmin" the effect was not really calculated to throw down the established prejudices. And this is what is behind B. B. King, a modern ambassador for the blues, performing consistently in a tuxedo.

The blues probably began in the late nineteenth century, shortly before the widespread recording of music began. But by the 1920s, eighty percent of all the records sold in the United States were blues records. The blues first came into public view when, in 1903, a bandleader named W. C. Handy heard a fellow in a railway station in Mississippi playing the weirdest song he had ever heard. The man was playing a guitar with a knife pressed on the strings—"Goin' where the Southern cross the Dog. . . ."
But contrary to popular assumptions, the blues did not originate in "slavery time"—no slaves sang what we call the blues. This form of music began (perhaps) as early as 1890, and perhaps as late as 1902. The blues arose simultaneously, all across the South, and emerged (kind of, together with jazz) from the music we call ragtime. For example, the piano blues called boogie woogie has been described as the "bad little boy of the rag family who wouldn't study."
After his experience at the railway station, Handy saw an amazing audience response to a local blues band in Cleveland, and went on to publish the song "Memphis Blues" in 1912. As the blues emerged from the unpublished shadows, they divided into two categories performed respectively by city women and rural men. The "city women" presented the blues as a polished and sophisticated act. Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were good representatives, and they were the first to make any money at it. Mamie Smith sold an incredible number of records in 1920 with her Crazy Blues.
The rural men are better known today, and represent what is thought of as the "authentic blues" that originated in the Mississippi delta, a region in between the Mississippi river and the Yazoo River. Early bluesmen were men like Charley Patton, Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson. This kind of blues singing is called "country blues," or "downhome blues," or "barrelhouse blues." The notion of such blues as the genuine article simply because they are "raw and unpolished" probably owes more to the philosophy of Rousseau and his idea of "primitivism as inherently noble" than it does to an comparison of the actual forms that the blues have taken over the years.
After the Second World War, the blues basically worked their way up the Mississippi river to Chicago, and, having arrived in the city, they went electric. In 1890, eighty percent of American blacks lived in the rural South. By 1920, it was sixty-five percent, and by 1950 it was twenty percent. Between 1940 and 1950 over a million blacks abandoned the South, and their music went with them. Of course, other cities besides Chicago had their blues clubs—Memphis, St. Louis, Atlanta, and so on—so we must recall that we are flying over this subject at treetop level. The men who represent this era were men like Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, B. B. King, Elmore James, Howling Wolf, John Lee Hooker, et al.
The most recent phase in the history of the blues has been an era that might be characterized by an irreverent person as "white boy blues"—within the last generation (beginning in the 60's), the blues have been largely abandoned by blacks, in favor of hip-hop, and the blues have been adopted and carried on by whites: John Mayall, Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, John Hammond, Bonnie Raitt, Johnny Winter, and many more. And frankly, many of these artists have gotten really good at it. The music has not really suffered at all, but there does seem to be more than a little irony in the fact that the blues are now being performed both by blacks with a hardscrabble story to sing about, and suburban whites from the most pampered generation in all history, looking for a new form of music that will justify all the money their parents spent on their music lessons.
The blues come in many forms, but the standard skeletal form of the blues is the straight-forward twelve-bar blues. In this form, the musical structure begins with the tonic, goes to the subdominant, heads back to the tonic, and then finishes up with the dominant, subdominant, tonic—and back to the dominant. That's for the people who have had music lessons. For those looking at a book of chord progressions, with their tongue out the side of their mouths, it simply means twelve bars of E, A, E, B7, A, E, B7. But while this is a common structure, it is by no means the only one. Another common characteristic of the blues is what is called the shuffle, a common bass "lick," which (when done right) sounds like deep-throated-harmonious thumping. At the end of the twelve bars of music, the verse ends on the dominant (seventh) chord called the turnaround, which invites one (compels one) into the next verse. The blues scale typically has a flatted third and a flatted seventh. Various genres of the blues are often characterized by the licks, as can be seen in the difference between delta blues and Chicago blues.
A poem can have a standard form (as a sonnet does) and yet display wild divergence. It is the same with the codified structure of the blues, or even with covers of the same song. Take the blues standard "Crossroads," and listen to the versions of that song played by Robert Johnson (who wrote it), Cream, Honeyboy Edwards, and Derek and the Dominoes. A similar contrast can be seen in "Sweet Home Chicago" (also by Robert Johnson) and the cover of that song by the Blues Brothers.
A great deal of energy has been expended in trying to figure out where the blues "came from," and it is admittedly a very difficult thing to do. How do you trace forms of music in the eras before music was recorded, and in many places where the traditions were entirely oral? This difficulty acknowledged, it appears that the only significant feature of the blues that came from Africa was the talent. Despite exhaustive research, nothing like the blues can be found in African folk music. So where did this form of music come from then? The answer appears to be that the blues are a form that came directly out of our musical melting pot. In other words, although particular elements were brought from Africa and Europe, the combination of them appears to be uniquely American.
One source was call and response field work—called "cotton field hollers" or "whooping" or "loudmouthing." The practice was to have one sing or yell a long extended musical shout, which would then be picked up and answered by another individual, or by a chorus. Those who have been through boot camp are familiar with this kind of call and response chanting or singing. One scholar has even argued that this form is related to the Scottish covenanters, who would have a song leader sing one line of a psalm which they would then sing back to him.
Another source was church music. Black culture was held together at this time by the Church. At the same time, the blues culture existed alongside the life of the Church, with a great deal of tension and overlap between them. More than a few singers got religion, and more than a few preachers began singing the blues. B. B. King grew to adulthood singing gospel, and Son House tried to live with the tension between the two. His music ranged between a desire to get religion and join the Baptist church (so he wouldn't have to do no work), to an understated but profound song about "John the Revelator." But despite the tension between church music and the blues, there was not a great musical chasm between them.
Barrelhouse music provided another source for blues music. A barrelhouse was a cheap tavern or brothel, named from the bar which was a simple plank resting between two barrels. The kind of music played in such settings was (obviously) rudimentary and very rough.
Another source—no kidding—was Celtic folk music.
Slaves on the plantations had absorbed all kinds of European folk music—fiddle music, ballads, Wesleyan hymns. These were brought over into the traveling minstrel shows, and from here found their way into the blues. But in all this, we are talking about influences, not causes, and we have to content ourselves with leaving it at this general level.
How are we to make sense of all this as Christians? The blues, just like everything else we try to think about, are not neutral. Nothing is ever neutral. So how are we to evaluate what we listen to? Should we listen to it? And how should Christian blues artists (all three of them) take these things into account as they write and perform?
The subject matter in the blues covers the water front. The blues can talk about anything. Topics addressed include natural disasters, hard luck poverty, flooding down in Texas, nursery rhymes, breaking up somebody's home, a love relationship, really hard luck, the Christian faith, trouble in relationships, burning down a crack house, and delight in relationships.
One of the most obvious features of the blues is the stoicism, which is not really the same thing as Christian courage. The stoic approach to misery is seen in at least two ways. First, despite the name "blues," the twelve bar blues are in a major key. They are not melancholy, in the traditional sense of a lilting, minor key lament. However bad things are, the blues exhort one, via the music, to sit there and take it like a philosopher. Second, the lyrics do not complain, like recent developments in what might be called the whiney-rock genre. The lyrics simply observe, "This is the way it is. Sit there and take it." A good example of this interesting combination is a song by B. B. King called "Why I Sing the Blues." This kind of stoicism is not a biblical option, and must not be uncritically embraced by Christian listeners or performers. But portions of it are biblical, like the endurance and courage. Stoicism should be thought of as a foundationless attempt at biblical virtue, and not a rebellious challenge of biblical virtue. But there is a vast difference between "without Christ this noble thing cannot be done" and "without Christ we can do as we please."
The poetry of the blues is thoroughly Hebraic. The form of poetry in twelve-bar blues consists of three lines, with the first two repeating the same thought, and the third resolving or explaining the dilemma set up in the first two. This is not an exact example of Hebrew parallelism, but it does approximate it, and the poetic effect works in the same way. This is a very common way to structure the lyrics:
I hate to see de ev'nin sun go down,
Hate to see de ev'nin sun go down,
Cause ma baby, he done lef this town.
Or from another song:
Well, I went to the mountain, far as my eye could see,
I went to the mountain, far as my eye could see,
Another man got my woman, lonesome blues got me.
Quite apart from what is being said, this is very a biblical way of saying it.
It must also be remembered that the world of the blues is a world full of sin. But while it is a sinful place, it is not a relativistic place. The blues are one place where a man can be sure to reap what he sows (Gal. 6:7). In this respect, the blues are like traditional country music (as opposed to contemporary forms of rock, and some contemporary country). In both rock and country, everyone is a big fat sinner. But in country music, guilt is part of the picture, along with the consequences of sin. Not only is sin wrong, but it is also represented (consistently) the way Scripture represents it—which is to say, as foolish. The same thing is true of the blues. Sometimes the foibles of sin are mocked ("your husband is cheating on us"), and sometimes the understatement can be profoundly chilling. The inescapability of judgment is never far away, and the desire to evade it can be seen as lunacy.
If I had possession over judgment day,
If I had possession over judgment day,
All the women I'm loving would have no right to pray.
But, as the singer well knows, we don't have possession over judgment day. To this extent, the blues represent the world God made with a high degree of accuracy. And as Paul Butterfield put it, "ain't no one to blame but myself."
The defined and settled structure of the blues means that creativity can work within the bounds of an artificial constraint, deliberately set. This is not an example of a boundary imposed by ignorance, as with much current pop music, but rather a boundary set in the same way fourteen lines for a sonnet are fixed and set. This too recognizes how God made the world. Strict forms in art provide the artist with both traction and a challenge.
What about the subject matter of the songs? As noted earlier, the subject matter of blues songs is greatly varied. Of course, the sexual relationship is a significant theme throughout the blues, but less so than many might imagine. As we saw earlier, the issues addressed in blues songs include house rent problems, natural disasters, work, wanderlust, and crack houses in the neighborhood, not to mention Christian repentance and faith. For a good example of the latter, I would point to a song performed by U2 and B. B. King, "When Love Comes to Town." The blues as a musical form have a broad capacity to address virtually every aspect of life. For Reformed believers, who insist on the lordship of Christ being extended into every aspect of life, this should represent quite an opportunity. "Thank you, thank you. For my next number, I would like to present a little song I call `Federal Vision Blues.'"
Another element of concern for some Christians is the sensual aspect. The blues are very physical music, which means that they are, to a certain inevitable extent, sexual. Usually the debate at this point revolves around one side asserting this and the other side denying it. But one other option needs to be considered—that of agreeing with the point, but wondering what the problem is. Perhaps we need a form of music that addresses (in a reasonable way) some of our residual gnosticism. I think we do.
This relates to another common complaint against rock music (and a feature which it shares with the blues)—the famous problem of the backbeat and the fornication some people believe it causes. This is an enormous subject, but allow me to touch on it here.With a backbeat in a 4/4 song, the accent falls on 2 & 4, not 1 & 3:
Now is this a phonic representation of music with a backbeat? Yes, it represents virtually every rock and blues song ever written. Or is this a line of iambic poetry? Perhaps it is a representation of "Oh, for a thousand tongues to sing." Remember the line between music and poetry is not really that hard and fast. This metrical element of the backbeat is not only a strong feature of rock and blues, it is also a constituent feature of some of the greatest Christian poetry ever written. As a modified version of the old (iambic) Sunday School song put it, "Be careful what you damn, little men."
Christians are not to take anything in without careful examination, prayer, debate and discussion. There is no exception for the blues. I would submit that the blues contain much of value for us, and we should receive that which has value gladly and with discrimination. The early fathers encouraged us to take gold from the Egyptians, which would of course include gold from their city of Memphis. I simply want to include our Memphis as well.

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