Monday, October 10, 2011

Book Notes: Getting the Blues by Stephen J. Nichols

Stephen Nichols' book, Getting the Blues is, I think a unique volume. A white man writing about music that was shaped by the Black experience of America is not unique - that has been happening for a long time and features such luminaries as Paul Oliver and Alan Lomax. Neither is its uniqueness found in the attempt to forge a theological interpretation of the Blues, that has been done by such commanding figures as James Cone (who Nichols cites extensively). Nichols' unusual book is the result of his interactions with this powerful and idiosyncratic musical form, as a white, evangelical theologian - who both loves the Blues, and has wide knowledge of its forms, development and practicioners. Mentions of Blues from others writers who share his race/class/theological background have sometimes been extremely negative, or even downright racist. Nichols book in contrast doesn't merely tolerate the Blues, but sees the Blues as a compelling part of the Biblical picture of humanity, and the unfolding drama of salvation.

The Bible, Nichols demonstrates, is a book with many a heart-rending lament. Psalms of alienation, to cries of dereliction, through to the voices of exiles, widows and orphans are all found within its pages; all explained by the life we live under the fall and subsequent curse, but all pointing towards the redeemer who became the man of sorrows. All these are themes which the Blues capture arguably like no other music, along with the cry for justice which fill Blues, and which fill scriptures pages from Exodus, to Amos, to the New Testament's eschatalogical hopes.

The old dichotomy between 'Gospel' as God's music and Blues as that Devil-Music, Nichols examines and finds wanting. While individual musicians like Peetie Wheatsraw sought to associate themselves with the powers of darkness is beyond doubt, the genre as a whole cannot be so interpreted, Nichols argues. In Nichols view, the Blues is infused with gospel and Biblical currents, just as so much gospel is Blues-laden. The biographies of players such as Blind Lemon Jefferson/Deacon L.J. Bates are used at length to demonstrate this. Even where Blues seems to lament life without overt elucidation of a gospel hope, Nichols sees the Blues as the product of a "Christ-haunted" culture. Thus in Robert Johnson's version of "Crossroads", we hear no mention of a deal with the devil being made; rather we actually hear Johnson crying to The Lord for mercy, but believing that a lack of an answer means his utter ruin.

Nichols also argues that much of the critique of The Blues offered by the church (both Black and white) has been based on misdudgements. Rootless "ramblin", moving to place to place, is a common blues motif. The churches have often condemned this as irresponsible, and immoral. Indeed, Nichols argues that when white Bluesman picked up songs like "Ramblin' on my mind" in the 1960s, they celebrated, mythologised and iconised that shifting lifestyle. Nichols looks at the lives and lyrics of the early Bluesmen and Women - and demonstrates that in a huge number of cases, the upheavals of life in the Jim Crow South which these songs describe, are not being endorsed but deeply lamented. The Bluesman stands at the station, with only his guitar, going who knows where, not because he wants to - but because the boss-man is mistreating him, his woman has mistreated him, the Mississippi has flooded and wrecked the farm, or he is threatened by the law. Time after time, authentic Blues lamented, and railed against the very things which it would later be seen to have universally endorsed.

If social evil is lamented (especially by the poor, the victims, the slaves, the downtrodden), likewise personal sin is discussed in the Blues. It is true that there are plenty of overt sexual references in the music, and at times these can be of an offensive nature. However, the other side - which Nichols quotes at length is the confessional nature of the Blues. (St) Paul's famous despair in the Epistle to the Romans about his seeming powerlessness against his own sinful passions finds its comparison in countless famous Blues lyrics. The frequent punctuations in Blues of "Oh Lord", "Lord have mercy" are not irrelevant left-overs from the church-music in which countless Bluesmen were trained - but the faith-infused recogniton that life under the fall and curse must look heavenwards for grace and resolution.

As a theological grappling with the Blues, this is gripping stuff to read. Nichols knows the Blues, and manages to write orthodox Christian historical theology of it which reflects proper incarnational (rather than Christ-against-culture) thinking. This is heartening stuff for Christian lovers of Blues, who even while they are disciples of the Man from Galilee, find their hearts warm to the strains of the Mississippi Delta. Readers like me, who have long known that the 'Pop Goes the Gospel' interpretation of music is racially colonial, deeply misguided and plain wrong, will find this book illuminating and educating; giving a historical and theological perpective on what we had so long believed. Alongside this, Nichols book is highly informative, bringing the faith-aspect of many a biography to our attention. A mere 192 pages of pretty easy reading means that the reader isn't taxed too hard to gain all this either. My perennial moan about non-fiction books which don't have an index needs to be mentioned again though.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very educational, enjoyed the historical facts concerning the thought process by which blues artist developed their songs - everyday life put into song. One thing about it, the blues is the "Roots" and everything else is the "Fruits".