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Moanin the Bad News: Gospel Hope n the Blues

David was many things: a shepherd, a husband, a father, a warrior, a friend. He is best known as a king – King David. But before he was a king he was a musician—a player of stringed instruments. He was a song writer also—and it is through his songs –his Psalms—that we best know him.

The Psalms contain some of the best known and comforting passages in the Bible. For example, we all love the gentle, safe familiarity of David’s Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd,

I shall not want;

He makes me lie down in green pastures.

He leads me beside still waters;

He restores my soul.

He leads me in paths of righteousness

for His name’s sake.

But what about Psalm 137?

By the rivers of Babylon we sat down;

there we wept when we remembered Zion.

On the willows near by we hung up our harps.

Those who captured us told us to sing;

they told us to entertain them:

Sing us a song about Zion.

How can we sing a song to the Lord

in a foreign land?

How are we supposed to interpret this lament—the song of a people who have lost everything? There’s not much comfort there….

U2’s Bono wrote in his introduction to the Psalms that,

Before David could fulfil the prophecy and become the king of Israel, he had to take quite a beating. He was forced into exile and ended up in a cave in some no- name border town facing the collapse of his ego and abandonment by God. But this is where the soap opera got interesting. This is where David was said to have composed his first psalm—a blues. That’s what a lot of the psalms feel like to me, the blues. Man shouting at God – ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me?’ (Psalm 22).

Bono continues:

Abandonment and displacement are the stuff of my favourite psalms. The Psalter may be a font of gospel music, but for me it’s despair that the psalmist really reveals and the nature of his special relationship with God. Honesty, even to the point of anger. ‘How long, Lord? Wilt thou hide thyself forever?’ (Psalm 89), or ‘Answer me when I call’ (Psalm 5).

I’d like to suggest – along with Bono and many others– that the Psalms – including Psalm 137 and many of those of David – are best understood as the blues. David, as the Psalmist sang the blues. He sang of abandonment, loneliness, fear, famine, war, sickness and death. Take these examples of David’s work:

Psalm 17: “Deadly enemies surround me; they have no pity and speak proudly. They are around me now, wherever I turn, watching for a chance to pull me down. They are like lions waiting to tear me to pieces.”

Psalm 18: “The danger of death was all around me; the waves of destruction rolled over me. The danger of death was round me, and the grave set its trap for me.”

Psalm 22—the Psalm just before the wonderfully comforting Psalm 23: “My God, my God why have you abandoned me? I cried desperately for help, but still it does not come. During the day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer; I call at night but get no rest.” He continues, “My strength is gone, gone like water spilt on the ground. All my bones are out of joint; my heart is like melted wax. My throat is as dry as dust, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. You have left me for dead in the dust”.

Of course technically, David lived thousands of years before the Blues were born out of the pain of the despised and downtrodden in the Mississippi Delta region of America in the early 1900s. But as Stephen Nichols points out in his book, Getting the Blues, David had the credentials born of his suffering, and by the repertoire he left behind, to be listed amongst the finest Blues singers. According to Nichols, “David and the blues artists have shared experiences, despite being divided by centuries, oceans, and languages. They even have shared responses to those experiences. These were men and women of sorrows”.

he song “I am a Man of constant Sorrow” was popularized in the 2000 film ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’ starring George Clooney. The movie version is an upbeat bluegrass version of a much older song, probably written by a blind fiddler named Dick Burnett about 1913. In 1961, Roscoe Holcomb, a Kentucky miner and farmer, recorded this raw a cappella blues version:

Themes so important to the Blues fill this song. Right from its opening line: “I’ve seen trouble all my day”, here is wandering and lostness, betrayal, abandonment, and displacement—and a recognition of one’s own mortality—that death approaches all of us.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian executed by the Nazis said that: “The Psalms know it all: serious illness, deep isolation from God and humanity, threats, persecution, imprisonment, and whatever conceivable peril there is on earth. They do not deny it, they do not deceive themselves with pious words about it, they allow it to stand as a severe ordeal of faith, indeed at times they no longer see beyond the suffering, but they complain about it all to God.” (The Prayerbook of the Bible, p. 169.)

Someone who had something to complain about was the blues singer known as Blind Willie Johnson. Willie Johnson was born in Texas in 1902. When he was young , his mother died and his father remarried. When he was seven years old, his stepmother, seeking revenge on his father, threw a chemical – lye, into his face, blinding him. Unable to work the fields, he took up the guitar and sang the blues. One of his most famous recordings—as Blind Willie Johnson—is “Lord, I Just Can’t Keep From Cryin’ Sometimes”.

There is a raw and honest authenticity in the blues—and in the Psalms—that some Christians find difficult to handle. There’s not always a happy ending.

The reality of death is a central theme of the blues, blues singers are unafraid to stare death in the eye and sing of its inevitability.

The Blues singer, known as the Reverend Gary Davis was born in Laurens, South Carolina, and was the only one of eight children his mother bore who survived to adulthood. He became blind as an infant. Davis reported that his father was killed in Birmingham, Alabama when Davis was ten, and Davis later said that he had been told that his father had been shot by the Birmingham High Sheriff. He recalled being poorly treated by his mother and that before his death his father had given him into the care of his grandmother.

For the Psalmist, death was also a reality, listen to David’s cry in Psalm 28: “O Lord my defender, I call to you. Listen to my cry! If you do not answer me, I will be among those who go down to the world of the dead.” In Psalm 55 David again cries out, “I am terrified, and the terrors of death crush me. I am gripped by fear and trembling; I am overcome with horror.”

Martin Luther in his Foreword to the Psalter said, “Where do you find more pitiable, miserable words of sadness than in the psalms of lamentation? There you see into the heart of all the saints as into death, even as into hell.”

The blues do not glorify nor sentimentalize death, but neither does they sidestep or avoid the subject. The blues treat death with clear-eyed acceptance—as the ugly reality that it is for each human being.

When asked “What is the blues?” blues singer Johnnie Billington replied, “The blues is truth”. The blues reflects reality; not a made to look nice, pretend everything’s ok, smiley happy people, kind of reality; but a reflection of the pain, sin, sickness, loneliness, despair—and death—that fills the earth. Just like the Psalms.

The blues is the truth of the curse of sin—but there is another truth present as well if you listen closely. This is the truth of grace, the truth of the cross, the truth of Jesus Christ who broke into the human condition, lived a human life and conquered death. Singing the blues means recognizing both those truths

Toward the end of the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou”, when the sheriff finally catches up with the movie’s central character – George Clooney’s Ulysses Everett McGill – and he is to be hung; three gravediggers help him prepare for death by singing an old spiritual: “You’ve Got to Walk That Lonesome Valley”. The song is relentless in reminding Ulysses—and us—that death is a solitary journey that we each will make by ourselves. However, the song is only partially right as Stephen Nichols reminds us: “Jesus did not overcome death by avoiding it….He overcame death by dying. He overcame the curse by meeting it head on.”

Writer Stanley Crouch has referred to Christ’s exclamation on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” as “the greatest blues line of all time”. Christ’s agonized cry reminds us that he met death alone—hanging naked on a cross. Death is indeed a solitary journey, however, we know that the incarnate Jesus has gone on before us. He has already passed through that valley and conquered death.

In what may seem a strange reality, many blues artists were also singers of more obviously spiritual music. Blind Lemon Jefferson famously sang “Black Snake Moan” and “Hangman’s Blues” but under the name Deacon L. J. Bates he also sang many spirituals including “He Arose from the Dead” and “I Want to be Like Jesus in My Heart”.

Similarly Thomas Dorsey – popularly known as Georgia Tom – switched between the blues and spirituals almost at will. In 1928, Georgia Tom had a major hit with the raunchy “It’s Tight Like That”; now however, Thomas Dorsey is best known for another song—and one that came at a terrible personal cost. In 1932, Dorsey had just arrived in St Louis to perform a show when he received a telegram urging him to return home immediately, as his wife—nearing the end of her first pregnancy—was very sick. By the time he made it home his wife had died—shortly after she had given birth. His infant son died two days later.

Somehow, after days of solitary grieving Dorsey sat down at a friend’s piano and wrote a song – here sung in a recent recording by Renford Sean Norris.

Thomas Dorsey once said that that there are “moanin’ blues” used in the spirituals – and that there are spirituals in the “moanin’ blues”. Somehow in the midst of his unimaginable pain and desolation, Dorsey found Christ incarnate. Jesus did not look down on our world from a distance—rather he entered this world of suffering and embraced it “even unto death”.

W. E. B. Du Bois said, “Through all the sorrow songs there breathes a hope”. Sometimes in the blues—and the Psalms for that matter—that hope can be hard to find. There’s no doubt however, that it is there—and that it is centred on the cross of Jesus Christ.


Presented at Helderberg College Assembly, South Africa; Monday, August 2, 2010.

I am indebted to and highly recommend Stephen Nichols’ book, Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches Us about Suffering and Salvation (Brazos Press, 2008).

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