Lament and the Blues

I’ve been thinking about lament a lot in the last few weeks partly because we are in the season of Lent, and partly because I recently led a discussion on the subject with a number of other music ministers from around London.  I’ve been thinking about the blues a lot partly because I’ve been listening to them more and more in the last year and partly because I’ve recently read a book entitled, Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches Us About Sin and Salvation by Stephen J. Nichols.

Now before we go any further into this theme, have a listen to Blind Willie Johnson as he sings, “Lord, I just can’t keep from cryin’, sometimes.”

Lord, I Just Can’t Keep From Crying

This song, recorded on Dec. 5, 1928, is obviously much more recent than the Psalms of the Bible yet it echoes much of the content of the Psalms themselves.  Did you catch the line, “I’m on the King’s Highway; I’m trusting Him everyday but I just can’t keep from cryin’ sometimes”?  Is it just me or does this 20th century Texan singer/muso/preacher sound like a particular 9th century (BCE) Israelite shepherd/muso/king?  In case you’re not convinced, read this:

Psalm 13

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and every day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?

3 Look on me and answer, O LORD my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death;
4 my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

5 But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
6 I will sing to the LORD,
for he has been good to me.

Granted, the feel is different, the music was undoubtedly different, and you may prefer the studied poetry of Scripture to the rural vernacular of the blues but David and Blind Willie both recognize that trust in God does not mean that life is without pain and sorrow.  Or perhaps more to the point, that the experience and expression of pain and sorrow is not a denial of trust in God.  In fact, the expression of pain and sorrow can be an act of faith in itself if, like our two artists, the expression is directed to the Lord.  David doesn’t just ask ‘how long?’ and Willie doesn’t just cry.  Both exclamations are directed, pointedly, to God.

The reason they are directed to God is because the writers think God cares.  “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?” is uttered from a heart that expects God to be paying attention to him.  Another heart sings, “Lord, I just can’t keep from crying…” because he knows that something is wrong and he expects God to be interested.  Many others cry for justice because they recognize that God is just.  We call out expecting Him to hear and answer.  Our questions, when directed to Him, are acts of faith.

As Nichols points out in his useful book, one of the strengths of the Psalms and also the blues, is that they don’t sugar-coat life in this world.  The writers tend to admit their mistakes and name their own demons – both of which can add up to significant lists.  And in addition to bringing trouble on their own heads, the world they (and we) live in has a fair amount of trouble of its own that we cannot escape.  And so they weep; they mourn; they cry out hoping, sometimes against hope, that someone will hear.  In the case of the Psalms and some of the blues, that someone is God.

Nichols reads a little too much, I think, into every use of “Lord” by blues singers, assuming that they all are addressing God.  While it’s true that many blues artists had a background in the Church, it seems fairly obvious that the use of “Lord” became a type of exclamation point rather than an address of God.  If, however, he is right, then much of the canon of African-American song needs to be reinterpreted in this light.  That canon would, of course, include such music as James Brown’s catalogue, including Sex Machine, in which Brown’s utterances of “Good God” don’t seem like a prayer to the Creator of sex and all other good things.  As always, the context of the lyrics should guide our interpretation.

But many blues artists, did in fact, have strong ties to the Church and were not able to escape that influence even though they may have tried.  Blind Willie Johnson is the most obvious example of the gospel-blues artist as he recorded nothing but gospel songs and eventually became an ordained minister.  His was a difficult life but the only music he left us was 30 songs of faith.  Others, like Charlie Patton, Son House, and Mississippi Fred McDowell played “secular” blues as well as gospel-blues throughout their careers.  With these artists, the gospel of Lord I’m Discouraged or When I Lay My Burden Down sound very much like the pleas of the Psalms and seem all the more poignant in the midst of songs about women and whiskey.  These expressions of faith are never trite; never triumphalistic; and never entitled.  But they are hopeful while recognizing that their hope is undeserved.  It seems to me that they know something about mercy and grace that not all understand.  They keenly recognize their own sinfulness and their desperate need for salvation.  They come to God on their knees.  Of course, the lack of sanctification or victory over sin as evident in many of their songs makes these men difficult to hold up as positive examples.

As ever, the positive example to take away from their lives, not unlike many biblical saints, is the example of the faithfulness of God Himself.  No matter how destructive these artists can be to themselves and their relationships, they cannot get away from the suspicion that God’s grace might still be extended to them.  And so they hold out hope for a future when the trials of life will be over; when God’s good gifts don’t get warped and lead to brokenness; when they won’t need to sing the blues anymore.

Psalm 147:1-11

1 Praise the LORD. How good it is to sing praises to our God,
how pleasant and fitting to praise him!

2 The LORD builds up Jerusalem;
he gathers the exiles of Israel.
3 He heals the brokenhearted
and binds up their wounds.

4 He determines the number of the stars
and calls them each by name.
5 Great is our Lord and mighty in power;
his understanding has no limit.
6 The LORD sustains the humble
but casts the wicked to the ground.

7 Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving;
make music to our God on the harp.
8 He covers the sky with clouds;
he supplies the earth with rain
and makes grass grow on the hills.
9 He provides food for the cattle
and for the young ravens when they call.

10 His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his delight in the legs of a man;
11 the LORD delights in those who fear him,
who put their hope in his unfailing love.

Let’s once again listen to Blind Willie Johnson as he reminds us of the hope that we have in a God whose faithfulness will not abandon us but will “give [us] rest someday”.

Trouble Will Soon Be Over

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2 Responses to Lament and the Blues

  1. Phil Campbell-Enns says:

    paul, great post. thanks for sharing.

    the discussion you had in london is timely. i’ve been hearing similar things over here – lament that we don’t do enough lamenting as a church. acknowledging that we don’t tackle it much in sermons, and don’t write many songs to help the congregation express it.

    i totally agree with all of that. but also recognize the sociological conundrum that worship planners and leaders face as we try to lean more in that direction corporately.

    it’s one thing to have sad people show up to worship, wishing that we could just spend the hour lamenting, only to find the hour has been designed to lift our spirits rather than acknowledge how down we are. but i think it’s a very different thing to have people who are happy / in a good space, show up enmasse, and find that the hour is being given to lament – when as individuals they are not in the mood to lament, never mind doing it with a big group of people.

    add to that complication the fact that most churches are wired against sadness (can’t even seem to celebrate Good Friday without Easter morning showing up at the end of the service, bummer), and we end up with the current lament vacuum. a vacuum that seems like it can only and most easily be filled when each of us feel like being bummed out on our own.

    i don’t mean to make the hole deeper. just to acknowledge that it might take a lot of finesse to move churches to a spot where lament can become a regular part of their diet.


    • drivingwheel says:

      Hey Phil. Thanks for the comment.

      I completely agree, practicing this in a corporate worship setting is not easy but it seems to me that some acknowledgement of suffering needs to be made. Let me give you an example of what I mean. As you, and many of you, know, last autumn my Mom passed away in Vancouver. While there, I went to two church services. The first one, an evening service, began with the line, “How many of you are excited to be in God’s house tonight?”. Now, had he been talking about “God’s house” as the gathering of God’s people indwelt by the Holy Spirit I would have been okay with it. But he wasn’t. He meant that this was “God’s house” because the sign outside had the word ‘church’ on it. Additionally, my mom had just died and I wasn’t really excited to be anywhere. So my answer to his question was “No”. He lost me in the first 10 seconds of the service and I did not find one thing to connect with throughout the rest either; not prayers, not the sermon, certainly not the songs or the little dance moves he was trying to teach us.
      The second service I went to was a brand new “campus plant” of an established church. It was a simpler service than the other: met in a gym, basic lighting, effective A/V but nothing special. But there was something about the service that seemed honest and at least willing to recognize that there might be someone there who was going through a difficult time. As a result, I was able to worship in that place and with those people without feeling that coming to God meant pretending that everything was fine.
      I’m certainly not suggesting that we regularly have services given over to lament, though perhaps occasionally that might be helpful, even necessary. What I am suggesting is that we recognize that people are going through all kinds of different things in their lives and so plan our worship accordingly. The different elements of our service, songs, prayers, sermons, etc. don’t have to dwell on suffering but simply mentioning it ought not to be too difficult or too uncomfortable. And we, as a congregation of God’s people, ought to at least give people the space to be in pain. We can sing a song asking, “How long, O LORD”, understanding that, while it may not be our question today, we are asking on behalf of our brother or sister. I think it’s part of rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn.

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