The Artistry of the Blues — Center for Action and Contemplation

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The Artistry of the Blues

Finding God in the Arts

The Artistry of the Blues
Tuesday, August 17, 2021

My friend Barbara Holmes describes the creation of blues music as an act of radical critique that can bring its listeners into a contemplative and holy space, far closer to God than we might be otherwise:

Some sacred spaces bear none of the expected characteristics. The fact that we prefer stained glass windows, pomp and circumstance, and pastors’ appreciation celebrations has nothing to do with the sacred. . . .

Like the familiar laments in the Psalms, blues artists forthrightly engaged the issues in life that the church would not discuss. . . The lyrics were straightforward and sometimes raunchy, but they captured the life experiences of the listeners. While gospel music promised peace in the hereafter and the promise of God’s presence, the blues became public theology, communal inquiry, and a critique of the church. . . .

Encounters with a skewed justice system inspired Blind Lemon Jefferson to sing “Hangman’s Blues.” Ma Rainey sings “Blues and Booze.” They sang about alcoholism, family support, and incarceration, issues that never came up in the weekly sermon, unless it was to rail against sin. The blues gave musicians an opportunity to sing their lived theology.

Finally, the critique of the church becomes evident as blues singers scat and hurl minor-key challenges toward the pious. Questions abound in the lyrics. Why is the preacher sleeping with the women in the congregation while the husbands are at work? What is happening to the money from the special collections? Why is God not alleviating the sorrows of an urban workforce . . . ?

The contemplative moment comes as the cause of the blues is considered within the broader context of God’s inexplicable absence or startling intervention. Under every stanza is the silent and unspoken question, “How long, oh Lord, how long will your people continue to suffer?” Suffering is no longer emerging from the crisis of the institution of slavery; it is coming from the angst of living with meager means and few skills to negotiate relationships. Although the words of blues songs became the focus of church opposition to “the Devil’s music,” the words did not become the portal to contemplation. Instead, instruments—not unlike the talking drum—called people to consider their condition. . . .

Art also carves pathways toward our inner isles of spirituality. When we decide to live in our heads only, we become isolated from the God who is closer than our next breath. To subject everything to rational analysis reduces the awe to ashes. The restoration of wonder is the beginning of the inward journey toward a God who people of faith aver is always waiting in the seeker’s heart. For some the call to worship comes as joy spurts from jazz riffs, wonder thunders from tappers’ feet. . . . Each artistic moment is just slightly beyond our horizon of understanding. What a gift it is, this lack of understanding. Perhaps we are confounded so that we might always have much to contemplate.

Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church,
2nd ed. (Fortress Press: 2017), 184, 186, 187, 198.

Story from Our Community:
One morning I prayed to live more aware of God’s presence. So many suggestions have come to me, but I didn’t recognize them as prayerful contemplation until I read Fr. Richard’s words. I danced as a girl and had begun ecstatic dance at home, without knowing what I was doing. I used singing as a way to heal and bless my being in union with God. I guess God has been speaking to me, and how happy does that make me? I am in awe and joyous. —Jessica K.

Image Credit: Arthur Greenberg, In a Field (detail), 1973, photograph, Illinois, National Archives.
Image Inspiration: The texture of this image inspires us to know this grass better by running our hands through and allowing it to tickle our fingertips. Likewise, when we create art, we experience an embodied knowing of God.
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