Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches Us about Suffering and Salvation

By Gioia, Ted | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, May 2009 | Go to article overview

Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches Us about Suffering and Salvation


Gioia, Ted, First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


GETTING THE BLUES: WHAT BLUES MUSIC TEACHES US ABOUT SUFFERING AND SALVATION by Stephen J. Nichols Brazos, 192 pages, $17.99

How times change: Many of the blues musicians discussed in Stephen Nichols' Getting the Blues were ostracized by the more religious members of their communities for playing the "devil's music." But now they are major protagonists in a study of Christian "suffering and salvation." This is truly a surprising turn of events.

Nichols is not afraid of being provocative. He looks at the psalms as a forerunner of the blues, with King David as the singers' prototype. He finds spiritual lessons in unlikely places, not just in the biographies of such blues singers as "Georgia Tom" Dorsey and Rube Lacy, who later embraced religious music, but also in the secular (and often bawdy) recordings of Muddy Waters and Bessie Smith. And he sometimes leaves the blues behind completely, relating anecdotes about Johnny Cash, Duke Ellington, or Jimmie Rodgers.

For Nichols, these musicians were posing fundamental questions about our fallen state, an original bluesiness which dates back to Adam and Eve's departure from Eden. Sometimes their personal responses to these questions were whiskey, women, and other vices, but to the acute ear their music evokes timeless biblical themes of exodus and exile, fall and redemption. …

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