Why I don’t sing the blues
Rev. Dr. Marvin A. McMickle
December 13, 2018
I listened to the blues as a child and teenager in Chicago. That form of music was born in the Mississippi Delta during the days of Jim Crow and racial segregation. However, the blues made its way to Chicago as a result of what was called The Great Migration when millions of African Americans fled the racialized terror so common in the American South in hopes of finding greater economic opportunity in the industrial cities of the North. Artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Hooker, B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland and others introduced the blues to a national audience.
The blues was not so much about the music as it was about the lyrics that gave expression to the life experiences of those who sang those songs. The blues was about hard times, broken hearts, unfaithful spouses, mean treatment from white people, lonely nights, too much whiskey and too little money. The blues was B.B. King saying, “Nobody loves me but my momma, and she could be jiving too.” The blues was Louis Armstrong lamenting the state of race relations in the United States by saying, “What did I do to be so black and blue?” The blues was Lou Rawls talking about how trouble never seems to end by saying, “They call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday’s just as bad. Wednesday worse, and Thursday oh so sad…”
James Haskins offered a definition of the blues:
The blues represents the cries of people who had nothing,
Who seemed to get nothing no matter how hard they tried,
And when lives seemed hopeless,
the blues was laughing to keep from crying.
While I have had plenty of reasons to sing the blues over my lifetime, I thank God that I was able to find the language that expressed my feelings in the genre of gospel music and the 19th-century spirituals. A blues singer named Leadbelly sang, “If blues was whiskey, I’d be drunk all the time.” How interesting that other people can face the very same problems and come out singing “I’m so glad trouble don’t last always.” I do not sing the blues, because the God I serve is bigger and greater than any problems I may face. B.B. King was world-famous for singing “The thrill is gone.” The Christian’s response to that is “This joy I have, the world didn’t give it and the world can’t take it away.” This is the fundamental difference between the blues and gospel; gospel reminds us that our lives are anchored in a faith that the world cannot limit or destroy. My life may be going through some serious challenges and setbacks, but “The Lord will make a way somehow.”
As we move through the Advent season, I want to call your attention to one of the four main themes of Advent; JOY! In a world that is in a mad dash to achieve thrills, pleasures, and happiness, Advent points us to something much higher in its source and much deeper in its strength; JOY. It is probably true that most people around me when I was growing up sang both the blues and the songs of faith. However, some of them only sang the blues for entertainment. When their backs were against the wall, they turned to the songs of their faith that reassured them “I don’t believe He brought me this far to leave me.” They sang, “He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.” They sang with Charles Albert Tindley:
“Harder yet may be the fight,
Right may often yield to might.
Wickedness awhile may reign,
Satan’s cause awhile may gain.
There is a God who rules above,
With a hand of power and a heart of love.
And if I’m right he’ll fight my battles,
And I shall be free someday.”
The Advent season invites us to sing songs of joy no matter what our surrounding circumstances might be. That was the song of the angels over Bethlehem when they announced to the shepherds that they were bringing glad tidings of great things. The Messiah for whom Israel had been waiting for 700 years was now among them. “Glory to God in the highest.” This is a reminder of the wonderful promise of Psalm 30:5 that says, “For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning” (NIV).
The Advent season invites us to sing songs of joy no matter what our surrounding circumstances might be.
We can have joy because we know that our sins have been forgiven and we have been reconciled to God by faith in Jesus Christ. We can have joy because we know that the life we are living in obedience to God’s demands is pleasing to God. Joy comes from a life marked by kindness, service to others, personal humility, and an absence of envy over the wealth or possessions or fame of others. I recently heard a popular television personality attempt to define success entirely and exclusively in terms of money. He should have warned his listeners that “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” Timothy 6:10 NIV).
As we rush headlong toward Christmas in a mad rush to impress people with the expensive gifts we can afford to give, we would do well to hear these words from Raymond Rasberry who says:
You may build great cathedrals large or small,
You can build skyscrapers grand and tall,
You may conquer all the failures of the past,
But only what you do for Christ will last.
The next time you feel like singing the blues, turn to your faith and sing “Precious Lord, take my hand; lead me on, help me stand…Take my hand, Precious Lord, and lead me on.”
Dr. Marvin A. McMickle is president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, Rochester, N.Y.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.
James Haskins, Black Music in America: A History Through Its People, Harper: New York 1987, p. 44.
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