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Blues Music

The blues is an American musical genre that is one of the most enduring musical and cultural achievements of the African American experience. The blues is expressed in both unmistakable musical styles (typically a 12-bar, AAB rhyming pattern) and the ubiquitous mournful themes and subjects of blues lyrics (personal anguish, relationships in crisis, poverty, loneliness, etc.). From the beginnings of blues music, however, there have always been some humorous elements as well, both in lyrical content and the showmanship of the performer. Furthermore, it is a musical style that has traveled far from its roots in the American South at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and has influenced popular music throughout the world (e.g., for the blues in Russia, see Urban and Evdokimov, 2004). Although the blues has now been the subject of an extensive body of writing, both academic and popular, this article focuses on some of the interesting controversies surrounding the troubled relationship of the blues and African American Christianity generally, also noting particularly suggestive ways in which the blues invite a comparison with biblical literature, particularly Hebrew poetic and prayer traditions of lament.

Although it is popular to try to find musical and cultural precedents for the blues in African musical styles (e.g., Palmer, 1982, pp. 26–42; but see Davis, 1995, p. 33), it is more productive to see the blues as a musical expression of sad laments and social conditions in the African American context (Oliver, 1990, pp. 23–42). As such, the blues has some interesting similarities with lament music in other cultural contexts, and the music is often compared, sociologically, with Roma/Gypsy flamenco. Both can be understood as musical expressions of a minority, living a politically and economically subordinated existence (for other comparisons, see Wald, 2010, p. 2). Arguably, the music continues to express a frustration with the persistence of poverty and disappointment. Thus the music—and most especially its origins—must be understood within the social and political context that gave rise to this unusual musical form.

The blues is a musical style that postdates spirituals, which clearly derive from the days of slavery itself, and the spontaneous “work songs” and brief “field hollers” that are often thought to be one of the clearest and closest historical progenitors of the musical style of blues. In fact, we have no sources for the blues that reliably predate the beginning of the twentieth century (Davis, 1995, p. 33). Rather, it is thought to be a musical expression of the deep disappointment that the end of the Civil War in the 1860s did not bring the promised freedom and equality for African Americans but instead gave rise to prejudicial laws, economic indebtedness, and continued violence and lynchings, all of which were given a “legal” basis in infamous Jim Crow laws throughout the Southern states and even beyond. The term “Jim Crow” derives from a song that was frequently featured in the nineteenth-century minstrel shows that entertained European Americans with white singers in blackface (usually using burned cork), but typically featuring humiliating and degrading stereotypes of African American life and music (Lott, 2013; Melnick, 1999).

The Social Context of the Blues.

Although blues musicians hail from many different places, from east Texas to the Piedmont (the plateau region between the Atlantic coast and the Appalachian ranges), it remains clear that the Mississippi Delta (between Alabama and Mississippi) contained the most concentrated population of blues innovators and performers, particularly among early recorded musicians. Indeed, maps of the economic health of the United States even in the early twenty-first century reveal the Mississippi Delta to be an area stricken by persistent poverty.

James Cobb’s famous 1992 contextual study, The Most Southern Place on Earth, is an essential text in establishing the importance of the social and historical setting for the rise of the blues in the Delta region, and at least some serious analysis of southern economic development and race relations has featured in the better blues historical works (e.g. Oliver, 1990; Titon, 1994; Davis, 1995). Woodruff notes that the clearing of the Delta initially created a huge lumber boom, and in the first decade of the twentieth century there were 500 mills within 150 miles of Memphis (Woodruff, 2003, pp. 15–16). Once the land was cleared, the way was opened for the development of large-scale cotton plantations in the rich alluvial soil of the Delta region. Cobb notes that British textile developers, especially, were in the market for a source of cotton that would be equal to production in Egypt, and the Mississippi Delta was soon being referred to as “the New Nile” (Cobb, 1992, p. 100).

The labor needs for the development of Delta cotton attracted massive immigration, particularly by African Americans in other parts of the South, who were lured by the promises of independent farms if they were willing, initially, to work land owned by large landowners for pay. Even though landowners favored the low salary scales of day laborers, they preferred the stability of the forced residence of sharecroppers (Woodruff, pp. 20–23). The rise of the sharecropping system meant that African American farm workers became deeply indebted to landowners who were usually the sole equipment and seed suppliers (often at 50–100 percent higher than common prices; Schwartz, 1976, pp. 42–43). In his study of sharecropping, Schwartz states that:

"Suppliers could exploit tenant farmers mercilessly. Indebted farmers were allowed to buy only the bare essentials and the cheapest goods. They were unable to pay for doctors or other services. Their creditor-merchant could demand that they work for him to reduce their debt and that they plant and cultivate their farms to his advantage. In short, they could be forced into a kind of serfdom." (1976, p. 9)

Those tenants who tried to raise money by working their own crops found that their own time for planting was limited, and bankers “colluded with landowners” to guarantee the suppression of African American economic independence and success (Schwartz, 1976, p. 43). Grubbs trenchantly concludes that:

"What freedom of action they [African Americans] had left faded away during the last three decades of the century as the crop-lien replaced the overseer’s whip: the merchant or planter-merchant, in exchange for the credit he alone could furnish, took a lien on the “freed” slaves’ crop which, carried over from year to year, bound the cheap labor supply to the plantation almost as effectively as slavery had." (Grubbs, 1971, p. 7)

Davis suggests that by 1910, 92 percent of Delta land was being worked by dependent African American laborers who were considered “tenants” (1995, pp. 99–100).

World War I led to major demographic changes, typically called “The Great Migration,” that involved populations of African Americans from the rural South first congregating in Memphis and then traveling by rail to Chicago for war-related jobs in industry in the northern Midwest. Woodruff notes that the major changes started in 1914, even though the United States did not enter the war until 1917. In 1917, Arkansas lost 23,628 blacks to migration, Mississippi 35,291, and Tennessee 22,632. Over 400,000 left the South during the war years; fully a quarter of these were from Mississippi alone (Woodruff, 2003, pp. 35–44).

The importance of this historical overview is clear to any who follow the geographical, social, and economic contexts of the rise of blues music. Wald, in his recent introduction to blues, strongly emphasizes the significance of plaintive work songs and chants as absolutely essential to the evolution of the blues (Wald, 2010, pp. 12–14; see Lomax, p. 277). Therefore, beginning as a musical expression of oppressive disappointments of life in the Delta, the blues, as a musical form, also “moved” with economic development first to Memphis (noting the ubiquitous presence of the railroad in blues lyrics, symbolic of seeking improved conditions) and then followed the train north to Chicago, which became the nation’s most important urban center for the early development of blues from a rural to an urban musical expression.

But if blues is a musical accompaniment to the social and economic fortunes of African Americans moving from south to north, and from rural to urban contexts, an important debate in this context is whether blues music contains any form of social protest. Alan Lomax, the famous early field collector of all kinds of folk music on behalf of the Smithsonian, including blues, argued that social protest is virtually absent from blues music (1993, p. x), and this view is often echoed in later literature (e.g., Davis, 1995, p. 19). However, there has been a strong counterargument by those who seek to identify more subtle themes of protest (Titon, 1994, pp. 187–189, 266) or the more explicit themes in the field collections recorded by the controversial Lawrence Gellert (Conforth, 2013; Garabedian, 2005). Whether conditions were formally “protested” or not, blues lyrics certainly chronicle many of the major problems faced by African American populations during these decades of significant upheaval. As Oliver writes:

"In the blues were to be found the major catastrophes both personal and national, the triumphs and miseries that were shared by all, yet private to one. In the blues were reflected the family disputes, the violence and bitterness, the tears and the upheavals caused by poverty and migration." (1990, p. 11)

Early Blues Origin Stories.

There are three commonly cited stories about the “origins” of the blues, and it is instructive to cite all three. First, one of the great early blues divas, Ma Rainey (1886–1939), explained that she first heard blues in 1902 in a small Missouri town, where the vaudeville-style musical show she was traveling with had stopped to give a performance. A young woman from the town came to the tent and “began to sing about the ‘man who had left her.’ ” The song attracted attention, and Rainey herself said that she became so interested that she learned the song from the visitor and used it soon afterward in her act. The song elicited such a response from the audience that it found a special place in her act: “Many times she was asked what kind of song it was, and one day she replied in a moment of inspiration, ‘It’s the blues’ ” (Barlow, 1989, p. 156).

The second story comes from the New Orleans jazz innovator, Jelly Roll Morton (1890–1941). Morton frequently told the story of Mamie Desdoumes, a piano-playing Creole prostitute “missing two fingers from her right hand,” who sang the same sad song all the time. She was from the infamous New Orleans red-light district, Storyville, which was eventually destroyed by urban renewal in the city (Davis, 1995, p. 28).

Finally, the successful African American bandleader W. C. Handy (1873–1958) relates a story in his 1941 autobiography titled Father of the Blues. He describes traveling and performing in 1903, when he had a stop at the little train station in Tutweiler, Mississippi, waiting to continue on his journey. Handy said that he was trying to sleep when

"a lean and loose-jointed Negro had commenced planking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of a guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who use steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly: “Goin where the Southern cross the Dog” [a train track intersection near Indianola, Mississippi]. The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard. The tune stayed in my mind. When the singer paused, I leaned over and asked him what the words meant. He rolled his eyes, showing a trace of mild amusement. Perhaps I should have known, but he didn’t mind explaining. …" (Davis, 1995, p. 25)

It can hardly escape notice that these stories, undoubtedly all apocryphal, nevertheless share important similarities—told by famous musicians who claim that they learned “blues” from the poor, thus claiming authenticity to the music, and acknowledging its social context in suffering. Furthermore, they all date from roughly the very beginning of the twentieth century.

Two further historical sources, however, are also worth noting. The American archaeologist Dr. Charles Peabody (1867–1939) was excavating an Indian burial site in 1901 close to Stovall Plantation, Mississippi, and he hired black workers as diggers. Peabody kept notes on the music he heard and published “Notes on Negro Music” in The Journal of American Folklore in 1903. He noted work songs, field hollers, and a “hard luck tale”:

They arrested me for murderAnd I never harmed a man

Well I thought I heard that KC whistle blowBlow lak’ she never blew befo’

The reason I love my baby so’Cause when she gets five dollars she give me fo’

(Barlow, 1989, p. 28)

Finally, Howard Odum had been gathering folk songs on cylinders in 1905 and 1908, and he noted the line “I got the blues and can’t be satisfied” (Barlow, 1989, p. 28). Hamilton has recently analyzed the Odum work, and she notes that Odum compared later blues lyrics (when the genre was becoming known) to his own older notes of lines that he recorded in 1905 and 1908, including lines like “Laid in jail back to the wall,” “Baby, won’t you please come home,” “Joe Turner,” and “Wonder where my baby stay las night.” Clearly, Odum had recorded earlier versions of these later well-known blues refrains. Odum, however, destroyed his older cylinders in 1925, thus cutting off perhaps our only opportunity to hear very early progenitors of blues music from its southern roots (Hamilton, 2008, p. 44).

No verified sources trace blues music to before the turn of the twentieth century, although clearly some of its formative years must have occurred at the end of the nineteenth century, following the rise of Jim Crow and the economic disappointments of repressive southern policies.

The Rise of Commercial Urban Blues.

The development of recorded blues music moves in three distinct stages. First, the earliest recordings of blues and the most prominent musical performances were by major “blues divas,” women lead singers traveling with bands throughout the country. The most famous of these traveling singers and band leaders were Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith (1894–1937). As important as these two (and others) were for the live performance of music that leads to blues, it was Percy Bradford, a composer and band leader, who finally persuaded Fred Hagar of Okeh Records to take a chance by recording the singer Mamie Smith. “Crazy Love” or “Crazy Blues” was arguably the first blues recording ever made. Recorded in 1920, it sold 75,000 copies in the first month at one dollar each (a significant expenditure for those who purchased it; see Titon, 1994, pp. 199–200). Many other singers remember that recording and the impact that it made. However, Titon and others are surely correct to differentiate this style of music, which Titon calls “vaudeville” blues (which, to modern ears, has similarities to New Orleans style jazz, usually with brass and piano accompaniment), with the second “stage” of the development of blues—namely a single male singing in a plaintive, often rough sounding solo style accompanied only by his guitar. This second stage then emerged as the stereotypical expression of blues music for later generations. However, recent study of the lyrics of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey’s songs reveal a clear topical relationship to the content of much later blues:

"Advice to other women; alcohol; betrayal or abandonment; broken or failed love affairs; death; departure; dilemma of staying with man or returning to family; disease and afflictions; erotica; hell; homosexuality; infidelity; injustice; jail and serving time; loss of lover; love; men; mistreatment; murder; other woman; poverty; promiscuity; sadness; sex; suicide; supernatural; train; traveling; unfaithfulness; vengeance; weariness, depression and disillusionment; weight loss." (Davis, 1998, p. 13)

In her study, Angela Davis notes that: “It is revealing that she does not include children; domestic life; husband, and marriage,” arguing that blues divas sang of their liberation from the strictures of traditional women’s roles (p. 13).

Finally, most blues historians speak of the essentially electrified sound of “urban” or “Chicago” blues that expressed the urban context of the African American experience outside of the southern states in the twentieth century and leads directly to the amplified versions of blues, particularly expressed in Albert and B. B. King, although more modern singers like Keb’ Mo’ and Taj Mahal both continue to play in the older acoustic style. Typically, then, any list of names cited as “essential blues musicians” can also be grouped according to this three-step history.

Examples of Historically “Essential” Blues Singers.

As stated, compiling any list of blues singers is walking into a mine field—blues fans are devoted to their own lists. The following, however, are certainly “safe” entries that would appear on most such lists, arranged either musically or historically.

Vaudeville blues: The first music called “blues.”

“Vaudeville” is a good name for the early blues performers. The sound is similar to New Orleans Dixieland jazz in many respects, with particular emphasis on brass horns. There is no doubt, however, that this represents the earliest stage of blues in America.

Gertrude “Ma” Rainey.

Ma Rainey, born in 1886 in Georgia, was one of the most loved blues singers of all time. By the 1920s, she was running her own show, traveling with her own big tent and her Rabbit Foot Minstrels. In 1935, she returned to Georgia, joined the church, and determined to never sing blues again. The founder of modern gospel music, Rev. Thomas Dorsey, played with Rainey’s band in his younger years as “Georgia Tom.”

Bessie Smith.

Bessie Smith, the “empress of blues,” was born in 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Her parents were dead by the time she was nine. A favorite of white and black audiences, Smith was a popular early recorder of blues and also appeared in film. She was a legendary character, known to be forceful, having engaged in a legendary confrontation with the Ku Klux Klan (who backed down). Smith traveled throughout the United States and died tragically in a late night car accident near Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1937.

“Country” or “downhome” blues.

Country or downhome as a category effectively expresses the significant change from the early bands to a focus on individual performers, usually (but not exclusively) rural in origin.

Charlie Patton.

Charlie Patton was born sometime between 1881 and 1891 and was discovered by H. C. Speir, a music scout who lived in Jackson, Mississippi. Patton wandered throughout the Delta, playing for white and black audiences, wherever he could get some income (Cohn, 1993, p. 42). He is affectionately remembered for antics such as playing his guitar between his legs, over his head, etc. Though notoriously hard to understand—he would run words together—he recorded more than 50 titles, including a short sermon and some religious songs. Patton learned blues from listening to what would have been the first generation of blues singers, so it is usually argued that Patton’s work is about as close as we are likely to ever get to the earliest forms of this solo, “rough” genre of blues. Patton died in April 1934.

Robert Johnson.

Johnson probably has attracted the most mythology because so little about him is known (Wald, 2005). He was born in 1911 and raised in the Delta from 1920. He came under the influence of Son House and Willie Brown, for whom he first played in 1930. His only minor commercial success was “Terraplane Blues.” Johnson traveled throughout the Delta, but his legendary 29 recordings were made in 1936 and 1937. Some of his music shows religious interests, especially issues of good and evil. He died in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1938, apparently poisoned by a man who thought Johnson was sleeping with his wife. He was 27. The famous “sold his soul to the devil to play blues” legend has been widely dismissed as later folklore drawn from a variety of sources and probably not initiated by Johnson himself.

Son House.

Eddie “Son” House was brought with Patton to Patton’s 1930 recording sessions. House was raised near Clarksdale, Mississippi, and was 10 years younger than Patton. Up until two or three years before 1930, Son was a preacher. His famous song, “Preachin’ the Blues,” is usually considered autobiographical and is famously critical of clergy abuses. House became popular throughout the northern Delta for singing and was recorded by researchers as late as 1942, still in good form. In 1964, House was “rediscovered” in Rochester, New York, where he had been working for the railroad, and convinced to go back on the road for an entirely new generation of blues fans. He died in Detroit in 1988.

Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Jefferson was the most important representative of early Texas blues. Born blind in 1897 near Dallas, he turned to music to try to make a living. In 1925, an owner of a music store heard Jefferson playing on the streets of Dallas and sent him to record in Chicago. Jefferson combined blues and religious music and is celebrated as the first self-accompanied, solo blues singer who succeeded commercially (Cohn, p. 56). Jefferson recorded 90 sides, but he died tragically in 1929 in a snowstorm in Chicago when he was apparently lost or missed a bus.

Urban blues.

As the name suggests, the final major category moves north to the cities, eventually moving from Memphis to Chicago, and then east to New York and west to Los Angeles.

Muddy Waters.

McKinley Morganfield was born in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, in 1915 and became a protégé of Son House. At 3 years old, he was sent to Stovall Plantation to be with his grandmother, where he enjoyed playing in nearby creeks, thus “Muddy Waters.” He worked on plantations in the 1920s and 1930s, also playing in local bars from 1935 onward. Alan Lomax encountered Muddy Waters in 1941 (looking for Robert Johnson?) and remembered a young man with no guitar or shoes. In 1943 Muddy Waters went from the Delta to Chicago and took up electric guitar. Muddy Waters’s career revived in the 1970s, and he earned a Grammy in 1977. Late in life he was a celebrated figure; he died in 1983 at the age of 68.

B. B. King.

Riley King, the son of a sharecropper, was born in Indianola, Mississippi, in 1925. He came to Memphis to work in radio, where he auditioned at WDIA and was given a 15-minute slot on Saturday afternoons. He was nicknamed “Beale Street Blues Boy,” which became simply “B. B.” He first recorded in 1949, and in 1952 “Three-O’Clock Blues” was his first hit. King quit radio in 1953 and hit the road. By 1954, he was grossing $480,000 a year—a staggering figure for the time. Before his death in 2015 he was arguably the most well-known blues performer and advocate in the world and founded an extremely well-received museum in his home town of Indianola, which often sponsors educational and musical programs in addition to its fascinating collection of historical artifacts from his life.

Contemporary blues artists.

If this writer takes any liberties at all with this list—it is here. This is entirely a personal choice, representing two contemporary artists who have, nonetheless, achieved widespread recognition as modern exponents of the blues.

Shemekia Copeland.

Copeland was born in 1979 and has recorded more than seven albums. She has won numerous awards for her recordings and, is a popular performer in blues festivals around the world.

Kevin Moore.

Keb’ Mo’ was born in 1951 and has recorded more than a dozen albums, winning three Grammy awards as of this writing. He has appeared in television and film, even playing the roles of older blues musicians (e.g., Robert Johnson) in documentary projects on blues history. Although known mainly as a modern blues musician, his albums feature a variety of styles, including particularly gospel.

Blues and Religion: A History of Conflicting Views.

One of the most widely held stereotypes about the blues is that it is secular at best and downright anti-religious at worst (e.g., blues is “bereft of religion,” Oliver, 1990, p. 117; sung by those who had “turned their backs to religion,” p. 255; see Lomax, 1993, p. 33; Wardlow, 1998, pp. 196–201; an idea rejected by Cone, 1972; Spencer, 1993). Blues music supposedly deals with topics not “proper” to the religious persona, such as alcoholism, sexuality and sexual attraction, broken relationships, and mistreatment on various levels, and therefore modern readers encounter common attitudes in popular works about the blues that are usually dismissive of any relationship between religious values and the blues.

For example, note the steady stream of blues players who say to interviewers that they left blues behind them when they become “religious” or, in some cases, when they became a preacher (e.g., Wardlow, 1998, on Ishmon Bracey, pp. 45–46; on Freddy Spruel, pp. 71–72; on Rev. Rice, pp. 152–158; on Muddy Waters, see Gordan, 2002, pp. 16–17, etc.). Notwithstanding the continued presence of blues musicians who carry “Rev.” in their name (e.g., Rev. Gary Davis, 1896–1972), virtually all blues historians cite Son House’s famous 1930s lyric criticizing religious leaders as an indication of the hostility of blues music to religion:

Oh, I’m gonna get me religion, I’m gonna join the Baptist ChurchOh, I’m gonna be a Baptist preacher and I sure won’t have to work

Harris (2011) discusses the much-vaunted “divide” between blues and spiritual music, but then points out that:

"Despite this divide, religious imagery is prevalent throughout blues music, particularly the blues of the 20’s and 30’s; songs talk about the devil, make fun of the preachers, deacons and reverends, use biblical imagery and speak of the afterlife, both heaven and hell in frank terms. In addition there’s a slew of bluesman who struggled between blues and religion like Son House, blues artists who moonlighted by singing gospel like Charlie Patton, Blind Boy Fuller, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Lemon Jefferson, among many others and those bluesmen who eventually turned full time to religion like Robert Wilkins, Rev. Gary Davis, Georgia Tom, Rube Lacey, Ishman Bracey, Gatemouth Moore and many others. On the flipside are artists who straddled blues and gospel like Blind Roosevelt Graves, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and those artists who’s [sic] musical language was similar to the blues artists, most notably the so-called guitar evangelists like Blind Willie Johnson, Rev. Edward Clayborn, Sister O. M. Terrell and others, plus sanctified singers and groups who’s [sic] instrumentation drew from secular music like blues and jazz."

The most important historical “crossover” between blues and religious music, however, was accomplished in the life and work of Rev. Thomas Dorsey. Although a successful blues pianist and songwriter in his early career in Chicago (notably playing with Ma Rainey’s band), Dorsey gave up blues music as a professional career in 1932. However, Dorsey’s legacy is a creative combination of much of the musical power of his blues expertise with spiritual lyrics, and thus Dorsey virtually invented the genre of “gospel music.” Although not well received at first, Dorsey was a tireless promoter and sold his own arrangements in the form of sheet music, taught other directors his techniques, and even started national conferences for the promotion of gospel music in churches. Among Dorsey’s legacies were the discovery, training, and promotion of Mahalia Jackson, usually considered the greatest traditional gospel singer of the twentieth century (Harris, 1992).

Serious theological reflection on blues themes and music is not an exclusively modern phenomenon, despite this supposed conflict between religion and the blues. Titon (1994) reproduces the following striking sermon, attributed to Rev. Emmett Dickinson and recorded on the Paramount label (#12925) in 1930, which establishes clearly that not all early African American preachers were so quick to condemn blues as invariably and inevitably incompatible with serious theological reflection and, in this case, even biblical comparison. Here, I follow Titon’s proposed arrangement of the text into strophes:

… It’s no harm to sing the bluesThere’s so-called preachers all over this landAre talking about the man or woman who sings the bluesYou don’t know the meaning of the bluesThe blues is only an outward voice to that inward feelingAnd way back yonderWhen Adam and Eve was put out of the Garden of EdenTo till the earthHe began to sing a songI don’t know what he sangBut I imagine he sangI didn’t know my burden was so hard

Oh I didn’t know my burden was so hardOh I done made up my mindOh how I had some prechin kindI didn’t know my burden was so hardWay back yonderWhen Israel crossed the Red SeaOn Dry landAnd landed on the other sideI’m told that they sang a new songI don’t know what they sangBut I call that the Israelite bluesI imagine they sang“I’ve just made my escapeAnd got over yonder”And way back downWhen Paul and SilasWas in the Philippian jailPaul said, “SilasUh do you feel like singing”Silas says, “I never felt as much like singing beforeIn all my life”I call that the jailhouse blues. …

(Titon, 1994, pp. 287–288)

In what ways, however, can blues be brought into dialogue with contemporary biblical studies?

Challenging Stereotypes on Religion and Blues.

The two most important books of the twentieth century that focused directly on addressing a relationship between serious religious thought and the blues tradition were James Cone’s 1972 work, The Spirituals and the Blues, and Jon Michael Spencer’s 1993 work, Blues and Evil. Furthermore, Julio Finn’s somewhat unusual work, The Bluesman (1986), makes the effective point that voodoo/hoodoo religious and folk traditions and practices feature prominently in some blues lyrics as well.

Cone (b. 1938) proposed the basic idea that blues must be seen as an important partner to spirituals in African American culture, history, and theology—but with the significant difference that blues focuses on the issues of life such as relationships, sexuality, and hard times:

"The Blues have to do with the nature of being and non-being, life and death. They knew that something was wrong; people were not created to be defined by others. And neither was it meant for a woman to be separated from her man." (1992, p. 105)

"The blues tell us about the strength of black people to survive, to endure, and to shape existence while living in the midst of oppressive contradictions. They also tell us about the joy and sweetness of love." (1992, p. 106)

In his later work, Spencer also contests the persistent myth that blues and religious sensibilities are incompatible and argues that many of these stereotype arguments can be traced to flaws in particularly European and European American scholarship on an African American musical and cultural tradition (1993, pp. xii–xiii). Spencer asserts that knowing and “knowing about,” are two different things:… 

"…the best writer on the blues is not simply one who does good theoretical scholarship, but one who knows the “lowdown shaking chill” of living at the political, economic, and social underside of history." (1993, p. xxi)

Spencer further suspects a racist perpetuation of an emphasis on sexualized lyrics (and mythologies of “pacts with the Devil”). Echoing Wardlow’s important corrective to generations of blues “commentators” who overlooked details like Robert Johnson’s calls for prayer (Wardlow, 1998, p. 200), Spencer argues that much of the “bad man” image of the blues performer resembles the image of the classic trickster figure who manages to survive in difficult or even impossible circumstances through cunning, wit, and opportunism. Thus, there is a cultural toleration of the apparent “evil” that is missed in non–African American sensationalism of illicit sexuality and frankly racist stereotyping (Spencer, 1993, pp. 9–10). Spencer powerfully states:

"Blues as evil music, and even marketing it to largely white record buyers as “evil music,” is another form of moral scapegoating of Blacks in America—identifying blues as “evil” was another way of saying blacks were evil, and therefore all their behavior was evil."

Another way of missing the context and lyrical discussions of “the devil” is by inadvertently assuming that the “devil” being referred to is best understood in the context of Western European theological traditions, rather than understanding the figure in African-American elisions of the Biblical “devil” with far less threatening African-American folk traditions about trickster figures.

(1993, pp. 30–34)

Finally, agreeing with the heavily religious context from which much blues must be “heard,” Spencer notes the common theme (since Bessie Smith and Son House) of  “preaching the blues” and blues music as “telling the truth.” Blues singers are often very aware that their concerts have a religious-like context and character, and they tend to be very much in the role of a preacher leading discussions of difficult subjects (Spencer, 1993, pp. 40–42). Thus, Spencer sees the blues singer in the role of a “prodigal son,” which may go further to explain the two-way door between the blues hall and the church passed through by many blues singers in their lives (pp. 63–67).

In sum, both Cone and Spencer argue that the desired “family values” that form the bulk of blues lyrics dealing with broken relationships reveal a strong desire for stable love and family life. The blues singer laments what he or she does not have but clearly desires. It is rarer (even if not entirely absent) for the blues singer to brag about abusive use of men or women, despite the stereotypes perpetuated by largely non–African American singers who repeat the rarer illicit lyrics to the exclusion of more general sorrows. After all, sex sells, and in the modern blues industry it continues to sell to those (typically white audiences) more interested in titillation than understanding. By pointing out that many modern blues chroniclers routinely overlook religious themes that are both implicit and explicit in blues traditions, Cone and Spencer succeed in clarifying the “yin and yang” relationship of blues and spirituals, blues and religious sensibilities. Cone’s commentary, specifically, invites more creative thought on the potential of comparing the positive role of the erotic in Song of Songs and the blues.

Blues and Scripture.

Taking up Rev. Dickinson’s 1930s reference to “Israelite blues,” there are a number of interesting issues in contemporary scholarship in the Hebrew Bible that are illuminated by familiarity with the blues tradition. The most obvious connections relate blues to studies in the book of Lamentations, on the one hand, and increased awareness of the significance of biblical discussions of gender and sexuality, on the other.

The study of lament traditions in societies in general sets an important context for biblical studies on Hebrew laments:

"Lament is a typically improvisational genre in which women (and some men) have expressed grief and aired grievances, one in which communities have ritually reconstituted themselves in the face of loss. Lament is thus a lens through which many scholars have examined emotions, music, poetic languages, and the societies in which those take shape." (Wilce, 2009, p. 2)

In a statement that could just as easily apply to the blues, Westermann describes the book of Lamentations as songs that arose immediately following the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.: “Those so affected then expressed themselves in lamentations. … The real significance of laments resides in the way they allow the suffering of the afflicted to find expression” (1994, p. 81).

The lament form has long been identified as a predominant form of Israelite poetry in Psalms as well as the book of Lamentations, and even into the New Testament. Various formulations of this form can be cited, but Nancy C. Lee (2010) represents a particularly well-developed statement of the form:

  • (1) address to the deity (second-person speech)
  • (2) complaint or description of distress, often with questions (to or against the deity, about one’s enemies, or about one’s suffering)
  • (3) expression of trust in the deity and/or remembrance of past saving actions
  • (4) plea/petition to the deity …_________________(line inserted to suggest possible transition, lamenter was helped)
  • (5) assurance of being heard
  • (6) vow of praise
  • (7) praise of the deity (pp. 92–93)

The book of Lamentations has seen a notable increase in attention in twenty-first-century biblical studies (Thomas, 2013), and the blues has occasionally been a briefly cited comparative example (e.g., Lee, 2010, pp. 116–117). Brueggemann has also argued for recognizing protest in lamentation forms: “Lament occurs when the dysfunction reaches an unacceptable level, when the injustice is intolerable and change is insisted upon … ” (1995, p. 62).

Reading Lamentations as protest also suggests the value of hearing Lamentations as calls to witness contemporary human tragedy and suffering. Linafelt (2000), for example, explores a reading of Lamentations in the light of tragic twentieth-century human events, and Lee’s work (2002, 2010) includes reflections on contemporary international examples of violence through a reading of Lamentations. O’Connor (2002) also reads the poems in the context of individual suffering and affliction in addition to agreeing with important societal and political events as a new contemporary context for renewed interest in the book of Lamentations.

The Blues and Acrostic Laments?

In addition to the sad themes, the blues may also shed light on the continued form of the book of Lamentations in biblical history. For example, one of the most interesting issues in research on the book of Lamentations is the very precise form of the chapters. As we now have it, the book consists of poetry that is famously written in the “acrostic” form—each verse begins in a very special way. In chapters 1–3, each verse has three lines, and each set of three begins with the consecutive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In chapter 4, there are two lines for each verse, but again 22 verses beginning with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in order, from Aleph to Tav. Chapter 5, strangely, seems “broken.” There are still 22 verses—the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet, but each verse is only one line—and the letters are missing. Although this “acrostic form” occurs also in Psalms 9–10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, and 145, in Nahum 1:2–8 and Proverbs 31:10–31, and also in Akkadian and Canaanite (Ugaritic) poetry, this does not explain why it was so thoroughly adopted for the book of Lamentations.

If the poetry, originating in the immediate aftermath, is later reworked, then why this particular pattern? One of the most common suggestions is the notion of a mnemonic device, but Berlin (2002) was intrigued with the idea that the acrostic pattern expressed a structure to suffering:

"The world of Lamentations has been disrupted; no order exists any longer in the real world. But as if to counteract this chaos, the poet has constructed his own linguistic order that he marks out graphically for us by the orderly progression of the letters of the alphabet. (p. 5)"

Gottwald’s work is usually cited as the first to suggest the notion of a “totality” of suffering, that is, suffering from “A to Z” (Gottwald, 1954; but see Berlin, 2002, p. 4, n. 6 for a midrashic anticipation of this notion). In any case, Westermann argued that the acrostic form must not be original to Lamentations, because it reflects an artificial arrangement of the older oral outbursts (1994, p. 63).

Therefore, work on the historical sources of Lamentations moves between two interesting assumptions—that the content of the poetry is close to the events themselves and thus represents deeply human crises but also that the poetry continued to be developed, taking on more complex forms. Finding many of the proposed explanations for the structured form of the book of Lamentations to be unsatisfying, Westermann rather strikingly proposed an aesthetic explanation—that the ancient Israelites found the acrostic form “enjoyable” or “pleasing” (1994, pp. 99–100). A moment’s thought given to the blues tradition makes Westermann’s deceptively simple suggestion much weightier than it may seem.

Blues music, in its traditional form, of course, began to follow a rather strict form that is elegant in its simplicity (typically the 12-bar, AAB pattern). But the artistry is in the creative and artistic uses of the recognizable form to discuss hard times, suffering, and personal desire and grief in a myriad of ways. Despite the negative themes, blues music has a discernibly healing impact, as listeners identify with the complaints and protests of hard times and mistreatment. As B. B. King is alleged to have said, “Life sometimes gives you the blues, but the blues always gives you life!” In other words, one may argue that B. B. King’s clever observation supports Westermann’s proposal that the acrostic pattern reveals the continued popular and even “aesthetically pleasing” reuse of lamentations in ancient Israel, even to suggest that lamentations also become an emotionally releasing “popular form” in the same manner that the blues becomes an emotionally releasing musical form in the twentieth century.

Is It Appropriate to Be Blue? And Are Blues Reflections of the Female Voice?

Another interesting controversy with regard to theology and blues is the legacy of doubt in Christian theology about the appropriate place of lamenting prayers and mourning actions. Contemporary biblical theologians often cite St. John Chrysostom’s (347–407 C.E.) sermon, “The Blessing of Death” (ca. 380) to suggest a long-term Christian prejudice against the tradition of lamentation. Chrysostom stormed against ancient Christian women who lamented in public: “… if they fully believed in a resurrection, they would not act thus!” Wilce notes that from the Middle Ages to early modernity, Roman Catholic church councils issued repeated condemnations of lament: “They were heirs to the theology of Chrysostom” (2009, p. 70).

However, there is the striking question of whether resistance to lament is partly defined by a resistance to the traditional place of women as exponents of laments. For example, in his study, Wilce (2009) notes the predominant association of lament practices with voices of women in societies where such practices are common:

"Lament’s putatively dangerous passion is inseparable from its status as a predominantly women’s genre. Lament’s perceived danger arises from the reality that women—often represented as “naturally” emotional, irrational, and thus requiring male control—find real power in lament. … Clearly, talk of lament’s danger is talk of gender. (p. 51)"

Thus, thinking about blues in the context of the study of scripture is to raise the issue of the role of the feminine in relation to a lament as protest (Jer 9:20; Joel 1:8). Once again, particular attention has been focused on the book of Lamentations along these lines.

Boase (2006), Mandolfo (2007), and O’Connor (2002) have all called particular attention to the voice of “Lady Zion” in Lamentations. Boase and Mandolfo, picking up on an older dialogue in feminist criticism of the Old Testament that debates the deeply disturbing images of the abuse of “Lady Zion” as a means of talking about judgment on Jerusalem (e.g., Weems, 1995), have suggested that Lady Zion, who is voiceless in Jeremiah’s and Ezekiel’s attacks on “faithless Jerusalem,” is finally allowed to speak and respond in Lamentations (in addition to Boase and Mandolfo, see also Berlin, 2002, pp. 10–12). O’Connor identifies three different voices in dialogue in the book of Lamentations including the voice of “Lady Zion” (2002, pp. 96–109).

Boase and Mandolfo both suggest that “Lady Zion” (personified Jerusalem) actually protests her mistreatment in reply to the theologies of Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, who speak only of “her” (Jerusalem’s) guilt. Mandolfo suggests that Second Isaiah actually presents God as responding to Lady Zion’s protests and furthermore, answering sympathetically (2007, pp. 103–119). Such perspectives on the protesting voice of the feminine in the context of laments is especially important when brought into dialogue with Angela Davis’s important work on Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, the two most important early “blues divas” before the change of emphasis in blues traditions to the singular, male, solo performer. As Davis (1998) writes:

"In general … blues women did not acquiesce to the idea—which appears in various forms in male country blues—that men take to the road and women resort to tears. The women who sang the blues did not typically affirm female resignation and powerlessness, nor did they accept the relegation of women to private and interior spaces. (p. 20)"

Thus it would appear that as the feminine voice of protest is now acknowledged in biblical lament, we are also recovering the feminine voice of protest in the original “founding mothers” of the blues as a musical movement. If Wilce (2009) is correct, furthermore, much work needs to be done on the traditional association of lament and the feminine voice across cultures.

The Bible and the Blues.

The blues represents an interesting partner in dialogue with both scripture and traditions of religious music (see Nichols, 2008). As “history of reception” begins to merge with sociological contexts for all historical-critical analysis of scripture, the blues must take its place as an essential social context for interpreting the Bible as an expression of protest, lament, and the refusal to accept social disintegration as normal.



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Daniel L. Smith-Christopher

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