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The Blues and The Gospel – Midweek Musing for 3/1/2023

The Blues and The Gospel – Midweek Musing for 3/1/2023

Sing the praises of the Lord, you his faithful people; praise his holy name. 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.

Psalm 30:4-5

So once again, while I was looking up something else on the internet, I clicked links that took me down Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole.

I have done this more than once in my life. In fact, it is a regular occurrence. Fortunately, I am not the only person who does this kind of internet wandering. Thus, I don’t feel too bad about myself. However, if I am transparent, most of the time, this click after click after click yields very little of real substance. Or what I do discover is so far off my original topic that I have to hope to remember whatever tidbit I found to use it sometime later. And alas, the older I get, the fewer of these things I remember.

In this case, I was looking up some information about music, particularly African American music, for a Musing I sent out a few weeks back.

What was remarkable to discover as I went down the rabbit hole of the internet is that America’s most authentically American only music is music born from the African American experience. Musical historians note that “most if not all of American music finds its origins in the African American experience.” (1)

We now refer to this music as blues and jazz.

Indeed, if you were to create a visualization of American music using a tree, the trunk would be blues and jazz, but the roots that hold it up are African American spirituals which at one time were called Slavery or Negro Spirituals.

Much of American music, including pop, country, rock and roll, soul, hip-hop, rap, and folk music is from these two genres. Also, the uniquely American genre of Gospel Music came from spirituals and blues.

Musically these forms all rely upon the pentatonic scale. While this scale goes back to numerous ancient cultures, the way it was used by the black community for spirituals, the blues, jazz, and gospel is distinctive and recognizable as something the world had never heard before.

All the genres mentioned above use a variation of this pentatonic scale – including the blues and gospel.

Of course, we are all familiar with the blues. It is music that allows people to express pain, loss, sadness, and despair. Originating in African American communities in the southern United States, it is characterized by its distinctive chord progressions and pattern, often referred to as the "blues progression.” It is sung in a distinctive vocal style that includes "blue notes," which are notes that are sung or played at a slightly lower pitch than the surrounding notes.

In comparison, Gospel music is a genre of Christian music that originated in African American churches in the United States. It is characterized by its lyrics, which typically express Christian themes of hope, faith, and redemption, as well as its use of call-and-response vocals, handclapping, and foot stomping. The music originates from African American spirituals, hymns, and blues music and is meant to inspire and uplift listeners with its powerful messages of faith and hope.

You may be wondering why I am giving you this music history and theory lesson and what any of it has to do with our faith!

Well, it occurred to me that God sometimes points to the truth found in the scriptures in very subtle but also quite profound ways. And while I am sure some folks may think I am stretching this metaphor, it is evident that both historically and in the actual production of the musical notes, we are unable to have the gospel and its lyrics of good news without going through the blues.

Gospel music simply does not exist apart from the blues.

Alas, weeping may be a night for a time, but thanks be to God; joy always comes in the morning.

I think this is part of the Christian experience many of us struggle with.

We say, “I am a Christian and person, and I do good things and trust in God. Yet, I still experience hurt and pain and suffering and despair.”

And in our disappointment and grief, we give up on our faith. Forgetting that while this world does include what our ancestors called “trials and tribulations, " the gospel, which literally means good news, is that we are ultimately promised joy.

And we know this joy is true because even our Lord suffered on the cross. And while there was undoubtedly a reason on Calvary and at the tomb when the stone was rolled to sing the blues, that was not the last song. Because joy came on that blessed Easter morning and in the words of that African American Song of praise, O Happy Day (2), because of that gift of love and grace, what a joyous day we will all one day experience in the beloved Kingdom of God.

1. The sacred and the secular: How gospel music grew from the Blues | ABJ Clip

2. The music in this link includes not only the song with Whoopi Goldberg but also several examples of the pentatonic scale.


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