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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. Yet even Nichols admits that the redemption angle is underplayed. In considering the spiritual significance of the old blues songs, I am reminded of Martin Scorsese’s conversation with a parish priest who told the filmmaker that his movies contained too much “Good Friday and not enough Easter Sunday.”

Nichols may find that readers today no longer condemn the blues as sinful, but he will run into critics who have tried to present a purely secular view of this music. Experts such as Elijah Wald, Barry Lee Pearson, and Bill McCulloch have worked hard in recent years to construct a modern, streamlined vision of blues music in which stories of the crossroads and damnation are excised as unnecessary mythologies. Nichols, for his part, respects the resonance of these tormented tales of blues artists, who felt either a literal or metaphorical hellhound on their trail.

So this is an unfashionable book, yet that is to its author’s credit. It is convincing for the most part, and, even where it pushes to extremes, it is always engaging. Getting the Blues will help readers hear blues music with refreshed ears and read Scripture with a revitalized perspective.

- Ted Gioia

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