this is your disclaimer...

Monday, March 25, 2013

Suffering, The Gospel and The Blues.

It wasn't until college that I first threw myself open armed into American Roots Music. Particularly that of African American music traditions, and most specifically what we know as blues music. I think if I were truthful I can say that by the age of 19 I'd faced pretty minimal suffering. Not that I grew up in a bubble, but as a middle classed white educated female who's parents were together and alive all my growing years, that puts me ahead of most the world. I never wondered where my next meal would come from. I never wondered where I'd sleep at night. And yet when my ears were first pricked with the wailing sounds of blues musicians I thought there is something truer about this music than my life right now. And I wanted to know this music. I wanted to sing it, and I wanted to be truthful with it.

I didn't know what I was longing for.

Morning rain keeps on falling
Like the tears that fall from my eyes
And as I sit, in my room, staring out at the gloom
That's the rain in the same old blues

-Freddy King, Same Old Blues

My whole family is mostly tone deaf. Some completely so, and some with just enough God given auditory sense to stumble through a well intentioned rendition of Happy Birthday. Only my Father's mother, whom I never met, was blessed with a singing voice. In my family we've got athletes and stock brokers. We have some other creative people, but no musicians. None. My poor parents. They nurtured their alien song bird of a daughter the best way they knew how, taking me to musicals and buying me Amy Grant cassettes. When I became serious about singing and really wanted to study and grow into a legit vocalist I felt extremely frustrated that when trying to learn a Celine Dion tune, the results were less than pleasing. I'm not a pop singer. I didn't know it at the time, or that there were even other options, but my voice doesn't do those things. I was really pissed about it. But I also didn't feel connected to what I was singing either. Even with a lot of music I sang at church.

Back to college. Freshman year my boyfriend (now husband) bought me my first Gillian Welch and Freddy King albums. And while I didn't immediately have a deep spiritual connection to these records I did think- man that is COOL. I want to sing songs like that. So I started trying. It was pretty pathetic. Like I said, suburban white girl. My frustration grew. I really felt like giving up a few times. I wanted there to be a story in my voice and I didn't feel like I had much of one. I was painfully aware of my youth and inexperience. It showed in how I sang. So I decided to learn other people's stories.

I spent most of my college years learning everything I could about American Roots Music. And when you get down to it blues music was born out of suffering. It was born out of slavery. How in the world should I be allowed to sing these songs? I really almost drove down to Mississippi one weekend to find a cotton field so I could sing an old spiritual and sweat and feel my fingers bleed and long for heaven in a way I didn't understand yet. I felt a deep responsibility learning this music. Its history is rich and fraught with peril.

Goin' away don't you wanna go
Goin' away don't you wanna go
Goin' away don't you wanna go
Goin' to my home on the other shore

Mother and Father stand and cry
Mother and Father stand and cry
Mother and Father stand and cry
Lord have Mercy my child is dyin'

- Goin' Away, performed by The Staples Singers

One of the things my daddy always told me about the way his momma sang was that she sang from "deep down in her gut". And he'd put a hand over his belly every time he'd say it. What I really want to do now is spell out for you the physics of what is going on when someone "sings from their gut". I wanna tell you all about how the sound is vibrating and why Mahalia Jackson's vowel placement is perfect. But I really almost feel like it's better to say she sang from her gut. When some people first hear Bill Monroe or Robert Johnson they don't get it. Their ears aren't tuned to that ancient musical language and it sounds messy. I had a music professor spend a whole class on how Robert Johnson dropped measures because he wasn't a trained musician and I wanted to punch him in the face. Cause that's not the point. All the old timey artists were fantastic musicians but that's not the point either.

The point is that this music speaks of the human experience of suffering better than any other art form in my opinion. And there is an old magic to the way the melody dances with the lyric; each complete in the other like a beautiful marriage. The notes are like a hollowed out tree being bent by a windstorm. And the words riding the backs of those notes are telling you about life, love, and death.

Death don't have no Mercy in this Land
No Death don't have no Mercy in this Land
He'll come to your house, and he won't stay long
You'll look in the bed and somebody'll be gone
Death don't have no Mercy in this land 

-Death Don't Have No Mercy Here, Reverend Gary Davis

Maybe you don't wanna listen to songs about dying. Maybe you wanna listen to Call Me Maybe cause it makes you forget about dying. But it's inevitable my friend. Someone you love will die. You will die. These bodies gon' wear out, or be taken before they do. Do you have a song to sing about that? Greater still, where is your hope for dealing with death? Where is your hope for your own parting from this world? As a Christian, I believe that because of the suffering of Christ on my behalf, death does not have the final say over my life. It is not the final field hollar. Jesus died and rose again in my place so that when my body leaves this earth there will be an end to my suffering. That is a good hope. In the past decade since that 19 year old girl first heard The Staples Singers I have experienced a little more of the darkness of this world. I have lost people I love. Some young and some old. Most closely and recently my Daddy, who passed away a few weeks before I gave birth to my first daughter. We've had friends get divorced. We've seen babies die. Too many babies. We've lost jobs and had health issues and seen friendships end. It hurts. Its hurts really bad. My hero, and my Christian sister Mahalia Jackson describes the blues as "being in a deep pit yellin' for help." I think that's why I love and need the blues so much. I have this freedom to be explicit with my hurts. To be graphic with my need for help, and to make you hear that in the way that I sing. Because I'm not crying out to thin air, but to a living loving God who gives meaning and promised relief to my trials. The simple plea heard so many times over in blues Lord have mercy is no longer a black-culture colloquialism for me. It is the singer's song, it is me, from a deep pit, yellin' for help from our God. This hopefulness is laced throughout the blues story. A bluesman wails a lament to stay hopeful, many times hoping in Christ. Many songs were written and sang as a community sharing suffering together reminding one another- you are not alone in this trial. I now know what that is like too. I'm so thankful for the community I gather with every sunday and throughout the week to sing songs about our suffering, and the suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ and the hope that we have in him.

One of my first favorites on that Gillian Welch album is an old timey song called Orphan Girl. I liked the way it sounded. It was cute. It made me feel like I was walking down the street in O Brother Where Art Thou? Its a little more relevant to me now.

I am an orphan, on God's highway
But I'll share my troubles, if you'll go my way
I have no mother, no father, no sister, no brother
I am an orphan girl

When you lose a parent... even if they are very old, and even if you are very old, you feel that deep horrible permanent sense of abandonment. I often think about how I would feel if my mom suddenly died too, and I would feel like an orphan. Utterly alone. Even if you're a grown up you just want your mommy and daddy. Always. Yet you know you will lose them. They are not yours to keep.

Blessed savior, make me willing
walk beside me until I'm with them
Be my mother, my father, my sister, my brother
No more an orphan girl

I realize most of these lyrics may not sound like Shakespearean poetry to you. My hope is that if you're obedient to my wishes you will LISTEN to all of them as well. (look! I provided high-tech links) These words are the simple, gut wrenching cries and moans when words won't really do. You must listen to them, and listen more than once. There is magic to be found in the nuance sliding painfully in between each note. You must sing the words over and over because each time you sing them the meaning deepens. I hope you will listen. I hope you will find your song to sing. And I hope its in the arms of Jesus.