I’m continuing to blog through Christian Scharen’s outstanding new book Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters to Those Seeking God. I invite you to grab a copy of the book and join me in reflecting on it.
Chapter 3 of Broken Hallelujahs explores the blues in great detail. Whereas the previous chapter’s focus on Cohen introduced me to an artist with whose work I was mostly unfamiliar, the present chapter takes up a genre of music that is my favorite. Even with a familiar genre, however, Scharen chooses to focus on bluesmen and blueswomen of which I was unaware: Billie Holiday, Ma Rainey, and Georgia Tom Dorsey. Leading off with a story of Holiday’s making the revolutionary anthem “Strange Fruit” her signature song, Scharen proceeds to deconstruct the popular construal of the blues as “the devil’s music.” Rather than “the devil’s music,” the blues might more aptly be described as “secular spirituals” in which a voice is given to speaking the truth, truth not only of the empirical, factual variety, but of the feeling variety. In this way, the blues are instructive to those who have fallen prey to the all-too-common sacred-secular divide.
My exposure to the blues has primarily come from more contemporary artists than those mentioned in the chapter such as Eric Clapton (who does garner a brief mention), B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jonny Lang, Albert Collins, Luther Allison, Bernard Allison, and Buddy Guy. Nevertheless, the testimony of their music supports the same conclusions. What I might add to Scharen’s observations is that it’s not just the lyrical content that supports these conclusions, but the musical composition. In particular, the blues are, in my opinion, most capable of capturing the truth of the ups and downs of life through the use of dynamics. While pop artists have perfected the ability to shift from a somewhat contemplative verse to a raucous chorus, the dynamic shift pales in comparison to that achieved by Eric Clapton in “Have You Ever Loved a Woman?” or Stevie Ray Vaughan in “Life Without You” or Jonny Lang in “A Quitter Never Wins.” Perhaps one could argue dynamics are present in pop music in the context of an entire album, featuring ballads and more uptempo numbers mixed in with each other. However, it seems to me the wide-ranging dynamics inherent in a single blues song portrays more truthfully the dynamics of life, in which the ups and downs aren’t so neatly managed and easily distinguished.
What artist(s) and/or song(s) truthfully portray to you the world in all its sacred-secular complexity, whether lyrically or musically?