The Delta Blues
If you leave Memphis, Tennessee and drive south, you run right into the Mississippi delta. The Delta takes in parts of Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana that lie between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. This area contains the richest soil in the country, yet is home to some of the poorest people. Before the civil war, there were five slaves to every free man in the region. Starting in the early 1800s cotton was king there, and slaves were imported to pick it. Unfortunately the agricultural methods they used depleted the richness of the soil, and eventually the rolling hills and swamps of the delta gave way to flat, harsh soil. After the war, it was home to sharecroppers, and remained so through much of the 20th century. This was one of the last areas in the country to get electricity, or indoor plumbing.
It is also, as best as anyone can figure out, home to one of the unique forms of American music–the blues.
The blues are clearly rooted in African music, but no one has quite figured out quite how. Musicologists have done a lot of work trying to make the connection, but all they can find are traces.
One of the major differences between the blues and traditional African music is the nature of words, and the role of the singer. In African music, the songs connect the people to their past. Most of the music centers around the griot, the village bard, who is the keeper of the history. Often the griot is more respected in his village or tribe than the elders and leaders of the tribe. It was his job to be the keeper of the flame for the stories that nurtured the village, and they played a role that was closer to that of a Celtic bard, or of Homer and the Iliad and the Odyssey, than to blues singers of the Mississippi Delta. African music was the music of kings, and tribal leaders, of the many success in the history of the tribe. The blues is the music of slaves, prison work gangs, and share croppers, who live in some of the poorest regions of the country.
When Robert Johnson sings about walking to the station, with her suitcase in his hands, you know things are not going to turn out well. Indeed as the title of the says, it is Love in Vain. When Son House sings, “I woke up this morning, feeling ’round for my shoes,” you know he is not waking up from a peaceful sleep. He was sleeping alone, missing the comforts of love.
“Don’t a man feel bad the Good Lord’s sun go down?/He don’t have nobody to throw his arms around”
And then he sings to his listeners,
“The blues ain’t nothing but a lowdown, shaking chill/If you ain’t had them, I hope you never will.”
Ted Gioia, author of the book, Delta Blues, says “the delta blues has closer affinities to the French Symbolist poets of the nineteenth century than to the minstrel song and medicine show ditties that are so often seen as anticipating its arrival on the scene.” It is a universal music, and yet it comes from places like Itta Bene, Lyon, Teoc, or Hazelhurst, Mississippi, homes of BB King, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, or Robert Johnson, respectively.
When this music, the music of sharecroppers, most often performed at fish fries, working in the fields, or on the street corner, was first heard by the world, in the 1920s when the phonograph made it possible to hear recordings of Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Tommy Johnson, it took off like wildfire. W.C. Handy first heard it sung on a train, by a young man with a guitar, and while he was drawn to it, he felt it was too primitive for polite society. At the time Handy had a traveling show, and one night he opened it to local performers. Three young men came up and did a blues number, the kind of music Handy heard on the train. Handy felt the music was beyond contempt, and was waiting for the audience to boo the performers off the stage. He was surprised at the end of the number when the audience showered the performers with silver dollars, “more,” Handy realized, that what his whole nine piece band would make the night for a full show. That is when Handy decided to become the Father of the Blues, and wrote The Memphis Blues and the St. Louis Blues.
Of course the music became popular. Who here has never had the blues? Who here has gone to bed missing someone you love? Who here has been in an airport, or train terminal, wondering if you will ever go back to a place you love? Who here has loved someone who did not love you back? Who has been in a relationship where you thought to yourself, the thrill is gone? Who here has sat in the ER, or by a hospital bed? Who here has heard bad news from doctors? Who here has looked at the world, and felt it was just overwhelming?
Who here has ever felt that God was somehow absent from your lives?
If you have ever felt any of those things, then you have had the blues. You may not like the music, but you can resonate with the feelings behind it.
I bring all this up because the Psalmist who wrote today’s Psalms certainly has the blues. There is a song in our hymnal that is loosely based on this Psalm, As the Deer.
As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you. You alone are my heart’s desire, and I long to worship you. It is a song about someone who loves God so much, that they want to be closer to God, and the melody of the song is hopeful.
But the Psalms, 42 and 43, are not upbeat, hopeful songs about people who love the Lord, and just want more of Jesus in their lives. If the author of this Psalm ever set it to music, it would be the blues. Think about what it is saying. Think of a deer, out in the desert, thirsty, with no water in sight. Sure, that deer hopes for water. It is gonna die without it. Look at verse 3.
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”
The Psalmist remembers going to the house of God with joy–he even remembers leading others in a grand procession to house of God, “with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving.”
“Why are you downcast, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?”
Later on he says
Deep calls to deep
at the thunder of your cataracts;
all your waves and your billows
have gone over me.
The abyss of his life reaches out and finds only more empty space, and the waves of adversity crash over him, not like the gentle waves of the beach, but with hurricane force. Why?
I say to God, my rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
And this is not just a personal sense of agony. He is not alone in his misery. He has companions, but they are hardly the time of companions anyone would wish to have.
As with a deadly wound in my body,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”
The Psalmist is looking for hope, but things are spiraling down. Instead of finding comfort from friends, he is surrounded by adversaries, who taunt him. In the word of Mississippi Fred McDowell, “I asked for whiskey, and she gave me gasoline.”
Psalm 42 and 43, which most scholars think are really just one Psalm, are a lament, a cry to God, a cry for help. Laments are found throughout the whole of the Old Testament, and in the New Testament. The book of Job and Lamentations are both laments, from start to finish. There are many Psalms of lament. Laments are found throughout the works of the prophets. In the New Testament, Jesus laments over Jerusalem, and much of the book of Romans harks back to laments in the Old Testament. When Paul says, in Romans 7, For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? he is singing a lament, as he is in Romans 8 where he says, We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
A lament is just an ancient form of the blues.
Most laments have three things in common. First, The person lamenting is in bad shape. Maybe he himself is suffering, or maybe he is recounting the sufferings of the nation. But someone is suffering. Second, the person feels an acute absence of God. In fact, it is often the absence of God that has caused the suffering. OK, enemies have overtaken our city and burned it to the ground, but that is because God did not protect us. OK, I am sick and suffering, but that is because God turned away from me. In other words, in biblical laments, the people crying out to God are often saying it is God’s fault they are in the trouble they are in. The third thing that most laments have in common, is that God will rescue them.
As the Psalmist says, Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, and again, For you are the God in whom I take refuge.
Although the person who wrote Psalm 42/43 feels lost, and distant from God, he also writes,
O send out your light and your truth;
let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill
and to your dwelling.
And the Psalmist knows that whatever his condition is, it is not permanent.
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.
Or, in the words of Mississippi john Hurt, Ain’t nobody but you, God.
I don’t know why we suffer. I don’t know why we
I don’t know why we suffer. I don’t know why we get the blues. Part of me would love to live in a world where the blues made no sense at all, because no one was hurting. But that ain’t this world. We do hurt. We do suffer. We do get the blues.
The Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann breaks the Psalms down into three separate types. The first he calls Psalms of Location. They tell us who we are. The 23rd Psalm, for example, tells us that we are sheep in God’s pasture, and that God looks after us. The second he calls Psalms of Dislocation. We wandered away from the shepherd and now we are hopelessly lost. The third he calls the Psalms of Relocation. Once we were lost, but now we are found.
We live in a healthy state. That is our location. Then we get sick. We experience dislocation. What is our relocation? It may be not always be that we get healthy right away. It may be that we learn to live with whatever is making us sick, and we come to grips with it. We become stronger and wiser. We learn new skills to adapt. We learn our limits, and we learn to live to the fullest within those limits.
We are in a relationship. That is our location. The relationship ends, maybe because one or the other moved on, or maybe because someone left, or maybe because someone dies. That is dislocation. Then we learn to deal with the loss. We learn from our mistakes, if we that was the reason for the end of the relationship. Or we learn to live with ourselves in a new way. The dislocation stops being the major thing in our lives, and we learn to live a new life.
We are a successful, large church. Then, something happens. The neighborhood changes, maybe there is a series of disasters that occur in the church, maybe we lose some important members. We find ourselves dislocated. But then we work our way through it. We learn news ways to exist, new ways to minister, new ways to be the people of God.
In the that is what it is all about. We are in a relationship with God. Things are good in our spiritual lives. That is our location. But then comes the dislocation, and we feel far from God. We feel that God has abandoned us, or maybe we feel the shame and guilt that comes when we walk away from God. But the dislocation is never the final answer. Never.
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.
We find ourselves in a new location, we find we have a new relationship with God. Yes we sing the blues. But those who sing the blues are saying that the blues will not get them down, no matter how down and out they sound when they sing. Singing the blues is an act of defiance against them. If we cannot name our troubles, we can never control them. They will control us. The psalmists, the prophets, the evangelists of the Bible know that, and they sing and write laments. Not so that they can admit defeat, but so they can celebrate the eventual victory of God. We celebrate the new place we will be, in God.