Tuesday, September 16, 2008

An Interview with Steve Nichols on Getting the Blues

I recently had the chance to ask Steve Nichols a few questions about his latest book, Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches Us about Suffering and Salvation.

Steve, let me be the first to wish you congratulations on the publication of your 100th book. That's quite an achievement!

Yes, indeed it would be, but your count is a little off. It sort of reminds me of how my four-year-old counts. He skips a bit. I will say this much, this book on the blues is quite different from my other books.

The subtitle is What Blues Music Teaches Us about Suffering and Salvation. Let me make it personal, and start with suffering. What have the blues taught you about suffering?

This gets right to it. What I have learned about suffering is the value of sympathy, in the truest and deepest sense of that term. Sympathy means, on a basic level, “with feeling.” But we’re not talking about Barry Manilow—not a blues man!—belting out the word. Sympathy is really about identification with the other person, about community, a quite popular term these days. The Bible teaches us that we are to mourn with those who mourn, as well as rejoice with those who rejoice, because of this idea of sympathy, of our mutual identification with one another. Sympathy ultimately stems from our union with Christ, The Man of Sorrows. The blues are quite attuned to the currents of suffering. Listening to the blues helps me understand the words of Paul, in his desire to “share his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10).

Suffering takes different forms and different levels, but all too often we try to construct our lives to avoid it at all costs. We live as if life should always be in the major key. In the process, we sometimes miss out on what can be learned from the minor key. J. I. Packer once called the book of Ecclesiastes the gospel bassoon, which is precisely why he finds himself returning to it. I think the blues is that, too (though I have to admit I can’t name any good blues bassoonists).

And how about salvation?

This is the often missed piece in the blues. You don’t have to listen long to hear the notes of suffering, but you do have to listen closely to hear the tune of salvation. Some of these bluesmen were preachers. I actually dedicate the book to Charley Patton. He went back and forth from pulpit to jook joint, the old blues bars dotting the Mississippi Delta. He spent the last few weeks of his life in a virtual non-stop preaching marathon, presumably making up for what he perceived to be lost time. Patton sang a blues called “You’re Gonna Need Somebody When You Die.” The somebody he was talking about was Christ. As he puts it in another song, “Jesus is a dying bed maker.” During that preaching marathon of his, in the days before he died, he often sang a simple little chorus in the midst of preaching:
Jesus is my God, I know his name.
His name is all my trust.
He would not put my soul to shame,
Or let my hopes be lost.
Some of these blues singers also spoke of Jesus in life and not just at death. Before he was Thomas A. Dorsey, the king of gospel, he cut blues records as Barrelhouse Tom. I argue that without his roots in the blues, without his blues sense of things, we would never have “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”--perhaps the chief of Dorsey’s many fine gifts to the church.

Christ identified with us, the lost and cursed sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. And in his death on the cross he became the curse for us. He was abandoned by the Father so that we might be reconciled to him. The blues artists, perhaps a surprising lot of them, knew this. You can hear it if you listen.

You're a (very) blonde fella who lives among the Amish. How did a guy like you become a fan of the blues?

Just to elaborate on the question. I am white. I grew up in and live in the north. I don’t play an instrument. And I’m pretty sure I’m tone deaf. But I do love the blues. My wife and I started listening to a program on NPR—I know that’s your favorite station, Justin—called American Routes, hosted by Nick Spitzer. I loved the music, not to mention Nick’s commentating. He would often refer to the work of the late sociologist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. I began reading Lomax and soon realized that there is far more to this than good music. There is also a richly textured story here and, what’s more, a lot of theology.

Writing a book on the blues also gave me license to buy CDs and spend hours listening to them, all sacrifices for the noble task of research.

What motivated you to move from simply enjoying the blues to wanting to write a book about it?

As I mentioned, it didn’t take me long to see that there is a lot of theology here, but the kind of theology we don’t always dwell on. The blues is more about the “fellowship of his suffering,” than it is about the “power of the resurrection.” The blues reminds us of the curse, of our limitations and of our fallenness. The blues is also about the cross. The blues reminds us that while we celebrate Easter Sunday, we do well sometimes to pause over Good Friday. Our theology tends to be more triumphant, more major key. I liked the theology I was hearing in the blues because it was a theology we don’t always hear in our typical contemporary American evangelical contexts.

In the course of reading for the book, I didn’t spend all my time in research just listening, I came across the term theomusicology. That’s what I’m doing in this book, a theomusicology of the blues. Again, I think it’s a theology or a slant on theology that we, the “us” in the subtitle of the book, don’t always pay attention to but should.

For those unfamiliar with the music, where should they start?

At the end of the book I offer a discography of three or so CDs that complement each chapter in the book. I’ll pull a few out of there for you. You can’t go wrong with the standards: Son House (Delta Blues), Charley Patton (Primeval Blues, Rags, and Gospel Songs), Robert Johnson (Complete Recordings), and Muddy Waters (The Anthology). I’m also partial to the smooth vocals of Mississippi John Hurt (Avalaon Blues: The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings). For the more raspy vocals, it doesn’t get any better that Blind Willie Johnson (The Complete Blind Willie Johnson). His moaning version of “Dark Was the Night,” a song about Good Friday, was launched into space on the Voyager.

If you’ve not listened to the blues before, then I’d start with Hurt before moving on. If you were into the whole British rock scene, then you need to start with Eric Clapton’s “Me and Mr. Johnson,” his tribute to Robert Johnson. In fact, I think I’ll go have a listen myself.