This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2009 vol. 166 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches Us about Suffering and SalvationBrazos Press, Grand Rapids September 1, 2008
In this book Nichols, research professor of Christianity and culture at Lancaster Bible College, attempts to help Christians to “get the blues.” The double entendre in the title is intentional. His goal is not to discourage or depress his readers, but to help them understand the theology of this American musical art form. In short he believes that there is value in appreciating the theological context and content of blues music. He explains, “The book attempts a theology in a minor key, a theology that lingers, however uncomfortably, over Good Friday. It takes its cue from the blues, harmonizing narratives of Scripture with narratives of the Mississippi Delta, the land of cotton fields and Cyprus swamps and the moaning slide guitar” (p. 14).
This music in a minor key laments that things are not yet what they could be and what God has promised they will be. The music is not the sound of “utter despair like the torrents of a spinning hurricane. A theology in a minor key is no mere existential scream. In fact, a theology in a minor key sounds a rather hopeful melody. Good Friday yearns for Easter, and eventually Easter comes. Blues singers, even when groaning about the worst of times, know to cry out for mercy; they know that, despite appearances, Sunday’s coming” (p. 15). These songs of lament, like the psalms of this genre, are an expression of faith; proclaiming the confidence that the way things are is not the way they will always be, the assurance that there is a Redeemer who will complete the work of redemption He has begun, and the knowledge that there is good reason to continue to trust in Him even in the midst of the sorrow and pain that characterize a fallen world.
Nichols takes his readers on a tour of the places and people who have created the blues. In doing so, he tells their life stories, stories that were often similar to those told in the lyrics and music. From Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson, to Son House and Thomas Dorsey, to Lillie Mae Glover and Bessie Smith, to Blind Willie Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson, Nichols weaves the stories into a beautiful tale of redemption. He also intersperses these tales with biblical stories. Of course in any story of redemption, along the way there is plenty of sin and rebellion as well. Nichols explains that these artists “imbibed a culture that was deeply and astutely theological, and they knew a storyline that began with sin and the fall, followed a road to redemption, and ended at a place of justice and peace and choruses of angels. To be sure, sometimes the blues artists got stuck at the beginning, at sin and the fall, and too often they wandered off the road of redemption. But the gospel story was always there, and if you listen closely to the music you can surely hear it, in fact, listening to the blues apart from its theology misses the blues altogether” (p. 31). It is not just in the lyrics but in the music itself that the gospel story is heard. Reading this book while listening to the songs of the artists would be an excellent way to experience the truthfulness of this claim.
This is an enjoyable and engaging book. Whether one has an appreciation for the music of the blues, one can appreciate the cry of hope and the longing for redemption heard there. For those with little knowledge of this music Nichols introduces the major characters and their influences, thus bringing these artists back to life. For those with some knowledge of and appreciation for this art form Nichols reminds the reader of the impact of the blues on popular music. He writes in a masterful style that draws readers into the stories he tells. Using his own poetry in each chapter, Nichols demonstrates that he does get the blues. And he helps his readers get them too.
In the book’s postlude Nichols summarizes the elements of the blues that make this music a worthwhile field of study for the evangelical theologian. “The blues is truth, the blues is community, the blues is living. The blues is the truth of the curse, the harshness that all the sons and daughters of Adam know all too well. But there is another truth that is there if you listen closely. That is the truth of grace, the truth of the cross. Singing the blues means knowing both these truths, not shrinking back or embellishing the human condition, and not failing to be an agent of grace, an agent of the one who broke into the human condition, the Man of Sorrows, who is the Truth, who is the way out, and who, through the resurrection, is the Life now and in the world to come” (p. 177). Christian ministers who desire to be agents of grace will be interested in Nichols’s work.
—Glenn R. Kreider