Formations 08.14.2016: Singing the Blues

Lamentations 1:1-4, 12-22

John Lee Hooker, photo by Jean-Luc Ourlin (Wikimedia Commons).

John Lee Hooker, photo by Jean-Luc Ourlin (Wikimedia Commons).

In a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, Ted Slowik explained how, as a white kid growing up in the suburbs, his views about race were shaped in part by exposure to blues music. It all happened during the so-called “British Invasion” of the 1960s, when he learned that his favorite guitarists were, in fact, inspired by blues artists who lived not too far from his own home. He confesses that he was largely naïve about the state of race relations in his country and even in his all-white neighborhood.

Considering the current state of race relations in the United States, he writes,

Like many, these days I’m trying to make sense of the violence. The shootings of blacks by police officers. The killings of police officers by blacks. The shootings and killings of blacks—including children and other innocent bystanders—by other blacks.

He finds he has little to offer to the important discussions these tragic events have inspired except to share his personal story about how blues music helped build a bridge to people different from himself. This uniquely American musical genre has a unique power, he says:

The power of the blues, I believe, comes from passionate feelings for truths like freedom and justice. The early blues players must have felt they’d never live to see the day when social and economic injustices would be corrected. But they channeled their passion into music that lives on to this day.

I can’t say anything that could possibly stop the violence today, or change the minds of people who have staked their positions in the Black Lives Matter debate.

All I know is that blues is a uniquely American art form of music and storytelling derived from experiences of slaves and their descendants in the Deep South.

I believe exposing children to blues music in schools and other community settings would provide the next generation of adults with a better understanding of the black experience and improve race relations.

It worked for me.

The writer of Lamentations might have made a good blues singer. Like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, he may well have thought he’d never see the day when the people of Jerusalem would once again experience peace and justice. But rather than throw up his hands in despair, he set pen to parchment and expressed his deep feelings of grief through song.

If Obadiah provides an example of anger in the face of grief, the opening verses of Lamentations express depression or despondency. The author of Lamentations seems to have given up any hope for Jerusalem’s future, describing the city as a mourning, bitter widow abandoned by God and treated like garbage. In the midst of this grief, Jerusalem beseeches the Lord to pay attention to her (v. 20). Perhaps even now, God will hear her case against those who have brought her to nothing.

There is a place for the blues, not only in American culture but also in the church. Passages like this challenge the erroneous assumption that people of faith should be constantly filled with joy. Rather than put on a good front for others, the author of Lamentations demands that people see Jerusalem’s devastation for what it is. Only then will there be the possibility of healing and restoration.

Ted Slowik, “Teaching Children about Blues Music Would Improve Race Relations,” Chicago Tribune, 22 July 2016 <http://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/daily-southtown/opinion/ct-sta-slowik-race-st-0721-20160720-story.html>.

Discussion

• Do you agree that exposing white Americans to blues music could help race relations? Explain.
• What does it take to truly hear the grief of another?
• When have you had “the blues”? How did you express your feelings of sorrow or frustration?

Reference Shelf

The Book of Lamentations

Five lament poems articulating grief, confession, and hope in reaction to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Babylonians in 587/6 B.C.E. Chaps. I and 2 are divided between the lament of the poet (vv. 1-11) and of the personified city Zion (vv. 12-22). In chap. 3, the anonymous “I am the [man]” wrestles with God’s retribution and goodness. The poet, in chaps. 4 and 5, leads a communal lament, ending (5:20-22) with the characteristic lament question, ‘”Why?” These poems were probably used liturgically in annual public ceremonies of fasting and commemoration on the site of the ruined Temple during the exile (cf. Zech 7:1-7, 8:19; Jer 41:5).

The Hebrew title of Lamentations is ’eka (”how”), a mournful exclamation which begins the first, second, and fourth poems (cf. Isa 1:21; Jer 48:17). In the Babylonian Talmud (Bathra 15a) the book is titled qinôt (“laments” or “dirges”), which the LXX and Vulgate translate respectively as threnoi and threni. Whereas in the Hebrew canon Lamentations stands third among the five Megilloth (festival scrolls) in the Writings, English translations, following the LXX, place the collection after the prophet Jeremiah and expand the title to “Lamentations of Jeremiah.” Most contemporary interpreters challenge this ancient tradition, and speak instead of anonymous eyewitness authors or of a redactor of independent compositions.

John C. H. Laughlin, “Lamentations, Book of,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 496.

Hebrew Blues Music

Lamentations are expressions of sorrow, remorse, regret and grief. Beginning with the destruction of the City of Ur, the ancient Middle East created many examples of dirge poetry. Lamentations was only the latest in a tradition of somber words about the fall of a city, in this case the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE. Lamentations is an expression of the national sorrow over the calamity that has befallen the Kingdom of Judah.

There are five poems in Lamentations that form the individual chapters of the book. The first four use acrostics of the 22 consonants of the Hebrew alphabet (with slight exceptions). The fifth follows the corporate lament psalmody of Pss 44 and 80. The stress and rhythm pattern of Hebrew elegiac poetry is called a qinah or “dirge meter.” Some call the Book of Lamentations a form of Hebrew “blues music.”

Andrew J. Waskey, “Lamentations, Book of,” Dictionary of the Bible and Western Culture, ed. Mary Ann Beavis and Michael J. Gilmour (Sheffield UK: Sheffield Phoenix, 2012), 285.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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Comments

  1. http://Jim says

    The Blues made it into my lesson before I read these notes. Its a good fit. I am using “Stormy Weather”.