Blues and the Spirit

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

I participated in a symposium at Dominican University last weekend called Blues and the Spirit. 

Dr. Tricia Rose--the Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America and Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University—gave the keynote address.  In that speech she referred to the blues as "top shelf medicine for recurring injury."  She was referring to the origin of blues music in the African American community during slavery and Jim Crow, a time when many black folks were beaten down time and time again psychologically, legally and frequently physically. 

When I was in a car accident in 2013, I was in bad shape as I lay in the hospital but I had the hope and even the confidence that I would get better and eventually return to normal.  But black folk a hundred years ago often did not have the hope of "things getting better."  So, Rose argued, that developed this music as a way, not of escaping their pain, but of embracing it in a way that transformed into joy.  That's why the words to many blues songs focus on tragedy, e.g. "my baby left me" or "I ain't got a penny and I ain't got a lousy dime." 

Maybe we need to learn something from the blues in our culture which has a tendency to deal with pain by medicating it away or finding a distraction.  The problem is that once the drug—legal or against the law—wears off or the trip to Disney World ends, the pain is still there waiting to be dealt with.

In grief support groups, the way of dealing with pain is kind of like the blues.  As the participants tell their stories of loss, several things happen.  First, they feel some immediate relief.  Second, they experience the support of other people who know exactly what they are going through.  And third, in a wonderfully spiritual and mysterious way, the embracing of pain through expressing in a supportive group actually contributes to healing and courage to face tomorrow morning.

Of the 150 psalms in the Bible, the largest category is that of lament.  In the lament psalms, God is often rebuked for falling asleep at his job or for not being just like he is supposed to be.  What's interesting is that after ranting at God for several verses, often the psalms end with something like, "but you are the one who took me from my mother's womb."  It's sort of like, "OK, God.  Thanks for letting me get this off my chest.  I'm ready to go back into the struggle."

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Bonni McKeown from Chicago, IL  

Posted: June 3rd, 2014 3:08 PM

You're right Tom. The Blues and Spirit Symposium gave us a lot to think about. When my arm got cut in a work accident about 24 years ago, I listened to blues and it actually relieved the pain. It's amazing. And a lot of this music was created on the West Side of Chicago!

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