Leadbelly’s Good Friday song…
These are worrying times, for sure. The world seems an increasingly unstable place. In the past we may have just heard about conflicts and trouble in various parts of the world, but the very connectedness and interdependence of the world – particularly its trading and financial systems – means that we’re much more likely to be affected by events in far-flung places. People are worried. We’re assailed on all sides by things that cause us anxiety – being laid off, performing well enough in our jobs, our own health and that of those we love, having enough money to get by, or how our children are doing – who are they hanging out with, are they taking drugs – and the list goes on endlessly.
For some people, worry spirals into a real problem – about 18% of adults in the United States suffer from anxiety disorders, which are the most common mental illness there, according to the Anxiety and Depression Society of America. In the UK, anxiety disorders affect around 9% of the population.
Worry, of course, is a key ingredient of many blues songs. Worried Life Blues is a song that has become one of the most recorded blues songs of all time. Originally recorded by Major “Big Maceo” Merriweather in 1941, it has been recorded by Sonny Boy Williams, Honeyboy Edwards and B B King, as well as more recent artists like Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, North Mississippi Allstars and Bob Dylan. Blind Lemon Jefferson from Texas, one of the most popular blues artists of the 1920s, also had the “worried blues”:
Worried so bad, can’t tell my stockin’ from my shoes
Worried so bad, can’t tell my stockin’ from my shoes
I laid down last night with Lemon’s lowdown worried blues
(Lemon’s Worried Blues)
Bluesman Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly said, “Blues was composed up by the Negro people when they was under slavery. They was worried.” African Americans during the early decades of the twentieth century when the blues were emerging had plenty of reason to be worried, not just when they were under slavery. Jim Crow laws, systems of peonage, sundown towns, rampant discrimination, all served to form an environment in the South where black people had good reason to be worried – there were real fears of being wrongly accused, of not pleasing the boss, of being lynched or kidnapped for peonage on a farm or mine. Their lives, like that of the poor everywhere around the world, were filled with uncertainty and good reason for worry.
But whether we’re faced with hard lives of poverty or not, we all of us, get the worried blues from time to time. For some of us there is no real substance to our worry – it’s just a symptom of a grasping, accumulating age, which leaves us needlessly anxious about things we don’t have but feel we want, or how we match up to certain standards of status. Whatever the source of the worry that assails us all at times, Blind Willie Johnson seems to have the answer. In his song Trouble Soon Be Over, Johnson addresses the harsh reality of his own life, where he was blinded as a boy and lived his life in considerable poverty – “Well, though my burden may be heavy, my enemies crush me down. ” But, this weight need not be too heavy, he says, because, “Christ is my burden bearer, He’s my only friend.” The song goes on to say that, if we take “Jesus’ yoke upon us and live a Christian life,” then “trouble will soon be over.”
Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount powerfully address our worried minds: “Don’t be anxious…your heavenly father knows…seek first the kingdom of God and God’s justice, and you will have everything you need.”
There’s the crux of it, the anti-dote to anxiety – finding ways to pursue justice, to helping make things right in the world. This is at the heart of what Jesus called the “kingdom of God.” The funny things is, that when we get radically connected to the poor and those suffering injustice in the world, our own worries kind of fade into the background. As Bob Dylan recently said – “no matter how bad you got it, somebody else has got it worse.” Here’s the cure for the anxiety of the age.
Joe Louis Walker has given us another cracking album, after 2012’s much-acclaimed Hellfire. In Hornet’s Nest Walker and his band are in fine, fine form with a hugely entertaining album of nine originals and three covers. Musically we get a set of highly enjoyable blues-rock, which punches you right in the face from the first note of the first track, with a nice sprinkle of gospel here and there. Right at the end of the album, after all the strutting and bombast (in the nicest possible way, of course!) from Walker and the band, we get the pure gospel of “Keep the Faith.” Introduced by unmistakable big gospel piano chords, Walker launches into his sermon, helped by Hammond organ and beautiful close harmony backing vocals. The music reaches right inside your chest and twists your innards – like all good gospel should.
Keep the faith, Walker says. Keep loving those around you is his message here – “love is the strength of our lives.” Think of a mother’s love, he says – “a job that’s never, never done.” That’s the sort of love that sustains us. Of course, “Everyone gonna lose their way some time;” but there’s always the hope of redemption, of home-coming, if love remains to light our way back. “They said you can’t you can’t go back home again,” says Walker, “But I say they are wrong.”
You can’t help starting to think about the lost son story that Jesus told. You know, the one who tells his father that he wishes he were dead and could he have his inheritance now please? After which he heads off to party until things go horribly wrong and he ends up at the bottom of the heap. But, as Walker says, “the light that shows the way back home always shines,” and the prodigal returned to a warm welcome from his dad. So warm in fact that the village head-man, who normally just walked around rather sedately, left all diginity behind and, quite shockingly to the other on-looking villagers, hoicked up his robes so he could run to meet the returning son.
Love – the light that shows the way home. As St. Paul said – “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” I guess every prodigal who’s found their way back home would agree – someone believed in them, loved them, welcomed them back. “Love is the strength of our lives.”
Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States (2001 to 2003) is a Distinguished Professor at colleges in New York and Florida. The New York Times has called him “the most popular poet in America”, with his poetry books selling far beyond most volumes of poetry. His poem, The Blues, laced with humor, captures the essence of the blues. Here it is:
Much of what is said here
must be said twice,
a reminder that no one
takes an immediate interest in the pain of others.
Nobody will listen, it would seem,
if you simply admit
your baby left you early this morning
she didn’t even stop to say good-bye.
But if you sing it again
with the help of the band
which will now lift you to a higher,
more ardent, and beseeching key,
People will not only listen,
they will shift to the sympathetic
edges of their chairs,
moved to such acute anticipation
By that chord and the delay that follows,
they will not be able to sleep
unless you release with one finger
a scream from the throat of your guitar
And turn your head back to the microphone
to let them know
you’re a hard-hearted man
but that woman’s sure going to make you cry.
Brilliant, isn’t it? I love the first couple of verses in particular, which point to the repeated first line of the typical blues verse. Take Robert Johnson’s Kind-Hearted Woman Blues, for example: “I love my baby, my baby she don’t love me” – repeated before the resolution of the verse “Really love that woman, can’t stand to leave her be.” Collins suggests that such is the disinterest in other’s pain, that the line needs to be repeated twice.
The point is made with good humor, but the “no one takes an immediate interest in the pain of others” strikes home. Too often we’re too caught up in our own worlds of self-interest, or maybe just the busyness of everyday life to be too worried about the pain of those around us. The blues always have been and always will be a stark reminder of the pain and suffering in the world – it may be at the level of the personal relationship where “your baby left you early this morning” or at the level of injustice in the world (B B King’s That’s Why I Sing the Blues catalogues the injustice suffered by his own community – “It seems like everybody got the blues”).
Ross Douthat in the New York Times recently reported on a Pew Survey on young adults in the United States which indicated that the Millennial Generation is marked by increased individualism – an “increasing absence of local, personal forms of fellowship and solidarity.” It would be unfair to lay this charge only at the door of Millennials, however – our entire society has been characterised by a consuming, self-orientated individualism for a very long time. In fact, the economic basis of our society in many ways is dependent upon this very thing and so the media and advertising industries urge us to keep acquiring, keep consuming, all predicated on our own personal comfort, convenience, development and well-being. Our dedicated self-interest numbs us from neighborly concern with the grief, pain and discomfort of others.
The Christian story, like the twice sung blues line, calls our attention to something beyond ourselves and our own interests. for this is a story of a God who entered in to the poverty, the squalor and messiness of human life so that we might be set free from our self-absorption in order to participate in God’s project of world-transformation, of love and peace, ears attuned keenly to the insistent cry of injustice all around us – the “pain of others.”
From Belfast in Northern Ireland, Kaz Hawkins’ star is in the ascendant. With a new, young band and a change of direction musically, she is wowing audiences with her own gospel blues songs, her big personality and incredible singing. It’s all the more remarkable when she tells you about her troubled past, which she has managed to put behind her with a defiant, positive attitude to life.
Down at the Crossroads caught up with Kaz after a triumphant performance recently at the Belfast-Nashville Festival.
DATC: Kaz, I was at your show a few nights ago and it felt very vibrant, very upbeat. People came away feeling that, yes, they’d had a good time, but uplifted, I think, as well. What is it that gives your music this very positive vibe; where does that come from?
Kaz: I think because of the new direction I’m taking. Up until now anything I’ve released has been ballad-y stuff, or my blues rock band, but I’ve got some new guys in now and the musical direction has changed.
I’m surrounded by amazing song-writers and have gone to great song-writing conventions, and festivals and workshops, and I’m aware that it can all get a bit stuffy – not that I want to take away from the integrity of song writing. But I have a kind of fun, quirky, crazy personality and I really want to build that into my music. I try to have a laugh with the audience but also I want people to come away inspired. Music inspires me. I came through a lot of hard times and I always say that music saved my life. All these great divas like Koko Taylor or Etta James, for example, they put everything into their performance. They didn’t walk onto stage and just sing. It came from the very soul of their being.
And that’s what I try to bring to the song writing. And also the stories of my life. But the songs don’t have to be heart-breaking all the time. So when I do a show, I try to do all the meaningful songs at the start and then break out the banter and fun later so that people leave feeling good, because that’s what it’s all about.
DATC: What I’m hearing in your music is a lot of blues and gospel (think of a song like Better Days, for example) – what is it in that music that draws you? And how does this music help you express what you feel you’ve got to say?
Kaz: First off gospel – it’s not all about music in a church. In America, gospel music is much bigger than that. And the blues – I don’t know where on earth this feeling of the blues I have in me came from, or where this big gospel voice I have came from. But for me gospel and the blues take me to a place where I feel safe, where I can explore anything. If you’re in pop, you kind of have to work to a sort of format, but with blues and gospel, you can go anywhere you want in a song. You can make it laughter or whatever you want. I know when me and the guys are performing, we don’t want it to end, because we’re feeling the vibe and, you know, three minutes isn’t long enough. It might be in commercial pop. But for me it’s the integrity of the music and for me, blues and gospel gives me that.
I’ve tried to incorporate some contemporary themes into my songs. I love my blues, and gospel and blues gives me a sort of sanity, so I don’t have to write a certain way.
DATC: When you look at the history of the blues, a lot of the songs are not just complaints about life. There’s hope there too – it’s people singing themselves into a better place.
Kaz: Exactly and that’s what saved me, when I had a drug addiction, when I suffered domestic violence – when I listened to the likes of Etta James, Sarah Vaughan, Dorothy Moore, Big Mama Thornton, Janis Joplin, it took me to a place that was mine, my secret place. And that’s where I go when I sing the blues or write my own songs. For me the music’s a really safe haven.
But of course it has that kind of dirty edge to it as well, you don’t get that with a lot of genres of music.
DATC: The other thing I’m struck with in listening to you, Kaz, is the sense of hope, of empowerment, of compassion and humanity in your songs – both the lyrics and the music. For you music is entertainment, but it’s more than just that?
Kaz: Oh definitely. I feel like I’m giving back to music for saving me. When you lose everything – and I lost even my own children – the only thing I had left was music. You’ve got to give something back. I call it “blues karma!” If you’re true to the blues, the blues will be true to you! [laughs].
DATC: You’ve an EP available at the moment, but I gather you’re working on a full album. Tell us a bit about it – what can we expect on it and when will it be released?
Kaz: Well, those songs you heard last week are all on the new album. That’s the first time anybody had heard them. Get Ready is the title track and it’s the one we opened up with. It’s the whole ethos of the album and of myself actually. Let’s get ready for peace and love. And that song was written about the riots in Belfast last year, when I got stuck in the middle of it in East Belfast. I wrote this because I thought, if people could really get tapped into music rather than politics and debates about the rights and wrongs – if people had half the passion of songwriters and performers, maybe the world would be an easier place to live in and we wouldn’t be fighting so much.
And on this new album, I wanted to bring back a sense of fun because when people see some of my songs and videos on YouTube, they’re pretty much about the song writing and the message, memories and loss and fighting the fight, and what I wanted to do was give this album a sense of hope – that even though I’d gone through all those hard times, that music had help me close the door to the past – now I have this new vibrant attitude, I have this new band, I have a new message to tell. So half the album is about hope – there’s better days ahead, you can have aspirations, you can have dreams.
So the likes of Soul Superstar – that song is about me growing up, as a child standing in the wings, waiting for my time to shine. I want to stand as an example to those women out there, who have maybe given up on their dream. That’s why I have this crazy quirky attitude – just because I’m a grandmother now doesn’t mean I can’t have a good time! [laughs]
DATC: On the subject of women, I understand you made a video for Walking on my Own, one of the tracks on your new album which was to celebrate International Women’s Day 2014. Why, would you say, something like International Women’s Day is so important?
Kaz: The fight goes on for women. Guys have come on a long way, but things can still be difficult for women. You notice even the small things. So, for example, when we’re at a gig, I’m running the whole thing, organizing everybody, but then somebody at the venue wants to know who to pay and they go to one of my (male) band members. And they, of course say, “See Kaz.” And I’m standing there the whole time! It’s just so ingrained into men they don’t even know they’re doing it half the time.
For me International Women’s Day is very important. As a women in a male-dominated blues scene I have to fight twice as hard, ten times as hard, as men. It’s taken me 10 years to break the blues scene in Northern Ireland and we’re such a tiny place compared with the rest of the world. But it took 10 years for anybody to take me seriously. So now I tell people, when I made the decision to make blues my life, I was coming through whether anybody liked it or not!
DATC: Good for you Kaz! Now you’re starting a new tour with your band before long? Where will that take you to?
Kaz: All over England and Scotland during September and maybe a bit beyond. And it’s mostly Arts Centre type venues, which is really good. I’ve had good support from some of the magazines, like Blues in Britain, Blues Matters, and Classic Blues is giving away a copy of the EP songs, Better Days, in their next edition. Oh, and Blues and Soul Magazine have awarded me their Rising Star Award for 2014, along with Lawrence Jones.
And it’s great to be playing venues like the John Peel Centre and so on, so that my kind of blues can get played in that type of artistic environment.
DATC: Kaz, thank you. I wish you well in the tour and with the new album and hopefully we’ll get talking to you again before too long.
What’s the relationship between the spirituals and the blues? James H. Cone, black liberation theologian and Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, in his 1972 book, The Spirituals and the Blues, says that both the spirituals and the blues are essentially about the struggle for black survival. He traces the spirituals to ante-bellum slavery in the Southern States in the dehumanizing and brutal experience of the African American community, and says that they were a means of black people “affirming that divine reality which lets you know that you are a human being – no matter what white people say.”
For Cone, “the basic idea of the spirituals is that slavery contradicts God.” They were a means of resisting the white gospel which emphazised the obedience of slaves to their masters. In the Oscar-winning, film 12 Years A Slave, there are two rather chilling scenes where white masters are seen reading the Bible to their assembled black “property,” the one with plantation-owner Epps reading about slaves obeying their masters from the New Testament, being particularly poignant. Cone suggests that songs favoured by black slaves were particularly those that recounted Old Testament stories such as Moses and the Exodus and Daniel and his friends as captives in Babylon. Clearly these stories of deliverance by God of those who are oppressed resonated strongly with a people in bondage, who looked and yearned for a day of freedom.
Cone makes the point that it would be simplistic to see these songs which celebrated passing through the waters of “Jordan” and going to the “promised land” as simply looking in desperation for relief from present sufferings beyond the grave. Such songs often had a double meaning: beyond “spiritual freedom” was “an eschatological freedom grounded in the events of the historical present, affirming that even now God’s future is inconsistent with the realities of slavery.”
Cone traces the roots of the blues to the spirituals, which both lamented black suffering and held out a hope of deliverance. The blues, he says, “are about black life and the sheer earth and gut capacity to survive in an extreme situation of oppression.” As such, the spirituals and the blues “flow from the same bedrock of experience” – the blues are, he says, “secular spirituals.”
Of course, as has often been pointed out, most blues songs are about love, sex and relationships. Son House said the blues were about what happened between a man and a woman. There has, of course, been a steady stream of blues songs which explicitly referred to the evils of the Jim Crow era and have sounded a note of protest – Leadbelly, Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy are prime examples of artists who raised their voices against the social situation in the South. But the blues rise from, and reflect, the context of the oppression of blacks, no matter what their explicit subject matter. They were a means of black people affirming their existence and an expression of their refusal to be destroyed by an oppressive environment. They are, in the words of Charlie Patton, a “Mean Black Moan.” Cone says simply, “the blues is black.”
Does that mean that white people can’t sing the blues? Of course it doesn’t – there is something about the blues that can get under anybody’s skin not matter what color, and something in the words, the music and the whole feeling of the blues that has universal appeal. As Willie Dixon said, “the blues are the true facts of life expressed in song, inspiration, feeling and understanding.” Audiences around the world for the blues are now, probably, predominantly white. And there are many great white blues artists who have a great appreciation for the music and the history. B. B. King said once that “playing the blues is like having to be black twice.” But he went on to say that “Stevie Ray Vaughan missed on both counts, but I never noticed.”
But we can never forget that the blues are deeply rooted in the black experience of oppression and violence in the first half of the twentieth century. As Jimi Hendrix said, “Blues is easy to play, but hard to feel.” Ain’t that the truth?
Blues musician Anders Osborne, born in Sweden, but now resident in Louisiana, recorded the hard-hitting Five Bullets for his 2013 album Peace. The emotionally charged song is driven by a repeated heavy guitar riff and rap-paced lyrics. There is no one story fully told here, but there are two tragic tales hinted at – in the first verse, the police are called, the shooter has escaped, and the “tears of a mother scream through the night.” In the second verse, a white sedan comes into view, and then “Shots ring out by the grocery store, Everybody down, hit the floor!”
The verses are punctuated by “Boom, boom, boom, that American sound, Teen-aged kids on the naked ground.” We can easily fill in the details of each story from the tragic ones we hear on the news every day. That “boom, boom, boom,” is in many ways, in terms of its frequency at least, a very “American sound.”
Osborne separates his tragic gun violence stories by recalling the celebration of Martin Luther King Day, when “we all have a dream.” Sadly that dream was shattered for the victims of the scores of school shootings all over the US over the past forty years, and the 11,419 people who were killed last year and all the other victims from previous years. “Some kind of wrong you can never make right,” sings Osborne, expressing the outrage and disbelief that the firearms industry could be more important than the lives of innocent children.
As well as the 11,419 gun deaths last year in the United States, the firearm-related homicide rate was higher than that of any other industrialized country – 20 times higher in fact than the rates in other high-income countries. Every year an average of more than 100,000 people are shot, 289 a day. Between 2000 and 2010, a total of 335,609 people died from guns – more than the population of St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Newark, and Orlando. Shockingly nearly three times more children (15,576) were injured by firearms in 2010 than the number of U.S. soldiers (5,247) wounded in action that year in the war in Afghanistan.
The numbers make for sombre reading and cry out for a change in firearms legislation. And yet the voices shrilly proclaiming the right to bear arms, no matter what the cost, still speak loudly.
Lieutenant General William G. “Jerry” Boykin was the United States Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence under President George W. Bush from 2002 to 2007 and is a conservative Christian political activist. Boykin recently gave a speech at the WallBuilders’ Pro-Family Legislators Conference, in which he talked about his understanding of the second coming of Christ, which, apparently, he believes will be led by a blood-stained, gun-toting Jesus armed with an AR-15 assault rifle!
Boykin said, “The Lord is a warrior and in Revelation 19 it says when he comes back, he’s coming back as what? A warrior. A might warrior leading a mighty army, riding a white horse with a blood-stained white robe … I believe that blood on that robe is the blood of his enemies ’cause he’s coming back as a warrior carrying a sword…And I believe now – I’ve checked this out – I believe that sword he’ll be carrying when he comes back is an AR-15.
Now I want you to think about this: where did the Second Amendment come from? … From the Founding Fathers, it’s in the Constitution. Well, yeah, I know that. But where did the whole concept come from? It came from Jesus when he said to his disciples ‘now, if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.’ And the sword today is an AR-15, so if you don’t have one, go get one. You’re supposed to have one. It’s biblical.”
The General has apparently and conveniently forgotten the whole thrust of Jesus’s teaching about loving your enemies, turning the other cheek and how his kingdom was not a violent one like that of the Romans. So although the right to bear arms might happen to be in the US Constitution, it sure as shootin’ sure ain’t in the New Testament. Go count up the number of times God and peace are mentioned in the same sentence – it doesn’t tally with Boykin’s extraordinary vision of an AK-15 wielding, blood-stained Messiah.
A few years ago on a flight back to Europe from the US, I sat beside a friendly elderly gentleman who told me he was the president of a conservative Christian university in a Southern State. During our conversation he felt he needed to explain carefully to me just why he and everybody else in the country should carry a loaded gun. Like Willie Dixon says in his 1984 song It Don’t Make Sense You Can’t Make Peace about our inability to live peacefully, despite our scientific progress – the college president’s argument didn’t make much sense then and it still doesn’t. Strange how so-called Christians such as Boykin or my fellow air passenger have ripped out so many pages of their New Testaments.
St. Paul in his letter to Jesus-followers in Rome, in words which clearly follow the words of Jesus, advised them “not to repay anyone evil for evil,” to “live at peace with all people,” not “to get revenge for yourselves,” but to “overcome evil with good.” We’re a long way away here from Boykin’s gun-toting Jesus. Eric Bibb’s got the right end of the stick – check out his song Got to do better:
Confrontation after confrontation for too many years
Stones & bullets flyin’ through the air, Wounded dyin’ on the ground
We need total revision of the way we understand…
We’re supposed to be learning to love one another.
For Bibb, the answer to violence is not more violence – as Gandhi is reported to have said, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” The answer is Jesus’s golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. People like Boykin might like their Jesus to conform to their own particular violence-sanctifying worldview – the real Jesus can’t be made serve such a miserable approach to life.