You might well be forgiven for asking what the blues have got to do with Christmas. For many of us, Christmas is about having a good time, partying, too much to eat and drink. We’re not sure what we’re celebrating, but hey, it’s the middle of winter and we could do with a few parties! For those of us who see Christmas as all about the coming of God to us in the form of a baby, it’s a time of great joy and celebration. The world turned decisively on that day in Bethlehem in the first century, and the possibility of a new way of being human and a hope for a better and just world was born. That’s not the blues – that’s joy, laughter, hope and love.
But the blues are a continual reminder of the sorrow and the injustice of the world. B. B. King said “The blues is an expression of anger against shame and humiliation”. One of his songs is “That’s why I sing the blues” which reminds us of the roots of the blues in the injustice suffered by African Americans from the seventeenth century onwards in America:
“When I first got the blues, They brought me over on a ship…
I’ve laid in a ghetto flat
Cold and numb…
And every people, all the people
Got the same trouble as mine”
No wonder BB says:
“I got the blues, Mm, I’m singing my blues
I’ve been around a long time, Mm, I’ve really paid some dues”.
The blues are a window into one experience of injustice in the world and remind us of all the other experiences of hardship and suffering endured by many, many other groups in the world to this day. They remind us of the way the world is, with all the pain, suffering and injustice that goes on.
The Christmas story, of course, is not blind to this reality – it’s the story of a baby, born to a peasant family, with considerable social stigma surrounding the circumstances of the pregnancy, and put to bed in a feeding trough. A baby who is supposed to be a king, and yet whose ancestors include a prostitute, an asylum seeker and an adulterer, and whose arrival was announced to a group of poor men minding animals on a hillside. And a family who very quickly found themselves refugees, seeking protection in a foreign country.
The story surely resonates with the majority of our fellow humans in our world today who suffer the tragedy of poverty, hunger, preventable disease, lack of shelter, discrimination and lack of education and opportunity. Those of us who live comfortable, relatively prosperous lives in the developed world often miss the desperation in the world for the Christmas message and Christmas action, because we are too consumed by our own little worlds and petty concerns.
The story reminds us not just about human need, though – into the lives of the poor, ragged shepherds, huddled on a Palestinian hillside, broke a dazzling heavenly choir, singing about a new day of peace coming to the earth, somehow all bound up within the swaddling cloths of a new born baby in the local town. Into the bleakness breaks hope and because of that hope, joy. Things are changing, we find out as we read the Christmas story – the arrogant are going to be routed, despots thrown down, the hungry filled with good things and the rich sent away empty handed. In the birth of this baby lie the seeds for changing the world, for bringing peace and setting things right.
The blues, of course, often have this aspiration breathing through them; in many of the songs there’s a yearning for justice, for things to be put right, a hope for a brighter future. Willie King, Mississippi bluesman, talking about the early Delta blues said, “the good Lord in his spirit had to send somethin’ down to the people to help ease they worried mind. And that where the music come in – it would work in what you tryin’ a do, what you strivin’ for, to help give you a vision of a brighter day way up ahead, to help you get your mind offa what you are in right now…and the blues, like John Lee Hooker says, is a healer”.
So the Christmas story reminds us, as do the blues, of the desperate state of the world. But it gives us hope that change is possible and change will happen. And it challenges us to take seriously the song of Mary in Luke 1 and the announcement of the shepherds of “peace on earth”. Jesus followers believe that one day God will bring all this to pass in a fulsome way – but for now we are called to anticipate this coming day in the way that we live; to point by our actions to the hope of a better world ahead – a world of love, a world of fairness, a world of satisfied minds, a world where injustice is a thing of the past. We’ll leave the last word to a comment on the blues by W E DuBois, historian & sociologist – “Through all the sorrow songs there breathes a hope – a faith in the ultimate justice of things”. Because of the Christmas story, that hope & faith can be well-founded.
Watch Over the Rhine perform “All I Ever Want for Christmas is Blue”