From Robert Johnson and Son House to Colin Linden, the blues are full of distress and cries to the Lord. So what exactly is prayin’ all about?
Prayer crops up a surprising amount in the blues – perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us though, given its roots in black oppression and suffering. Robert Johnson, often (mistakenly, it seems) more associated with the devil because of the crossroads myth, appeals to God in his song Crossroads, “Asked the Lord above to have mercy; save poor Bob if you please”. Muddy Waters who, like many blues artists had grown up in the church, doesn’t seem to have lost some of what he learned at a young age and knew where to turn when things got bad – “I be’s troubled, Lord, I’m troubled, I’m all worried in my mind”, he sings in I Be’s Troubled.
Son House in his Preachin’ Blues says he “went into my room, I bowed down to pray”. Problem was, “the blues come along and they blowed my spirit away”, presumably the “old worried heart disease”, as he later referred to the blues. Same thing happens again for Son House in “Death Letter Blues”, where he’s in his room praying when he gets the terrible news that the woman he loved had died.
The cry of distress to the Lord, the anxieties that disturb the mind, are all, of course, familiar to readers of the Psalms – Israel’s blues book.. In Psalm 6.6, we get “I am weary with my moaning; Every night I flood my bed with tears”. Psalm 38.17 says, “For I am ready to fall; And my pain is ever with me”. The Psalmist’s response to the injustice of life and the calamities that befall him and his people is to cry out to God, “O Lord; attend to my cry! Give ear to my prayer (Psalm 17:1); In my distress I called upon the Lord, And cried to my God for help (Psalm 18:6).
At such times in life, sometimes it seems the only thing to do, even for those of us who rarely pray or admit our need of God. The God of the Bible of course is the God of the needy, the oppressed, the afflicted, those with that “old worried heart disease”. As the Psalms writer says confidently in Psalm 120.1, “I call on the Lord in my distress, and he answers me”.
How God answers prayer, of course is a mysterious business. Why does God seem to answer our prayers sometimes and not to hear at other times? One of the best answers I’ve seen comes from a song by Canadian blues singer, Colin Linden (and sometime guitar sideman and producer for Bruce Cockburn). It’s called God will always Remember your Prayers and is on his superb 2009 album From the Water.
“Just get on your knees and pray
He might not answer right away
But God will always remember your prayers”
Linden notes what we said earlier, “We all pray our deepest prayer when trouble comes”. Sometimes, of course, our prayers are made from a limited perspective and Linden suggests that God “only longs to hear us pray his will be done”. Maybe God sees the bigger picture of our lives and we need to come to that place of trust. The song goes on:
“In this world understand that he might have a better plan
But he will always remember your prayers, God will always remember your prayers”.
Not only might God not seem to answer your prayers, suggests Linden, God might actually leave you for a while “stranded”, not able to “find a way”, not able to “tell the darkness from the day”. Says Linden,
“He might leave you on your own
And let you find your way back home.”
So where does that leave us? The song’s last verse gets to the heart of things – when things are at their darkest and “you think your words can’t reach so far above”, well, maybe “all that you can give him is your love” – at this point, at an end of our own resources,
Is the peace down in your heart”
God will always remember your prayers”
There’s a serenity, Linden seems to suggest, that comes from surrender to God’s “better plan” and a trust in God’s loving care that brings peace, even in the darkest of days. This, then, the song suggests is what prayer is about – not about simply asking God to come and make things better, but getting ourselves to a point of trust in a God who loves, cares and who sees the end from the beginning. Linden’s chorus sums it up:
I’m calling you Lord, Lord, Lord, calling you Lord
I’m waitin’ on you, I’m waitin’ on you
And I can’t do nothin’ till you come”
Colin Linden sings God will always remember your prayers
Son House Preachin’ the Blues