“The blues is the truth,” said Willie Dixon, famously. “The blues are the true facts of life expressed in words and song, inspiration, feeling, and understanding.”
One the one hand, the blues have always been entertainment, music to dance to, but it’s essentially music that is rooted in hard times, trouble and suffering. Which Dixon understood well. Born in Vicksburg in 1915 in a household of 14 children, his family lived in what he described as a “raggedy” house. Even worse was where he ended up aged eleven after running away from home – “man, you’re talking about a shack… the house [I stayed] in had great big holes in the floor.” Trying to steal some fixtures from an old derelict house got him sent to a jail-farm when he was twelve where he said, “That’s when I really learned about the blues. I had heard ’em with the music and took ’em to be an enjoyable thing but after I heard these guys down there moaning and groaning these really down-to-earth blues…I really began to find out what the blues meant to black people.”
On another occasion, for a petty charge, Dixon served thirty days at the Harvey Allen County Farm, near the infamous Parchman Farm prison, where the treatment of prisoners was inhumane – “this was the first time I saw a man beat to death,” he said. Dixon himself was brutalized, receiving a blow to his head that made him deaf for about four years. Dixon, in short, knew all about the truth of the blues.
Early blues songs covered the whole gamut of real-life problems and hardships faced by black communities – ill-health, poverty, homelessness, discrimination, police brutality, as well as the vagaries of romantic love. Here’s Victoria Spivey with TB Blues, tuberculosis being a disease particularly associated with poverty:
There’s no hiding from the realities of life with the blues. As slide guitarist Bryn Haworth told me recently, “Blues music to me is honest music. It’s people expressing their sorrow, their pain, their loneliness, their disconnectedness, their questions or anger about things we all feel…It’s honest…honest to God music, really.”
The blues face life head on, honestly, and somehow, often seem to enable a way through, because of that honesty. Honesty, however, seems to be a quality in short supply these days.
Tell the Truth, written by Bobby Whitlock and Eric Clapton, was recorded by Derek and the Dominos in August 1970, and appeared on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Whitlock has described it as a kind of coming of age song, a reminiscence about getting older, but as you listen to the lyrics today, it sounds like a social commentary on the descent of today’s world into double-speak and deceit:
Tell the truth.
Tell me who’s been fooling you?
Tell the truth.
Who’s been fooling who?
It doesn’t matter just who you are,
Or where you’re going or been…
The whole world is shaking now. Can’t you feel it?
Back in 1949, George Orwell’s 1984 was published under the shadow of Hitler and Stalin, and portrays a nightmare vision of a future in which truth has been eclipsed. Orwell said he was worried that the “very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.” Would he have been surprised at where we have reached in today’s world, where the bare-faced lie has become perfectly acceptable and truth in the public sphere scarcely seems to matter?
Robert Musil, the author of the classic The Man Without Qualities in the mid-1930s, wrote, “No culture can rest on a crooked relationship to truth.” And yet here we are. Donald Trump is in the White House, telling more lies each day than you wash your hands (according to CNN, June 2019) – as of June 7 2019, his 869th day in office, the president had made 10,796 false or misleading claims, according to Washington Post’s the Fact Checker’s database. And UK Tories have just installed Boris Johnson as the country’s Prime Minister, a man with a long and well-documented history of playing fast and loose with the truth (as reported by the Independent) – from his days as a journalist with the Times and the Daily Telegraph to backing the infamous claim on the side of the bus that the UK was sending £350m a week to the EU, followed by “let’s fund our NHS instead” during the Brexit referendum campaign.
As Roger Cohen put it recently, “The triumph of indecency is rampant. Choose your facts. The only blow Trump knows is the low one. As the gutter is to the stars, so is this president to dignity. Johnson does a grotesque Churchill number. Nobody cares. The wolves have it; the sheep, transfixed, shrug.”
Of all the disturbing aspects of the rise of petty nationalism and populism which has given rise to racism, xenophobia and increasing polarisation, it is the assault on truth which is perhaps the most undermining of life as we know it. I watched a clip on an US TV programme recently where a woman was asked about Trump’s recorded statement that he could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot someone without losing any voters, and she dismissed it out of hand as “fake news” from the dishonest media. Up is down; black is white; I only believe what fits my viewpoint.
But, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Harvard professor and four-term United States senator, famously observed, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” That has become almost quaint, so far down the road have we come. Johnson and Trump do not exist in a vacuum; the dishonesty which pervades public life at the highest levels seeps out through elements of the media into the public square and into the lives of individuals. Truth has become devalued and our societies imperilled because of it. As the ancient prophets of Israel said, “Truth has stumbled in the street” (Isaiah 59.14) and “lies and not truth prevail in the land” (Jeremiah 9.3).
We’re grateful for courageous reporters, broadcasters, church leaders and others who speak truth to power, expose lying and call out dishonest leadership. And with a continuous stream of properly fake news, we need to take care what we are prepared to believe. As psychologist Jordan Peterson says, “The small sins of the individual culminate into the great sins of the state.”
Dishonesty is a temptation for us all. Fyodor Dostoevsky warns us in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, that not to tell the truth risks us losing our sense of reality. To lose the truth is to lose your soul. “Above all,” says Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima, “don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.”
Lies and deceit eat away at the fabric of our being. They are truly destructive, each lie causing a little more damage to our characters, until we can scarcely tell truth from untruth.
On the other hand, when you tell the truth, “Everything begins to come together…when you’re around someone who tells the truth everything comes together and that’s the potential destiny of the world…you can bring forth something again to paradise by speaking the truth and you can start in your own life, and in the lives of your own family…It’s the proper way of wending your way through the terrible world without making it worse than it already is and with the possibility perhaps of making it better.”
Someone famously said, “Let us begin by committing ourselves to the truth – to see it as it is, and tell it like it is – to find the truth, to speak the truth, and to live the truth.” Words to live by – despite the salutary fact that this came from Richard Nixon on the occasion of his acceptance of the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1968. The danger of ignoring the advice writ large.
More importantly, two thousand years ago, someone said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” As we discover in the authenticity of the blues, there is something about truth telling that does indeed set us free. Something about facing the realities of the world and our troubles face-on that is the first step to freedom. There’s a deeper freedom than that, though – as a provincial governor found out a long time ago when he faced his prisoner and asked, “What is truth?” There was no answer because the living embodiment of that was standing in front of him.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (Gospel of St. John)