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?