Music touches people’s hearts in deep and enduring ways that words often fail to do. When people hear a certain song, they recall powerfully the feelings they connect with certain events they associate with first hearing that song. Music helps people live through desperate situations, provides soothing comfort in times of loss, evokes sweet memories of certain relationships, connects individuals to one another in a kind of musical community (we’re “one in the spirit” when we sing certain songs congregationally, but we’re also part of one another when we hear a certain song that recalls a particular time and place in our lives), evokes powerful stirrings of hope, faith, and love, and carries us to places beyond ourselves where we connect with others and with God.
Spirituals and gospel hymns are especially powerful evocations of faith, hope, and love. The very music itself, while often familiar to its hearers, transcends the anxieties and plodding uncertainties of daily life. These songs acknowledge the hopelessness and the despair of everyday life while at the same time lifting us out of ourselves to another plane. Spirituals are born out of the field shouts and hollers of slaves in the American South and are characterized by a repetitious call and refrain that offers the singers — for spirituals are song that we should be singing and not just hearing — a way to identify with the pain of others, as well as a way to fly away above it. Spirituals and gospel music develop first in the black church and then evolve in white Southern churches in forms referred to as country gospel and bluegrass gospel, each of which has its own particular style. No matter the particular gospel style, the music has despair, salvation, love, hope, and transcendence at its core.
I am writing a book about gospel music now, and the opportunity gives me a chance to reflect on some powerful writing about the music, as well as to listen deeply to a number of spirituals — some familiar and others not quite so familiar — that shout out cries of despair or that offer experiences of unity, redemption, and transcendence. The hymns I am writing about include “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” “Keep Your Lamps Trimmer and Burning,” “Steal Away to Jesus,” and “Wade in the Water.”
One of the books to which I return again and again not only in my research and writing but also in my own life is James Cone’s The Spirituals and the Blues (Seabury). I first encountered the book almost 35 years ago, after I had read Cone’s classic and then-groundbreaking books on black liberation theology. The book is so powerful because it’s as much a memoir of Cone’s own experience of growing up as it is his own attempt to name the differences and similarities between the spirituals and the blues. Very early in the book he talks about growing up in Bearden, Arkansas, where on Saturday night the “juke box was loud, and one could hear the sound and feel the rhythm of the blues even from a distance … but not every black in Bearden responded spontaneously to Little Milton and his interpretation of the blues. These latter preferred the other musical expression of black people, called ‘church music’ or the spirituals, and Sunday was their time to unleash the pent-up emotions of their being.” Cone goes on to write about these types of music define his own experience, the ways that they make him who he is: “I affirmed the reality of the spirituals and the blues as authentic expressions of my humanity, responding to them in the rhythms of dance. I, therefore, write about the spirituals and the blues, because I am the blues and my life is a spiritual. Without them, I cannot be.”
I’ve been re-reading Cone for the insights he contributes to the ongoing conversation about the spirituals and the blues and also because he provides a glimpse into the music that some of the other great writers on this subject — Albert Murray, Amiri Baraka, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin — don’t offer, though Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” captures the power of the blues and jazz to redeem and transcend in two brief scenes more powerfully than any critical interpretations of the music can. Cone’s book acts as companion piece to these others, and he offers a few reflections on the nature and power of black music in The Spirituals and the Blues.
First, Cone points out, both the spirituals and the blues function as unifying forces in the midst of the flowing rivers of diversity in the black community. “Black music is unity music. It unites the joy and the sorrow, the love and the hate, the hope and the despair of black people; and it moves the people toward the direction of total liberation. It shapes and defines black being and creates cultural structures for black expression. Black music is unifying because it confronts the individual with the truth of black existence and affirms that black being is possible only in a communal context.” Thomas Dorsey’s “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” describes an experience of death and the body-wrenching grief that follows the unexpected death of Dorsey’s wife. His community surrounds him in that moment, but even more importantly, his being as a broken black man is affirmed by his communal identity.
Second, Cone writes, “Black music is a living reality. And to understand it, it is necessary to grasp the contradictions inherent in black experience.” Such lyrics as “I love the blues, they hurt so nice,” and “I can’t stand you, Baby, but I need you/You’re so bad, but oh you’re so good” reflect the tensions inherent in the black experience as those are moaned out in the blues.
Third, Cone writes that “Black music is also social and political. It is social because it is black and thus articulates the separateness of the black community. It is an artistic rebellion against the humiliating deadness of western culture. Black music is political because in its rejection of white cultural values, it affirms the political ‘otherness’ of black people. Through a song, a new political consciousness is continuously created, one antithetical to the laws of white society.” Though the book is now 45 years old, these words sparkle as freshly now as they did in 1972 and can be applied to music far more diverse than the spirituals and the blues but whose roots are clearly in the blues and gospel music.
Finally, “Black music is also theological … it tells us about the divine Spirit that moves the people toward unity and self-determination.” Even the blues, which Cone calls “secular spirituals,” affirm this theological movement, reflecting, naming, and shouting out against a disunity that would separate and not unify. This theological turn is Cone’s greatest contribution, but he sees the spiritual character of the music not in some fundamentalist manner, but he hears the music as liberating, carrying individuals and communities outside of their cultural contexts so that they can create for themselves their own identities.
James Cone’s The Spirituals and the Blues offers a fresh glimpse at music that so often is separated as being wildly different; Cone’s book and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain are a perfect pair of books to celebrate the deep fabric of blues and spirituals woven into our culture during Black History Month.