Thursday, 25 September 2014

The psalms and the blues: a little help from James Baldwin

In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin makes a characteristically perceptive and acerbic comment about the tradition of African American songs:
White Americans seem to feel that happy songs are happy and sad songs are sad, and that, God help us, is exactly the way most white Americans sing them – sounding, in both cases, so helplessly, defencelessly fatuous that one dare not speculate on the temperature of the deep freeze from which issue their brave and sexless little voices. Only people who have been “down the line”, as the song puts it, know what this music is about. I think it was Big Bill Broonzy who used to sing, "I Feel So Good." … White Americans do not understand the depths out of which such an ironic tenacity comes.
A similar misunderstanding lies beneath the current academic hypersensitivity to the morality of the psalms. If we think the happy psalms are merely happy and the sad psalms are merely sad, then we'll also assume that the psalms of vengeance are merely immoral and vindictive, or that psalms of conquest are mere glorifications of military violence – without seeing the whole tragic history that gives rise to such outrageously tenacious expressions of faith. Perhaps we'd have a better ear for the psalms if we remembered that they are the precursors not so much of Victorian hymnody as of the spirituals and the blues. One catches the true spirit of the psalter in the old African American song:
Nobody knows the trouble I've seen
Nobody knows my sorrow
Nobody knows the trouble I've seen
Glory hallelujah!

Be the first to comment

Post a Comment

Archive

Subscribe by email

Contact us

Although we're not always able to reply, please feel free to email the authors of this blog.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.

TOPO