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Preaching the Blues

June 30, 2007

I love blues music. I know, I know, it’s been kind of trendy to like blues music for years – but nothing moves me like blues music. It’s been on my mind lately because I’ve been educating my 12-year-old son about the blues. He’s becoming quite the guitar player and he’s a serious Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix fan. So I’ve been exposing him to my favorite blues players: Muddy Waters, Hubert Sumlin (Howlin’ Wolf’s band), Albert Collins, Albert King, Buddy Guy, Duane Allman, T-Bone Walker, Ry Cooder, Elmore James, Magic Sam, Otis Rush, Jimmy Reed, and others. When we’re in the car together we listen to XM 74 – Bluesville.

If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I have been trying to integrate the lessons of great music into help for better preaching. Again, as Dylan put it – to write an effective political song you have to show people a side of themselves they didn’t know was there (I believe the same is true of Christian songs). And that’s one way to approach writing and delivering a sermon.

But how does a blues artist approach the art of songwriting? Blues is essentially an indigenous, ethnic music but it transcends its original intended audience and moves people of many different cultures and backgrounds. Wherein lies its transcendent power?

I think it has something to do with authenticity and honesty. Blues music is rarely ironic without being explicitly so in order to make a point. Sarcasm is blunt and often self-deprecating.

I had a sweet little home,

it burned down, people, ain’t that sad?

I had a sweet little home,

it burned down, people, ain’t that bad?

You can’t spend what you ain’t got

You can’t lose something, little girl, you ain’t never had.

–“You Can’t Lose What You Never Had,” by Muddy Waters

Most often, it is a straightforward exercise in truth-telling. The intent is often quite clear in blues songs – “I’m angry,” “you hurt me bad,” “I’m so hurt I could hurt somebody else,” “I’m horny,” “I suspect you of cheating,” “I’ve been cheating,” “I’m sorry.” The message is often very clear and stated in explicit language, and the musical accompaniment is almost always reflective of the mood of the lyrics. Sad blues sounds sad, happy blues sounds happy, angry blues sounds aggressive and fierce.

“Throw those fancy chords away, and just get that sloooow beat.” – John Lee Hooker.

How does this translate into preaching? The radical honesty of the blues artist should inspire us. Blues and preaching are exercises in truth-telling; and truth-telling is often uncomfortable, even ugly.

“I’m gonna beat my old lady ’til I get satisfied.” – Robert Johnson

Okay, maybe some level of confession is off limits from the pulpit.  However, some of the most moving sermons I’ve ever heard involved a pastor’s confession of his or her own sin and struggle. I’m not necessarily talking about Jimmy Swaggart’s tearful and melodramatic confessions, but consider these words of Rev. Clint McCann:

“You know what America’s true pastime is now? Baseball? No. It’s shopping. Shopping! Our favorite way to spend time is to find ways of spending money. That’s pathetic! And I do it too! I’m pathetic!”

Coming face to face with one’s own sin in public – that’s preaching, and it’s preaching the blues.

Coming face to face with corporate (systemic) sin such as the national and worldwide indifference toward the genocide in Darfur is preaching the blues.

Boasting (to use Paul’s word) of the personal transformation one has experienced through Christ is preaching the blues.

Preaching that times are hard now but freedom is coming – that’s preaching the blues.

A great funeral sermon that deals honestly with great loss while proclaiming great hope – that’s preaching the blues.

Structurally, the blues has a lot to teach us as well. Blues artists are masters of using a minimum of words to make the maximum impact. Blues isn’t about erudition, or squeezing the maximum number of notes into a tight space; rather it’s about saying the right word at the right time, leaving out what doesn’t belong, and bending the right notes at just the right moment.

A blues sermon will be different from a folk sermon, a rock sermon, a country sermon or a jazz sermon. Sometimes you just gotta preach the blues.


One Comment leave one →
  1. July 1, 2007 12:09 pm

    Preach on brother Will!

    What I love about the blues is that it’s (usually) so direct and emotionally raw… real honest feelings with out a lot of fluff. And yet there is real truth communicated in this emotion.

    The same could be said of some of the very best sermons I’ve heard.

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