Running Thread: Black Interfaith Notes in the Blues
February 21, 2023
Black History is U.S. History. That means the entirety of our American cultural fabric and civic life is enriched by a deeper appreciation and understanding of it.
A few years ago, I relearned this lesson through music. I am an amateur musician, a rocker in my late teens and twenties who met with might-we-call-it limited success. I’ve appreciated the blues as a listener, and learned some basic blues forms and riffs. Despite listening to John Lee Hooker’s tracks and finding Huddie Ledbetter through Pete Seeger, I was a casual fan. Billie Holiday still rocks my world when I spin my vinyl, “Lady Sings the Blues” and hear her inimitable voice…
Lady sings the blues
She’s got them bad
She feels so sad
And wants the world to know
Just what her blues are all about
She wants, she needs, the world to know. Buddy Guy says, “Funny thing about the blues—you play ’em ’cause you got ’em. But, when you play ’em, you lose ’em,” (read more). Guy is a son of the Great Northward Migration and is now a nonagenarian guitar wizard. It’s noted that he is still going strong, but when he finally goes, there goes a generation along with him.
The story of blues is layered with complex intersections of religious diversity within the Black experience. It is commonly known that the blues grows out of the gospel tradition. Less commonly understood are its Muslim links. Roughly half of the African Americans sold into slavery in the United States came from Muslim majority regions of Africa. The adhan – call to prayer – was a part of who they were. The adhan layers single syllables stretched through different sonic bends, directly shaping the field holler. You can hear it from the legendary music archivist Alan Lomax.
One of the greatest recordings ever captured is Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” It makes clear the connections between adhan-field holler-gospel-blues. Johnson modeled “Dark Was the Night” on the Christian hymn, “Gethsemane,” so Carl Sagan included it among the most sublime sounds humanity has produced on a record bound for interstellar travels on the Voyager 1 spacecraft (here), now somewhere in the outer fringe of our solar system. Black History does enrich us all, and its inclusion on Voyager 1 is with the hope that it may one day enrich extraplanetary life as well – I love that thought.