“Singing the blues” may seem to be a weird title as we travel through the holiday season and approach the end of another semester. We might think it should be a time of rejoicing. Yet if we are honest, this holiday season can be bluesy as people mourn the loss of loved ones or as we endure ongoing war, college students shot in Vermont and even local violence in Triangle area high schools. We are not always “merry and bright.”
Think about it. Even at Duke, you can pull an all-nighter for that final exam but still not get the grade you hoped for. Or, you can invest in a relationship but not sense your love is reciprocated. Basically, what we expect is not always what we get, and this will cause you to sing the blues.
Singing the blues is more than complaining about how, “Suzie left me, my dog Barney died, my acoustic guitar broke and Coach Elko left Duke for Texas A&M.” In “Richard Wright’s Blues,” writer Ralph Ellison defines the blues as “an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.”
This is what the ancient prophet Isaiah does when he sings the blues with these words: “When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” (Isaiah 5:4b). He’s disappointed and distraught. His love song for the vineyard becomes a lamenting blues lyric because what he expected, he doesn’t receive. Unmet expectations will cause you to sing the blues.
It’s a lesson everyone should learn. It’s a mature spiritual response to life circumstances in a world of much tragedy and agony. We should all cultivate a blues sensibility for navigating reality. The blues helps us to remain human with a prophetic impulse to speak truth, even to power when necessary.
Singing the blues also reveals that you understand how love can be blue, full of questions and contradictions. What you love the best can hurt you the most, and when it hurts, singing the blues shows courage and depth.
Musically, the blues notes are sometimes called bent notes. The flat seventh or the minor third bends down from the major seventh or the major third. They bend but are not broken. When life bends you with heavy winds, the blues allow you to still sing and make melodies as a sign of life and resilience.
In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, a seventy-year-old woman named Ena Ziza was found buried for a week in rubble at least three stories high. When she was pulled out of the rubble, she was seriously dehydrated and had a broken leg and a dislocated hip; however, when they pulled her out of the rubble, she didn’t ask about her 401K or her unread emails or the blog chatter about Oprah Winfrey’s TV network. When they pulled her out of the rubble, this lady began to sing. Even a blues note is hopeful because as the priest and poet Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray once wrote, “Hope is a song in a weary throat.”
Singing the blues is an essential ingredient for anyone who wants to prepare for the way life is. But this should not be so difficult for you since you are already blue. You are blue devils, which is another way of saying that the blues are in your blood.
The Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery is Dean of Duke University Chapel. His column runs on alternate Mondays.
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