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Book Review: Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches Us About Suffering and Salvation by Stephen J. Nichols

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“The blues is a congregation that sings on Saturday night in expectation of Sunday” (171). The blues forces us to deal with the realities of life. The woman who “done me wrong,” the death of friends, the strong allure of drink, smoke, and other vices. Yet at the same time, while in the fray of dealing with so much trouble, the blues points us to the hope of things to come. That glorious Sunday morning when all will be made right and salvation will surely come.

In his book, Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches Us About Suffering and Salvation, Stephen J. Nichols takes us on a musical journey through the early 20th century Mississippi Delta in search of a theology in the minor key. Too many American evangelicals, he states, live life as though it is always “spring and summer without winter or fall. Or always Easter and never Good Friday” (14). This attitude, for the author, is simplistic and naïve at best, borderline blasphemous at worst. This is because it is a rejection of the experience and intent of Jesus Christ, who, though fully God, left the spring and summer of heaven to take on flesh and dwell in the winter and fall of earthly life.

Half history book, half theology book, Getting the Blues delves into how the blues can give us insight for living in this constant tension between reality and the hope to come. Comprised of six chapters, this book begins with an orientation to the world of the blues — its musical characteristics, origins, key players — as well as an introduction to the theological themes of the blues in a chapter entitled, “What Hath Mississippi to Do with Jerusalem.” The second chapter, “I Be’s Troubled,” explores the relationship between what both the blues and the Bible have to say about the human condition.   “Man of Sorrows” turns to the individual, casting King David as perhaps the earliest blues singer, drawing parallels between many of the lament Psalms and Mississippi Delta blues. Men are not the only ones to sing the blues, however, and Nichols next turns to the experience of women in the Delta and Naomi from the book of Ruth in “Woman of Sorrows.”

After spending a fair amount of time in the fall and winter of life through the lens of blues singers and Biblical characters, Getting the Blues starts the journey toward Sunday, first in chapter five, “Precious Lord.” This chapter discusses Christ as the answer for the curse that all of us feel the effects of, and that blues singers so often sing of. Finally, chapter six, “Come Sunday,” brings us home, showing us the preferred answer of the blues singers to life’s struggles and hardships. Nichols concludes, “The blues is ultimately an eschatology” (166): the blues acknowledges and deals with suffering, works to make things better while we’re here, and looks forward to the day when everything is new and right.

This was quite a fascinating book to read on several points. The history of the early blues singers that the author presents is quite impactful and is a history that has largely been lost or passed over in American culture, though that history provided much of the foundation, especially musically, for later 20th century culture.

The theological themes that the author was able to find in the blues are an important corrective to the prevailing timbre of modern American evangelicalism. Though the struggles of life are somewhat acknowledged by this group, as evidenced by the plethora of “self-help” type books that line the shelves of Christian bookstores, much of American evangelicalism has no framework for how to deal with such struggles. Nichols, and the blues music he presents, calls evangelicals to fully acknowledge and embrace the trials of life as a universal experience to life under the curse. But, at the same time, he urges looking to the person and work of Jesus, the only one who can rescue the downcast soul and who promises to bring his people home safe and sound.

If there is one fault of the book, it is back and forth between history of the blues and exploration of theological themes in the blues. While the history is certainly important for context, there was almost too much of it, at least in a book that’s only 179 pages long. Because there was so much recounting of history, there was not as much theologizing on the blues as I had expected in approaching this book, and even much of what was there was, at times, bogged down by lengthy strings of quotes.

Despite this, however, I would absolutely recommend this book. The last chapter alone is well worth the price and launches the discussion of the blues's place in modern evangelicalism into a couple of very fascinating trajectories. Perhaps there will one day be entire volumes dedicated to developing the blues as an eschatology or the blues as an ecclesiology.

Getting the Blues is certainly an enjoyable and informative read, and one that would do many, especially evangelical Christians, good to read. Having been a blues fan for much of my life, this book has given me a deeper sense of what it means to have the blues, to sing the blues, and to find hope and life in the blues.

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