The Psalms as Blues

What do the “Devil’s music” and the Word of God have in common?

Lament. Both Robert Johnson and King David knew what it was like to suffer, to be tormented, both internally and externally. Did they take different paths to relieve their suffering? Of course. But one strategy they both used was to express their trials in song. Let’s look at parts of “Stones in My Passway” by Johnson (recording) and Psalm 13, written by David (full text).

Stones In My Passway
My enemies have betrayed me
Have overtaken poor Bob at last
My enemies have betrayed me
Have overtaken poor Bob at last
An’ here’s one thing certainly
They have stones all in my pass

Psalm 13
How long will my enemies triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, O Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death;
my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
The feeling we get from both of these texts is that of weakness in the face of enemies, and a sense of impending doom. They had different enemies of course, but they were similarly worn down by them, and they both acknowledged their inability to defeat their enemies. Let’s look at another section from each song:


Stones In My Passway…………………….Psalm 13
I got stones in my passway                             How long, oh Lord? Will you forget me forever?
And my road seems dark as night                 How long will you hide your face from me?
I have pains in my heart                                 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
They have taken my appetite                        and every day have sorrow in my heart?

The previous passages focused on external enemies, and these discuss the singers’ internal struggles. They each have sorrow/pain in their hearts, and they are both in darkness.

I think this comparison is interesting, especially considering the fact that blues music is seen as almost a polar opposite to what is referred to as sacred music.

Disclaimer: I know that there are many blues and many Psalms that are not like these. And I know that there are several more differences between these two songs than I described. I am simply pointing out the similarities.

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Robert Johnson’s Centennial: In Review posted a review of Blues at the Crossroads: The Robert Johnson Centennial Concert, written by Will Stewart, that is rather scathing. I disagree with much of what was written, and I have posted the comment I made on the article here, along with the link to the article:

“Having listened repeatedly to Johnson’s recordings of “Kindhearted Woman Blues,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” and several others leading up to and following the concert, Mohr’s renditions were impressively stylistic for the most part, especially in the vocals. He does not play guitar like Johnson, but he sang in the same range with an extremely similar timbre, and I have not yet heard any critique of the “feeling” he put into it (from the comments) that has not amounted to either racism or stereotyping. As far as Mr. Stewart’s article, it seems like he had all of his thoughts in mind before the concert started.

Malcolm and Burnside were fantastic, and to say that things “improved somewhat” when they came out paints a completely inaccurate picture of both Mohr and this duo.

And while Edwards and Sumlin were impressive for their ages, there were plenty of problems with their performances from a purely musical perspective. Sumlin’s guitar playing had its shining moments, but also its dull ones, and Edwards sang the blues with all the feeling and history he brings to it, but his voice did disintegrate on the last song he sang during his first appearance. It sounded like Bob Dylan on a bad day–because Edwards is 95. I thought Edwards was great. But I am saying that it is completely contradictory to contrast him with the younger performers in the way that Mr. Stewart did. I think to exalt the veterans and denigrate the other performers is to completely ignore the actual sounds that were emanating from the stage.”


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Auto-Tune the Blues

If you haven’t heard the Ted Williams story, or his voice, I’d recommend checking it out. But here is an Auto-Tuned blues with Ted Williams as the “singer”:

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Authenticity: A Black and White Issue?

Scene 1: A young white man playing a banjo and singing the blues on the front porch of his farmhouse in Mississippi, accompanied by his violin-playing white neighbor.  The year is 2000.

Scene 2: A solitary old black man playing a guitar and singing the blues on a street corner in New York City. The year is 1947.

Which man is a more authentic blues musician?

In some ways, the man from Scene 1 is a more “authentic” blues musician. But you might say, “He’s white!,” or “It’s 2000! Real blues music was happening in 1947!” or perhaps “Banjo and violin? You must be confused between blues and bluegrass.” But I think those criticisms of my opinion would be a result of stereotypes embedded in the minds of the American people for the last hundred years. For example, the guitar was not used in most proto-blues, but the banjo was. And violins, or instruments like them, were regularly used in the Deep South in the mid to late 1800s. So no, this setup is not authentic if we are comparing it to Robert Johnson, but we are talking about original “roots” music, not a man who hopped on the blues train (not to be confused with John Coltrane’s Blue Train) decades into it’s existence.

And then there’s the issue of race. Is a black person automatically a more authentic blues musician than a white person? I think the answer is usually. If you’re a white woman singing the blues, then you are just as authentic as Sophie Tucker was at the turn of the century. If you have been influenced by Sophie Tucker, then you are just as authentic as Bessie Smith. The case is harder to make for our modern image of a blues man: unfortunately, if you are a young white guy with a guitar you have some compensating to do. You have very few heroes, especially if we look back to the early 1900s or earlier. The only chance you have is to have been raised into the blues tradition–to have known “Honeyboy” Edwards, Son House, Lightnin’ Hopkins, or one of the other central blues musicians of the mid-20th century.

If you have not been that fortunate, can you still play the blues? Certainly! After all, the famous lyric says “The blues ain’t nothin’ but a good man feelin’ bad,” NOT The blues ain’t nothin’ but a black man feelin’ bad.” But can you call yourself authentic? I wouldn’t. If the word “authentic” means anything, it certainly means being connected to tradition.

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The Crossroads: North University and State Street, Ann Arbor MI

Welcome to my blog, Blues at the Crossroads!

A week from this Thursday, the last living man to have played with the legendary Robert Johnson will be coming to Ann Arbor to play in the Robert Johnson Centennial Concert. I have the privilege of attending this once-in-a-lifetime performance at Hill Auditorium, where David “Honeyboy” Edwards (94) will show us the musical impact of having a second-hand encounter with the devil. He will be joined by Big Head Todd & The Monsters, Hubert Sumlin, Cedric Burnside, and Lightnin’ Malcolm.

You can read more about the concert at the University Musical Society’s website:

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