Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Value System Blues by Bernard McDonagh

Have you ever heard people talking about ‘the Blues’ and wondered what they were talking about? What exactly is this music called the Blues? Well, we can identify certain chords and scales, certain ways of phrasing, and a certain musical structure or ‘form’. These things give the Blues it’s unique sound and musical characteristics, but the Blues is much more than just the sum of these things. It’s a powerful vehicle for the expression of feelings and emotions. It is a unique musical dialect within the wider musical world which has permeated almost all contemporary music in some way. If modern music were likened to an exotic dish, then the Blues is an absolutely key ingredient; it’s not the dish itself, but is an essential part of it.

As well as being a true musical tradition in it’s own right, the Blues is important as a forerunner of other musical styles. Rock and Roll music is it’s direct offspring, and the basic language at the heart of Jazz is the soulfulness of the Blues. The simple 12-bar structure of most Blues music is evident in Rock and Roll, and Jazz has Blues structures as well. This structure, the note choices, and unique phrasing so characteristic in Blues have been imported into other styles of music too, so that the Blues now has an almost universal relevance to and influence on contemporary musicians everywhere.

In addition to the musical elements spoken of above, the soulfulness, emotion, and raw honesty found in the best Blues can also now be found in other forms of popular music too. It is in this respect that the Blues really has penetrated deep into the popular music forms and into the consciousness of musicians. (The ‘Confessions of a Music Fundamentalist’ article has more on this.)


The Blues really began as the music of African Americans; in particular those in the rural ‘South’. Close to the heart of the Blues are the ‘spirituals’ of the slaves, both in terms of structure and emotional content. The connection between them is obvious, and very strong. Many spirituals spoke of the yearning for freedom and relief from all the troubles of life. Some described the hardships the slaves endured, even using the sufferings of the Israelites in Egypt as a type of their own. The spirituals also spoke about God, and expressed faith and hope in God. They sang as a means of encouragement, even though they were singing about their troubles. It has to be said there’s therapeutic value in letting your feelings out, and of course even more so if there’s faith and worship directed to God!

In a similar way, Blues music usually talks about the troubles someone is going through, though usually in a more secular vein. In many ways it‘s really a poor man’s music, and you don’t normally hear a rich man singing the Blues. So the Blues really comes directly from those spirituals, and initially it was indeed very spiritual music. It still can be spiritual, but this really depends on the individual artists; more on that later.

Blues developed many regional characteristics too. For example, there’s acoustic-guitar-based ‘Country Blues’, but music in the bigger cities was very electric-guitar-based. For example the Blues in a big city like Chicago has a very different sound to the Blues down in the rural south. In some places, Texas for example, there’s a mix of acoustic and electric Blues, all of which sounds different to the Blues of the Mississippi Delta region, or the Blues coming out of the Carolinas, etc., and even within these styles of Blues there are many subtle shades of variation.

Sometimes Blues performers didn’t even really travel beyond their own towns and rural settings. People could be well-known in their home-town for years before someone from another city would get to hear them perform. Their reputation as a musician would be years in the making. This was normal for the rural folks, and this was of course, long before television, or the internet. Even recordings were quite a new phenomenon. Some inspired people made the effort to record some of the early Blues performers, and we are indeed fortunate to have that music to listen to today.


Despite this history, I feel that much Blues music made today is unworthy of it’s origins; perhaps I’ll put it in 12-bar form!:

Heart is filled with sorrow
Righteous train done left the track
Said my heart is filled with sorrow
Righteous train done left the track
That music used to be so fine
Now that music got a monkey on it’s back

I may well be very biased toward the earlier Blues musicians and performers, but the later day Blues music just hasn’t got that spark for me. In my view it’s lost so much of it’s humanity and spirituality, and the originality and raw integrity that made it so appealing is kind of lost now. Like any music that becomes popular it has become commercialised; thanks to the inevitable involvement of the business people.

It would be fair to say though, that it is still less corrupted and trivialized by commercialism than many other forms of music. As commercialized as it is, there is still healthy grass-roots Blues music happening, and there are still many fine performers of real, honest-to-goodness Blues music.


Unfortunately, all expressions of our human hearts are tarnished as a result of our sinful nature. This includes everything we say and do, and yes, our music too — no matter which style it embraces. It would be unfair to single out music that we don’t like, and exclude it from the realms of ‘acceptability’ just because of it’s style. It must be the music’s quality, or lack of it, that we use as the measure of judgement.

This brings me irresistibly to the issue of non-Christian, or ‘secular’ music? Can it have a place in the lives of Christians? I’m of the opinion that not everything our fellow man does is intrinsically evil, or automatically worthless. Despite the fallen nature of man, we can see in his self-expressions, including music, that along with all the trash of sin, there’s still a heart in there. Man still bears the image of God. It is a false doctrine that says everything made by non-Christians has no value. Where then is the dignity in being a human being?

How do you feel about it? Because it really is a matter of personal conscience before God. Romans chapter 14 teaches us not to judge a brother who eats, or does not eat meat. Verse 17 says: “For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking”. The logical extension of this, is that it’s not music either! If you wish to listen to any kind of music, you have the God-given right and the authority of scripture to do so. If you prefer to listen only to ‘Christian’ music, then you are also justified in choosing that option. The only thing forbidden is judging our brother or sister!


So, it’s not the style of the music, but the content that should be the issue. For example, in the case of the Blues, there is some I would listen to, and some I would choose not to listen to. Where is the logic in deciding that all Blues music is ungodly and has no value? Quite often Blasphemy can wear a nice suit and sing Classical music. Unfaithfulness often wears a Country hat. Ungodliness and lust can dwell in the most sentimental and ‘Middle-Of-the-Road’ music. Saddest of all, is that greed and idolatry sometimes dress up as ‘Contemporary Christian’ music.

So what can our standard for judgement be now? If we have chosen music simply because it has a Christian label, or is made by Christians, then we are missing the point. The true standard can only be what it should have been all along: integrity and humanity. Music is a wonderful gift from God to all men. It doesn’t need an excuse to exist, and it doesn’t need to be ‘Christianised’ to be made acceptable. That music must have an excuse of “serving the Lord”, or “evangelism”, or whatever, is I believe, a fundamental misunderstanding of God’s creation. “The heavens declare the glory of God”, the scripture says in Psalm 19v1. Do we not see that the “heavens declare the glory of God” without the assistance of a big Jesus-shaped cloud for further emphasis?!

At this point it’s needful to make some clarifications. It is right to worship the Lord with our music! We should share our testimonies and life-experiences in our songs too! It’s only natural, and we should want to! This is not what I am being critical of here. It is perpetuating an upside down value system that we must resist; values that allow us to accept trash because it is ‘Christian’ trash, and to reject something that has beauty and substance, because it is not made by Christians.

When the Reformation was taking place in Germany, Martin Luther didn’t throw away everything that had existed up to that point! He maintained the study of Latin, recommended the whole-hearted pursuit of knowledge, and was a champion for the arts. (He himself was a hymn writer.) We too must be selective and wise. Although he found much to ‘protest’ about with regard to crucial matters of doctrine, he had no problem whatsoever with music or the arts. In fact, it came to be that under this Lutheran tradition (which was then only beginning), Church music, and Western music – period, would rise to previously unseen glories.

So, should we listen to the Blues? As Christians with the God-given freedom of choice, we can happily conclude that the choice is ours, and we shouldn’t hesitate to embrace the freedom given us in Christ Jesus. Nor should we hesitate to make decisions for ourselves with that freedom. We can reject music that is sub-standard, or blasphemous, or simply not true to God’s design for human beings. We should learn to appreciate music and other creative works that have integrity – even when they come from outside the four walls of the church.

Never mind the Blues, how can awful music of any style serve to glorify God and uplift man? Yet we live with so much third rate music in the Church; we who have been so critical of all others! My brethren, these things ought not to be so!

I have no doubt touched upon things that are more complex, or sensitive, than this brief article can fully address. For example, some art may indeed have artistic integrity of the highest order, but may also suggest a belief which is false or a morally wrong suggestion; especially if the artist does not know Christ. Despite this, I think we need to look prayerfully again at our value systems. We may have inherited or adopted some ideas which sound very zealous for God, but which in fact may be rooted in legalism; and not in the true biblical freedoms our Lord Jesus Christ won for us all at great cost.

Remember too, that as the Jews fought the Apostle Paul fiercely in their defence of the Law and of Judaism, so too there will be those among us who will never accept the freedom Christ gives us. They will insist that you be just like them, even down to tastes in music.

© 2006, by Bernard McDonagh