Posted by: Mark Nielsen | April 15, 2009

The Psalmist Sings the Blues (featuring Buddy Guy & John Mayer)

“O Lord, you will keep us safe and protect us from such people forever./ The wicked freely strut about when what is vile is honored among men.” (Psalm 12:7-8)

“To the modern reader the psalms can seem impenetrable: how in the world can we read, let alone pray, these angry and often violent poems from an ancient warrior culture? At a glance they seem overwhelmingly patriarchal, ill-tempered, moralistic, vengeful, and often seem to reflect precisely what is wrong with our world. And that’s the point, or part of it. As one reads the psalms every day, it becomes clear that the world they depict is not really so different from our own; the fourth century monk Athanasius wrote that the psalms ‘become like a mirror to the person singing them.’  ”  (Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, pg. 93)

In other words, the psalms are not unlike the African-American blues tradition: wailing, whining, and wonderful, or praising, passionate, personal and earthy. So it ain’t so bad to sing the blues. The blues is common. They’s normal.

For thousands of years people have been healed by the honest expression of joy and pain through musical and poetic means. Even when the music or poetry isn’t exactly about God, nevertheless, on another level — as spirit poured out through one’s mouth, as love or despair or fury expressed in song — it’s still about the struggle toward God. That struggle involves some vague inner vision of God’s perfect kingdom and perfect love, and whether one is reaching toward it, being denied it, or foolishly running in the other direction. As Billie Holiday once sang (in an old song written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler), so say I: 

“I got a RIGHT to sing the blues. I got a right to moan and cry.”

And for a more modern take, from the muscular Chicago electric blues tradition, there’s no one better than Buddy Guy, whose song “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues” is a subtle statement about the harsh reality of poverty (and neglectful parenting) in an urban setting. But in the six-minute YouTube clip below, Buddy (guest-starring on a John Mayer special) lets his guitar do most of the crying and moaning:

Those who know me will probably agree that I’m a passionate, emotional person. And by way of confession, to use Norris’ word above about the psalmists, I’ve been “ill-tempered” lately. No wallflower, I’ve seldom been one to miss an opportunity for either celebration or (more often) complaint. So I have been facing into that this week. Unfortunately, I’ve been more inclined to complain than to celebrate (except on Easter itself, when my mood was better). However, if I got the message right on Easter, all the important work of solving these problems I complain about was already done by Jesus, the victory of the righteous is already assured, and all I have to do is live into that truth. Not that living it is easy… but it is possible.

I’m also realizing that this complaining and negativity is contagious: I caught some of this sneering, judgmental attitude from my father growing up, and I’ve also been influenced by the ways that my wife seems to have caught the same bug from her own family (and passes it on, for better or worse, to Graham and I). Yet when I step back, I have to admit we’ve got a pretty good life. Which is what many other psalms are often about: gratitude, the greatness and protection and love of God, the beauty of the earth and the Way of peace.

So for me, a grumbler by nature, the humbling act of reading psalms is most often a reminder of two things:

  1. the stuff that ticks me off — the personal and family dysfunction, the political buffoonery (note the “bribe against the innocent” in Psalm 15:5), the warped “honor” given to what is dishonorable in this present culture — these things have been around for centuries. Oddly, this is a comforting thought. Maybe because it implies things are not actually getting worse nowadays, as I often suspect they are.
  2. I am a sinner. Which means I always have the potential to be as much a part of the problem as anyone else. So it does little good to simply blame everybody else. I am reminded of this by the occasional lament of David in the psalms, such as that he is “a worm, not a man” (Ps. 22:6), that he is prone to denial, but must confess his sin to keep his bones from “wasting away” (Ps. 32:3), or that he loses faith and sometimes childishly feels sorry for himself [ “When my prayers returned to me unanswered, I went about mourning as though for my friend or brother” (Ps. 35:13-14) ] .

As I was wrapping up my thoughts on the ancient culture of the psalmists and modern culture, a snippet of a pop/rock song from my early teen years  came to mind. It’s from the song  The Grand Illusion, by the Chicago-based band Styx:

“Don’t be fooled by the radio, the tv or the magazines. /They show you photographs, of how your life should be, / compared to someone else’s fantasy.”

The end of the song’s chorus is also relevant:

” Just remember that it’s a grand illusion, and deep inside we’re all the same. “

It’s a message that Christians (and Buddhists, who try to not be weighed down by “desire”) should know well, but apparently we keep forgetting: don’t depend on the stuff of this world –romance, institutions, money, prestige, toys– to give you joy. It’s simply an illusion that we’re in control, that we’re right and the other person (or group, or nation) is wrong, and that comfort and material possessions will satisfy that hunger for something eternal.

So while we’ve all got a right to sing the blues, we also have a choice to walk a path of love and peace, despite the pain and conflict that threatens to “bust our groove” each day.



  1. Thanks so much for this. I am a theology student, in Tornot, and I would like to write a paper on the Blues as a contemporary form of the psalms. Do you knpw of others who have looked at this?

  2. […] fact that I’m a genuine fan of Mayer’s music (I once called him the “James Taylor of Generation Y”) does not excuse me from […]

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