A Dark Salvation
I love Gospel music — the music, but generally not the lyrics. Most Gospel lyrics convey the perspective of one has been saved by accepting Jesus. In other words, they tell the end of a story that began in ignorance, descended into sin, rose up to acknowledge the condition of being a sinner and arrived at the state of salvation. They invite the listener to join the singer, accept his/her reality as the only solution to life’s dissatisfaction and rejoice in the amazing state of grace.
I’ve been an even bigger fan of Blues music, ever since I first heard it in high school. For me, its dark tones have been the perfect vehicle to convey the even darker lyrics that reveal the tragic truth of existence in these bodies, on this earth. But even before I encountered the 12-bar Blues format, I first heard the blues feeling in the Animals’ version of House of the Rising Sun. After all the saccharine-sweet, feel-good music of the Beatles and the Beach Boys, this was an absolute revelation. All through the summer of 1964, I kept the transistor radio close to my ear, as if I were taking a sacrament, whenever that song came on. Somehow, both the lyrics and the base guitar transmitted the same dark sensibility that pop music generally avoided.
The Blues (like Flamenco or Klezmer music) is never depressing to me, because it gives vent to feelings that I can rarely express on my own; it is “laughing to keep from crying,” while Gospel (for me) evokes a sad humor, even as I sway to its rhythms and harmonies. Blues is the night, the soul; Gospel is the daylight, the spirit. And here is the one of the sources of our peculiarly American neurosis, as I write in Chapter Eleven of my book:
… the black church. Even though many of its members absorbed the conservative social values of their former masters, there was never any mind-body split in the practice of their religion…Southerners, both white and black, have been in this bind for generations, writes Michael Ventura: “A doctrine that denied the body, preached by a practice that excited the body, would eventually drive the body into fulfilling itself elsewhere.” The call-and-response chanting and rhythmic bodily movement typical of southern preachers absolutely contradict their moralistic sermons. This contributes to “the terrible tension that drives their unchecked paranoias.”
These two African-American musical forms have been the bookends of American culture, expressing the extremes of our possibilities. Or, as the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles (author of Oedipus Rex) said of the younger Euripides (author of The Bacchae), “I write of who we might be, while he writes of who we actually are.”
Recently, I felt it all come together when I heard a unique rendition of the old standard Amazing Grace by the Blind Boys of Alabama, who played it (I think) in Em – G – A – D – B7, the same dark chords in which I’d learned House of the Rising Sun.
Suddenly I got it, the meaning of salvation: not the end of the story, but the beginning. The simple switch from the sweet, soaring, easily recognizable – yet unchallenging – traditional melody to this brooding, shadowy, chilly, almost sinister (related to “left hand”) tune threw me into recognition.
Not enlightenment as a single event in time, but an introduction to the possibility of living one moment of awareness after another. Realization that I’d never knowingly met an enlightened person, but had known an occasional enlightened moment, which had quickly faded. Comprehension that the desired state of consciousness is a choice we must make with every breath. Salvation/enlightenment as a responsibility, as Rumi said, to “not go back to sleep,” because, as William Stafford wrote, “The darkness around us is deep.” Or as David Whyte writes:
No One Told Me
No one told me it would lead to this.
No one said there would be secrets I would not want to know.
No one told me about seeing.
Seeing brought me loss and a darkness I could not hold.
No one told me about writing or speaking.
Speaking and writing poetry,
I unsheathed the sharp edge of experience that led me here.
No one told me it could not be put away.
I was told once, in a whisper,
“The blade is so sharp, it cuts together , not apart.”
This is no comfort.
My future is full of blood
From being blindfold
Feeling a way along its firm edge.
This is where the Blues and the gospel encounter each other, when the two halves of the American soul meet, sung by blind men who have not let their banishment to the darkness diminish them. This is the act of knowing God everywhere only because one has known the Devil within. This is the moment when, as Maxine Kumin writes, “…the wolf, the mongering wolf who stands outside the self lay lightly down, and slept.”
How much meaning can one simple phrase – Blind Boys of Alabama – carry? They are blind, but they can see the light. They call Alabama their home, a fascist state if there ever was one, a state that in 2015, fifty years after the Voting Rights Act, has required everyone to have a photo I.D. in order to vote but has closed all Motor Vehicle Division offices where Blacks are in the majority.
They call themselves boys, but they are, by any standard, initiated men who have accepted their wounds (physical, social and racial) and turned them into art. Indeed, their performance of Amazing Grace is a profound ritual that invites us to balance the dark and the light, rather than overcome one with the other.
Michael Meade voices an old proverb: Only those who can curse are able to bless. This is where we can glimpse the possibilities of what we – and America – might become when we are finally willing to dwell at length in the darkness, when we accept our capacity to harm before knowing our potential to heal, when we breathe in our demons and exhale our angels.