What the blues have to do with postmodern culture and preaching

Delta blues music from the 1920s and the postmodern culture we currently live in -- what do they have in common? And in what way does blues music resemble good preaching? Here is what I discovered tonight.

Charley Patton
In his book on the history of the blues entitled Deep Blues, Robert Palmer explains that black music underwent several fundamental changes in the 1920s. One of the most important involves the standpoint from which the music is written. Older black music tended to be written from a detached standpoint. A song might be about a possum or a train engineer. Blues, on the other hand, was an expression of the singer's own experience. It told a story from one man or woman's perspective. The blues meant a transition from objective to subjective. (Deep Blues, p. 75)

Interestingly, Palmer connects subjectivity to freedom. "Only a man who understands his worth and believes in his freedom sings as if nothing else matters [than his subjective experience of events]."

Now how does this connect with today's culture? The modern worldview would be characterized by a desire to be objective and establish universal truth. In postmodern culture, there is a desire to engage in narrative, which is told specifically from one's own standpoint. Subjectivity is considered unavoidable and is therefore to be expected. You hear this when someone says, "I'll give you my view..."

As for preaching, which do you prefer -- a pastor who lays out points with clinical objectivity or who engages life with God with honesty and personal involvement? There is a place for the former, but the latter is critical. Subjectivity is far from all that goes into good preaching, but it is an important element.

So there it is. Blues employs narrative and subjectivity. So does postmodern culture. So does preaching.

1927 Mississippi flood
For an example of the type of music Palmer is talking about, check out 1920s blues pioneer Charley Patton. In 1927, the Mississippi River overflowed its banks, the levees broke, and a horrendous flood swept through the Mississippi towns where Patton was. He sings about it in his song, "High Water Everywhere." The song is written from Patton's own point of view. It is not a recounting of news headlines. It is Patton's own running narrative. You can hear the desperation, fear, and confusion in his voice. This is what makes the song fascinating to me. I can imagine myself in Patton's shoes as he wonders where he can go to escape the water. A flood in historically interesting, but being placed in the middle of the disaster is powerful.

Here are the lyrics:
Well, backwater done rose all around Sumner now,
drove me down the line
Backwater done rose at Sumner,
drove poor Charley down the line
Lord, I'll tell the world the water,
done crept through this town
Lord, the whole round country,
Lord, river has overflowed
Lord, the whole round country,
man, is overflowed
You know I can't stay here,
I'll go where it's high, boy
I would goto the hilly country,
but, they got me barred
Now, look-a here now at Leland
river was risin' high
Look-a here boys around Leland tell me,
river was raisin' high
Boy, it's risin' over there, yeah
I'm gonna move to Greenville
fore I leave, goodbye
Look-a here the water now, Lordy,
Levee broke, rose most everywhere
The water at Greenville and Leland,
Lord, it done rose everywhere
Boy, you can't never stay here
I would go down to Rosedale
but, they tell me there's water there
Now, the water now, mama,
done took Charley's town
Well, they tell me the water,
done took Charley's town
Boy, I'm goin' to Vicksburg
Well, I'm goin' to Vicksburg,
for that high of mine
I am goin' up that water,
where lands don't never flow
Well, I'm goin' over the hill where,
water, oh don't ever flow
Boy, hit Sharkey County and everything was down in Stovall
But, that whole county was leavin',
over that Tallahatchie shore Boy,
went to Tallahatchie and got it over there
Lord, the water done rushed all over,
down old Jackson road
Lord, the water done raised,
over the Jackson road
Boy, it starched my clothes
I'm goin' back to the hilly country,
won't be worried no more


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