Culture > Q&A

Singing the gospel

"Singing the gospel" Continued...

Issue: "Your right to vote," July 31, 2010

What did they sing? The black sermon, which came out of the King James Bible, begins in a speech-like manner and then goes into singing, with instruments supporting. The congregation doesn't just listen-they help you along with amens and "fix it, brother" and all sorts of wonderful responses. So it's an antiphonal call and response pattern. Music was sung responsively because people like Isaac Watts were helping to develop music by "lining it out." That's a technique where the lead singer would sing the first line of the psalm, and the congregation would sing it back. The Africans were right at home in this.

The African-American aesthetic came out of spirituals? The African-American aesthetic is the narrative that moves from deep sorrow into inextinguishable joy. That's found in all good jazz, and all good blues, and all good spirituals. There's a passionate, poignant suffering that reflects the deep misery of slavery. There are lots of ties with ancient Israel, enslaved in Egypt. And then there's this liberation, emancipation, the joy of freedom that was the experience of the Israelites and ultimately Jesus and the apostles. That aesthetic found its way into Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, all the greats.

And what's the background of the blues? While spirituals address God in worship and admiration and encourage the congregation, blues is about life in general: the hardship of work, the unfaithfulness of a man who goes after another woman, the lack of charity of the foreman who dresses up nice on Sunday and brings out the bullwhip on Monday. Blues crystallized into the form A A B, you know, "I hate to see that evening sun go down, oh I hate to see that evening sun go down, for my man has done left this town." It's not at all unlike biblical Hebrew poetry, which is parallelism. . . . Ecclesiastes is a blues book because it doesn't have a happy end. Job never found out exactly why he suffered. I hope this doesn't sound irreverent, because I think it's really beautiful: the most poignant blues singer and the most poignant blues ever sung was Jesus in the garden. "If this cup can be taken away from Me"-that's blues. He knew it couldn't, but He was wailing to God.
To hear Henry Bleattler's complete interview with William Edgar, click here.


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