Welcome to Preachin' the Blues 

This blog is a place where I can focus my academic, theological, musical, and social justice interests through the lens of the Blues.  My personal and professional interests over the last 45 years or so have been shaped by my life as a musician, academic, lecturer, Anglican theologian and priest, entrepreneur, and social justice advocate, and particularly by my unique family of the Blues.  Academically, I've always been interested in the intersections between disciplines, which probably explains why I have degrees in theology, cultural anthropology, philosophy (particularly epistemology, poetics, and aesthetics), social theory, and education.  

Given the current socio-political climate, the growing sense of isolation experienced through COVID, and the religio-cultural wars that are raging, I thought it might be timely to explore both the historical background to these wars and the role of religion in both justifying and excusing the racism, violence and xenophobia that is rising all around us.  None of these things are new, in fact the Blues was forged in these very same fires and so offers us both wisdom and insight into how we might interpret, resist, and rebuild the common good that is rooted in our shared humanity. 

I'll be taking a long view, so my first few blogs will largely consider the past as a way of framing and understanding the present, and hopefully offering some hope for the future.  

Is God White? Racism as a Theological Construction

Naming the Question:  Is God white? 

In his 1968 volume, Is God a White Racist: A Preamble to Black Theology, African-American scholar William R. Jones coined the term “Divine Racism”.[1]  By asking the question “Is God a White Racist?”, Jones invites exploration of a range of theological issues, the first of which I would argue is, “Is God white?”  While this may seem to some listeners a specious question it does raise a critical issue for theological anthropology and illuminates the answer of the Blues to the edicts of Puritan-shaped American Protestantism, in both its liberal and evangelical forms.  The question focuses sharply on the problem of speaking of God highlighted by Gordon Kaufman’s extensive work on “God Talk”.  The question helps clarify how the imaginative creative spaces of Blues theology confronts and refutes the hegemonies of the American Protestant social and theological mainstream.  

I am interested in Gordon Kaufman’s theological method that seeks to identify and integrate the existential (the human struggles and crises) and the cosmological (God’s relationship to the world) particularly in terms of the historic and socio-cultural context of the Black faith community.  Kaufman’s existential method is mirrored by Spencer as essentially a theodical approach that involves a synthesis of personal narratives that are introspective and reflective, recognition of the communal, historical situation in which evil and suffering are experienced, and rehearsal of sacred histories contained in myths, texts, songs, tales, art, and other vernacular expressions.[2]  As we will see, the problem of evil for the Blues is never an abstraction.  It was and is concretely present in the day-to-day hardships and lived experiences of black people.  The constructs of “God” that dominate the period of Christianisation among the slave population, from which the Blues emerges, are telling, particularly when considered from the perspective of enforcing physical, mental and spiritual servitude. 

While much has been written about the philosophical and social-scientific roots of racism little attention is given by scholars to the ways in which Puritan and Protestant theological ideas gave direct shape to racism in the founding and development of American thought and practice.  There appears to be only two significant studies produced in the last 30 years that directly address this question.  They are Forest G. Wood’s, The Arrogance of Faith: Christianity and Race in America from the Colonial Era to the Twentieth Century[3] and Paul R. Griffin’s Seeds of Racism in the Soul of America.[4]  Even less attention has been given by Blues scholars to the formative role of these Puritan and Protestant theologies, as opposed to the epiphenomena of religion, in shaping the Blues responses to racism.  For example, Adam Gussow’s recent Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition[5] artfully examines ways in which Christian doctrines and moralisms have been at play in Blues lyrics, performance, and the personal experiences of Blues artists, as well as the responses of Black churches to the Blues and vice-versa.  For all his interplay with religion and church Gussow never fully appreciates the radical recasting of theology by the Blues.  Although in his introduction he applauds African American theologian and musicologist Jon Michael Spencer’s ‘full frontal attack on white blues scholars’ for ‘fail(ing) to capture the music’s pervading ethos – its religious nature’[6] Gussow (himself a white blues scholar) either misses or ignores Spencer’s step beyond the generics of religion to the specifics of theology: ‘I found … that I could glean an even deeper understanding of the people who created the Blues through a theological study of the Blues.’[7]  Whether Gussow fails to understand, or ignores, Spencer’s crucial distinction between religion and theology, the resultant conflation blinds him to Spencer's 'deeper understanding'

Race, I will argue, is the central motif in understanding the Blues theologically and anthropologically.  The anthropology of the Blues is inescapably theological, though not necessarily in accord with prevailing orthodoxies.  To understand the former, it is essential that we examine the latter. 

From the Puritans to Reconstruction: tracing the development of theology and race 

Anti-black attitudes are pervasive in the rise of 16th century American Protestant thought.  The early Puritans, heirs of John Calvin’s Protestant and Reformed doctrines, quickly gave shape to a theological anthropology of white superiority, particularly over blacks.    The Puritans were among the first people in the New World to enslave blacks and mark them as godless heathens.  The Puritans, so central to American founding myths, have been so idealised as models of piety and holiness that their primary role in shaping racism is left unseen and unspoken.  As Griffin points out ‘it was Christians – not crude and unlettered southern plantation owners, as most of our history books are prone to tell us – who first cast racial bigotry into a system of twisted theological ideas. Over the past five centuries this theologically informed racism has become an orthodox confession, not only in the churches but also in secular society.’[8] 

How is it that, despite Abolition, Emancipation, the passing of the 13th and 14th Amendments, Reconstruction, de-Segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, and accompanying federal and state legislation, racism is still endemic in 21st century America?  Dr Martin Luther King, foresaw this in his 1958 book, Stride Toward Freedom, and insists that the answer is theological.  He says that churches and Christians must ‘try to get to the ideational roots of race hate, something that the law (and other material efforts) cannot accomplish.’ According to King, ‘the church must face its historic obligation in this crisis (because) in the final analysis the problem of race is not a political but a moral issue’ created by the racist twisting of Biblical and theological ideas.[9] 

This twisting of theological ideas began with the Puritan affirmation of white superiority over black, as God-ordained.  Taking Calvin’s doctrines of sin and predestination the Puritans argued that the unalterable state of all humans was pre-determined by God alone.  This was applied not only soteriologically but anthropologically as well.  By recasting the doctrine of Creation in keeping with the philosophical dictates of the Enlightenment the Puritans contended that God had created a hierarchy of humanity from high to low.  As John Winthrop, lawyer and first governor of the Puritan colony at Massachusetts Bay said in his famed sermon, “City upon a Hill”, preached in 1630, ‘God almighty in His most holy and wise providence hath so disposed of the condition of mankind as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity, others mean and in subjection’[10]  Winthrop’s vision of a “City upon a Hill” is one of the earliest expressions of American Exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny.  

Taking the biblical account of the Exodus as their template the Puritans saw themselves as the people of the New Exodus, having fled European religious persecution, they crossed the Jordan of the Atlantic to possess the Promised Land of the New World, destined to be God’s new chosen people.  To be part of this divinely chosen race one had to embrace its edicts.  Called by God, created for divine purpose, predestined to greatness, bound by covenant, the Puritans would define themselves as divinely privileged, and so defend the debasement and enslavement of their black chattels. 

Theologically justified racism was an orthodoxy for the Puritans that led to an inevitable oppression and exploitation of black people.  For example, English Divine and father of the First Great Awakening, George Whitefield, though he opposed unnecessary cruelty to slaves, was gifted a South Carolina plantation and many slaves.  He had funded his Bethesda orphanage in Savannah, Georgia, through another plantation he owned in the state.  When the colony of Georgia sought to enforce laws outlawing slavery Whitefield protested.  He wrote, ‘the constitution of the colony is very bad, as it is impossible for the inhabitants to subsist without the use of slaves.’[11]  His problem was solved when, according to a letter he wrote in 1748, ‘... God has put it into the hearts of my South Carolina friends [Hugh and Jonathan Bryan], to contribute liberally towards purchasing, in [South Carolina] a plantation and slaves, which I purpose to devote to the support of Bethesda. Blessed be God! the purchase is made.’[12]  In what would become a hallmark of Protestant dualism, Whitefield deftly excused himself from judging the institutionalisation of slavery while urging personal moral responsibility on those who owned slaves, to treat them well.  He wrote, 

Whether it be lawful for Christians to buy slaves, and thereby encourage the nations from whence they are brought to be at perpetual war with each other, I shall not take upon me to determine; but sure I am it is sinful, when bought, to use them as bad as, nay worse than brutes: and ... I fear that the generality of you that own negroes are liable to such a charge . . . [13] 

This separation of the institutional from the personal leads to what Douglas calls ‘Christianity’s fatal flaws when it comes to the black body, even as we come to appreciate the collective theological consciousness that has perhaps allowed for Christian participation in acts as vile as lynching’ and ‘a theology that has fostered collusion with white racism’. [14]  As I will later show, when the economic and social status quo of white privilege is threatened then black bodies are expendable, piety notwithstanding.  Douglas’ prognostication about lynching will prove correct. 

Perhaps the most insidious influence of the Puritan theologians was that, unlike the Southern plantation owners, they never sought to ultimately justify slavery by appealing in the first instance to economic necessity.  On the contrary, their racism was embedded in their theology.  The import of this is extraordinary as it reflects the way in which American Protestantism would continue its theological justification of racism after Reconstruction.  Consider also how the pieties of personal prayer and reflection played such a serious and integral role in Puritan spirituality as they sort to understand and then act according to the will of God.  This type of piety surrounds the first Act legalizing slavery in America, which was passed by the Massachusetts Puritans in 1641 before any of the Southern colonies.[15]  

It is important to note the continued progression of Puritan racism through post-Civil War theological anthropology and the practices of American Protestantism.  Though the Civil War changed the institutional face of slavery and named the racism that fuelled it, the Puritan racist dogma remained in place.  Arguably, the theology of white supremacy became even more sharply focused in the post-Civil War era. 

How does the Blues respond? 

Blues is not merely an abstract expression of a musical genre but a particular social codification which, among other things, explores divine/human relationships and identity.  As such, Blues gives an account of interpersonal relationships expressed from within and through a specific historic, cultural, and social context.  The Blues, like all traditions, has a way of conceiving and understanding individuality, personhood, and social identity.[16]  By considering the determinate social world of the Blues we can discern a context for understanding the theological account of individuality and human personhood that is inherent in Blues lore and literature. 

Blues has its own semiotic code and semantic system, most often articulated through a process that is loaded with moral content and theological implications called ‘signifyin’,[17] a form that involves ‘double speak’ (or entrendre) and vernacular commentary that avoids formal or elitist speech.[18]  Signifyin’ is also a way of encoding a specific message within a shared framework of cultural knowledge that in turn enables the decoding of the message.  As Garman and Galloway-Thomas note, ‘Theoretically, signifying as a concept can be used to give meaning to rhetorical acts of African Americans and indicate a Black presence. Rhetorically, one can also explore texts for the manner in which the themes or worldviews of other texts are repeated and revised with a signal difference but based on shared knowledge.’[19] 

The Blues’ hermeneutical goal is not knowledge acquisition but discernment.  As Kelly Brown Douglas notes ‘discerning an intended message requires hearing beyond the words and reading between the lines of the words’ performance.  In order to do this one must be versed, to some degree, in certain cultural protocols, symbols, gestures, conventions, and habits.’[20]  The Blues, right from its slave origins, uses signifyin’ to codify its ‘truth’ to discerning listeners while concealing it from those who might do harm or pose threat.  In this way it sends public messages to a discrete community and at the same time exposes and inverts the exploitative dynamics of social and religious power. [21] 

A signifyin’ reading of the Blues requires knowledge of black existence and experience.  It requires a shift from cerebral and abstracted knowledge to the everyday embodied knowledge of lived experience.[22]   As Christianity became an essential part of black life and world-view it shaped the way in which this lived experience was articulated and understood.  Pastorally, the Blues gives voice to suffering.  Prophetically it names both oppression and oppressor.  

While these stylistic references have been easily recognised by a cursory reading of Blues lyrics their significance as signifiers has often been missed or downplayed.  This is particularly evident among those Blues and religion scholars who have bifurcated this traditional music into sacred (Gospel) and the ‘devil’s music’ (Blues).  To suggest that there are such simple and clear distinctions between the sacred and the secular is reductionist and misleading.  Blues is an expression of theological realism that exposes and challenges what Rod Grover calls, ‘the moral prison of America’s Puritan ethos’ and as such ‘maintains a unified worldview …. that does not distinguish between the realm of the gods and that of humans.’[23]  Kelly Brown Douglas argues that the Blues, while not a mirror image of black culture, ‘does capture a profound side of black existence that other forms of black expressive culture do not.’[24]  The commonality of the Blues and Gospel or, as Cone names them, the secular spirituals and the sacred spirituals is that they ‘flow from the same bedrock of black experience’ and they are ‘impelled by the same search for truth.’ [25]  Both the spirituals and the Blues emerge from the same cultural and historic space and respond directly to the existential realities of their exponents.  Faced with the brutalities of slavery and its multitudinous ways of dehumanization, the Blues systematically challenged, resisted, and reshaped traditional Christian teachings, thus developing its own imaginative and constructive theology, grounded in the Blues’ signifyin’ hermeneutical tradition. 

Blues signifyin’ as a theological method 

In a fascinating and insightful analysis of Bessie Smith’s 1923 recording of “Down Hearted Blues” Kelly Brown Douglas demonstrates how signifyin’ uses double-talk to hide and reveal ‘truths’ that are essentially theological in their focus.  Drawing on Gates’ semiotic theories she shows how blues ‘speaks in ways that are decipherable by knowers of black culture but inaccessible to those outside it.  Through the art of blues signifyin’, black people speak to one another about difficult black truths.’[26]  Douglas also notes that Blues is performance-based and is thus meant to be heard, not just read.  The music and the lyrics form a whole, weaving patterns of meaning shaped by rhythm, bodily expression, exchanges between performer and audience, gestures, and sound.  Nonetheless, it is possible to appreciate the importance of signifyin’ by a consideration of the lyrics. 

“Down Hearted Blues" was co-written by two women of the Classic Blues era, Alberta Hunter and Lovie Austin[27].  Its key signifyin’ motif is in the closing line, ‘I’ve got the world in a jug, the stopper’s in my hand.’  Without an understanding of this image, the song’s meaning is lost and devolves into an isolated, generic lament. 

Gee, but it's hard to love someone 
When that someone don't love you 
I'm so disgusted, heartbroken, too 
I've got those down-hearted blues 

Once I was crazy 'bout a man 
He mistreated me all the time 
The next man I get has got 
To promise me to be mine, all mine 

Trouble, trouble, I've had it all my days 
Trouble, trouble, I've had it all my days 
It seems that trouble's going to follow me to my grave 

I ain't never loved but three men in my life 
I ain't never loved but three men in my life 
My Father, my brother and the man that wrecked my life 

It may be a week, it may be a month or two 
It may be a week, it may be a month or two 
But the day you quit me honey, it's coming home to you 

I got the world in a jug, the stopper's in my hand 
I got the world in a jug, the stopper's in my hand 
I'm going to hold it until you come under my command 

At first glance, it seems to be yet another song about love gone wrong.  A wounded, heartbroken woman abandoned by her man, victim of his infidelities.  She only wants a man who is faithful to her, but she’ll avenge her betrayal if provoked.  She is no compliant mistress in fact she claims ultimate control.  Read literally, it seems straightforward.  

Existentially, the experience narrated in the song (verses 1 & 2) is deeply personal, 

Gee, but it's hard to love someone 
When that someone don't love you 
I'm so disgusted, heartbroken, too 
I've got those down-hearted blues 

Once I was crazy 'bout a man 
He mistreated me all the time 
The next man I get has got 
To promise to be mine, all mine 

but then it appeals to a more universal world of trouble (verse 3) 

Trouble, trouble, I've had it all my days 
Trouble, trouble, I've had it all my days 
It seems that trouble's going to follow me to my grave 

As Douglas notes, when you listen to Smith’s recording at this point you hear a significant vocal shift in the bridge.  There is a keening, resentful yet defiant unveiling of trouble.  It marks a shift from the personal to the universal.  It is the first signifier in the song, exposing the ever-present ‘trouble’ of black existence in a hostile white world.  It shows how personal troubles are embedded in a ‘world’ of troubles that are not merely personal.  Understood in its historic context of the Black South in 1923 it shifts the cause of personal troubles back to white society that encroaches on and seeks to control all aspects of black life.  The signifier that clearly connects the personal problems of black women to a wider context is in the closing verse, 

I got the world in a jug, the stopper's in my hand 
I got the world in a jug, the stopper's in my hand 
I'm going to hold it until you men come under my command

The jug in the song is a reference to the Face Jugs of West African cosmology, originating among the Kongo[28] people.  Face Jug is a descriptor given by white potters in the late 19th century to describe these artefacts.  To the Kongo they were called nkisi and were containers for ancestral and other spirits.  The nganga, or diviner, would fill the nkisi with ancestral bones, teeth, and other magical objects, always adding white river clay that would be conjured and activate the objects.  The spirits would then enter the jug and could be trapped or contained for later use.  In West African religion, and later in Blues theology, these jugs symbolised and actualised the power of the cosmos over the mundane and circumstantial.  Jug shards have been found at slave burial sites, along underground railway routes, and were often used in place of headstones as grave markers, and totems to ward off evil spirits.  Jugs were also a powerful conjuring tool and were used to ward off or kill an enemy.  All you had to do was ‘get some of his old dirty clothes and cork them up tightly in a brown jug.  Bury this jug in a graveyard on the breast of the grave.  In nine days your enemy will be dead.’[29] 

One of the powers of the Jug was the ability to set things straight in the universe by subduing evil.  Rejecting the Augustinian accounts of evil that dominated Euro-centric Christianity, the Blues understood evil as that which created disharmony between human and divine relationships.  Sin as a Blues theological construct is better understood as the betrayal of relationship rather than the breaking of arbitrary moral laws.  Hence Jugs were a symbolic representation of restoring harmony by ‘corking’ evil and righting wrongs. 

“Down Hearted Blues” was the “B” side of Bessie Smith’s first recording in 1923.  Columbia Records recorded Smith singing “Gulf Coast Blues”, with “Down Hearted Blues” on the flip side, and it became the most successful recording of its time.  Within 6 months 780,000 copies were sold, rising to 2 million sales in total.  When Frank Walker, Columbia’s producer of the record, was asked why it was such a hit he quoted the lyric, ‘I’ve got the world in a jug, the stopper’s in my hand’ and added ‘that did it … it made the record a hit’.  Little did he realise that the song opened a powerful doorway of understanding in the black community. 


"Down Hearted Blues"  contains many of the theological elements associated with human identity and divine purpose, themes I will explore in later blogs.  The power to contain and subdue evil, the restless human spirit, the power of human sexuality and desire, the enduring nature of filial love, the quest for revenge, the search for belonging, eschatological hope, are all there, as are the undoubted powers of black women (archetypal Eves?) over men, despite contrary appearances.  The signifyin’ of the power of the white world locked up in a jug, the stopper in the hands of a black woman expressed not only in the lyrics but in the music itself.  Smith’s vocals begin with pathos and end with defiance.  This is Blues theology at its best! 


[1] William R. Jones, Is God a White Racist: A Preamble to Black Theology, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998), 3-70 

[2] Spencer, Blues and Evil, 74 

[3] Forrest G. Wood, The Arrogance of Faith: Christianity and Race in America from the Colonial Era to the Twentieth Century. New York, NY: Knopf, 1990) 

[4] Paul R Griffin, Seeds of Racism in the Soul of America, (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2000) 

[5] Adam Gussow, Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2017) 

[6] Ibid., 6. Ironically, Gussow proceeds for the next four hundred pages or so to ignore exactly what Spencer asserts.  He deals with religion and the Blues phenomenologically, never theologically. 

[7] Spencer, Blues and Evil, xxi 

[8] Paul R. Griffin, “Protestantism and Racism”, in Alister E. McGrath and Darren C. Marks (eds) The Blackwell Companion to Protestantism (Oxford, UK: 2004 Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004), 359 

[9] Martin Luther King, Jr. Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1958), 167 

[10] John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity” in Stewart Mitchell (ed.), Winthrop Papers 1623–30 (New York, NY: Russell and Russell,1931), 282–93 

[11] Luke Tyerman, The Life of the Rev. George Whitefield (London: Hodder and Stoughton), II, 169. 

[12] Op.Cit. 

[13] The Works of the Rev. George Whitefield, M.A. (London, 1771) IV, 29 

[14] Douglas, What’s Faith Got to Do with It, 134-135 

[15] William H. Whitmore, The Colonial Laws of Massachusetts (Boston: Rockwell and Churchill, 1890) 

[16] This is not to suggest a sequential process beginning with radical individuality that then determines personhood and subsequently social identity. 

[17] Signifyin’ is a literary theory developed by African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jnr, based on the work of semiotician Ferdinand de Soussure.  In his work The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism Gates traces the origins of the African-American cultural practice of signifying in West African folk-lore.  Signifyin’ uses an elaborate, intricate form of goading through often profane language and action.  Gates shows how it functions as a metaphor for formal revision, or inter-textuality, within the Afro-American literary tradition and is used as an intentional oppositional tool. 

[18] Kelly Brown Douglas, Black Bodies and the Black Church (New York, NY:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) 12 

[19] Thurmon Garner and Carolyn Calloway-Thomas, "African American Orality." Understanding African American Rhetoric: Classical Origins to Contemporary Innovations, ed. by Ronald L. Jackson II and Elaine B. Richardson. (Routledge 2003) 43? 

[20] Douglas, Black Bodies 12-22 

[21] ‘In black music, Jazz Gillum, Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, Oscar Brown, Jr., Little Willie Dixon, Nat King Cole, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, and Johnny Otis – among others – have all recorded songs called “The Signifying Monkey” or simply “Signifyin’” 

[22] Theologians exploring the Blues, informed by a platonized and dualistic epistemology, have often ignored or denounced physical embodiment in favour of an abstracted soul whose well being is dependant on an equally abstracted morality.[22]  In continuing to embrace the 18th century Enlightenment view of radically autonomous individualism they have ignored the concrete world of the Blues artist as a legitimate source of theological anthropology, choosing rather to accept the dichotomies inherent in dualism. 

[23] Gruver, Rod, “The Blues as Secular Religion” in Write Me a Few of Your Lines, ed. Steven C. Tracy (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999) 224 

[24] Douglas, Black Bodies, xv 

[25] Cone, The Spirituals, 111 

[26] Douglas, Black Bodies, 14 

[27] Songwriters: Lovie Austin / Alberta Hunter Down Hearted Blues lyrics © BMG Rights Management US, LLC 

[28] Refers to the Kongo people group of West Africa, and is not to be confused with the geographic region known as the Congo. 

[29] Newbell Niles Tuckett, Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro (Whitefish, MT: Kissinger Pub. Rare Reprints, 1925), 243