Spiritual Musings on the Blues

In the following essay, Rev. Darvin Adams, Ph.D., discusses the intersection of cultural analysis and theological studies in Black Theology, turning to James Cone’s seminal work, The Spirituals and the Blues. Dr. Adams’ essay reminds readers of the importance of discerning the movement of the Spirit in cultural texts, including, for this essay, the rich history of the Blues and the Spirituals. See Dr. Adams’ full bio below.

Spiritual Musings on the Blues and their Theological Place in Black Culture

De Blues ain't nothin' but a poor man's heart disease.[1]

The Blues are made by working people....When they have a lot of problems to solve about their work, when their wages are low and they don't have no way to exist hardly and they don't know which way to turn and what to do.[2]

An Introduction: Spirit and Culture

How might Christians today think through the connection of Spirit and Culture? Though certain theologians have long called people of faith to see the spiritual presence of God within cultural productions (e.g., music, film, cuisine, dance, literature), it is still common in many pockets of the Christian tradition to see a neat divide between “the Sacred” and “the Secular.” Cultural texts, within such a mindset, are thought to exist in the latter part of this binary, created by human hands instead of God. Furthermore, conservative Christians tend to be suspicious of the ability of culture to convey reliable experiences with God, especially when compared with traditionally accepted “spiritual” media, e.g., the Bible, or worship, or the sacraments.

(Photo: Boswell) Clarksdale, Mississippi

(Photo: Boswell) Clarksdale, Mississippi

When I use the word spiritual, by contrast, I am referring to the creative power and transcendent presence of the Holy Spirit. In addition to giving life to God's creation, the Holy Spirit also makes human beings spiritual, i.e., more than just our material constitution. Likewise, the Spirit cannot but pervade or be caught up in our cultural creations. As the third person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit develops our spirituality and inspires us to live a life that is pleasing to God. I say that from the outset because in order to describe any type of liberating theology or religious worldview, I believe that the Spirit must be hovering over the waters of one's cultural frame of thought. When the Holy Spirit creatively works within the human spirit, culture takes place.

Further, when the Holy Spirit interacts with the human spirit of Black people, Black culture is thereby created. Whether it be in the form of art, music, literature, poetry, dance, worship, movies, plays, sports, or other real life experiences, Black culture is created by an inspirational move of the Holy Spirit. The Black experience encompasses the totality of Black culture and vice-versa. Thus, the goal of Black Theology is to remain true to the task of describing the theological experiences of Black Americans who continue to suffer from the evils of racial discrimination and economic deprivation. This means Black theologians must seek to discover the religious depth that is present in cultural texts, including so-called “secular” Black cultural creations.

Through the practices of interpretation and reflection, Black scholars must be able to see with their third eye the unfathomable promise of their religious and cultural experiences. Theologically, the unfathomable promise is found in the Holy Spirit working in Black sacred institutions and Black secular environments. White interpretations of the Black human experience can only do so much. White scholars cannot define what it means to be Black without experiencing the oppressive treatment of one who has been birthed with Black skin. On the surface, though, they can be of help. In what follows, I will give an account of one way that Black theologians have treated two influential art forms birthed out of the Black experience: the Spirituals and the Blues. I will also describe how it is helpful to rehabilitate a stronger pneumatological (i.e., Spirit-oriented) lens for theologically analyzing culture, as a nuance and corrective to an overly christological (i.e., Christ-oriented) lens.

 The Spirit of the Black Experience and the Blues

(Photo: Boswell) Clarksdale, Mississippi - “Birthplace of the Blues”

(Photo: Boswell) Clarksdale, Mississippi - “Birthplace of the Blues”

It is not uncommon for many Christians to place the Christ, or Jesus of Nazareth, at the center of their theology. While this is fitting, it also then seems to be that Christians have a difficult time describing the role or influence of the Holy Spirit. Following the traditional Trinitarian formulation, Christians typically can speak with ease about the First and Second persons of the Trinity, but the Holy Spirit, as Third Person, usually becomes murkier and difficult to articulate. In Winds of the Spirit: A Constructive Christian Theology, author Peter C. Hodgson addresses this very dynamic within the discourse of Black Theology. Hodgson cites the example of theologian Theo Witvliet, who pushed against what he described as the christocentrism of the preeminent Black theologian James Cone. Hodgson notes, “[Witvliet] thinks that the focus of the black experience may be more pneumatological than christological, and that it is ‘the renewing power of the Spirit in the praxis of Jesus of Nazareth” that often receives great emphasis and articulation in the Black church tradition.[3] This particular view, oriented toward the presence of the Spirit, speaks to the diversity of religious thought where the Black experience is concerned.

This is not to suggest that the Black Church isn’t christological in orientation, but to highlight the manner in which the Black Church historically has also uniquely emphasized the role of the Spirit. For Witvliet, “It is the Spirit which incorporates men and women into the messianic community of the exalted Christ. If that does not happen…then a remarkably unhistorical element enters into the dialectical connection between incarnation and blackness.”[4] In support of this point, Witvliet references the work of Black South African theologian Takatso Mofokeng.[5] In following Witvliet, though, we must not underplay Cone’s attention to the Holy Spirit. Hodgson cites Cone's pneumatological language in his text, The Spirituals and the Blues, in which Hodgson recognizes that the spirituals “may in fact balance christological and pneumatological language in exemplary fashion. They are after all ‘spirituals,’ and they are deeply rooted in the spirituality of African religions.”[6]

We turn, therefore, to an important work in the corpus of Cone’s work, in which we see Cone hold together this Spirit-oriented and Christ-oriented dynamic in his theological reflections. Doing so also allows us to see how Cone’s thought also embraced the idea of examining Black cultural texts for theological reflection. In The Spirituals and the Blues, Cone examines the genesis of the spirituals in the Black experience and presents a theological extrapolation of their message about God, Christ, suffering and eschatology.

(Photo: Boswell) Clarksdale, Mississippi

(Photo: Boswell) Clarksdale, Mississippi

By examining the various messages of the Blues, Cone's interpretation is that they are “secular spirituals.”[7] Cone states, “The Blues depict the ‘secular’ dimension of black experience. They are ‘worldly’ songs which tell us about love and sex and about that other ‘mule kickin' in my stall.’ They tell us about the ‘Black Cat's Bones,’ ‘a Mojo hand,’ and ‘dese backbitin' womens tryin' fo' to steal my man.’ The Blues are about black life and the sheer earth and gut capacity to survive in an extreme situation of oppression.”[8] Cone concludes, “The Blues is about chains, bloodhounds, prisons, and the need to escape the harsh realities of inhumanity.”[9]

For Cone, the so-called secular content of the Blues, coupled with the religious orientation of the Spirituals, make up the primary ingredients that define the essence of the black experience. Cone goes further regarding the Blues:

The thing that goes into the Blues is the experience of being black in a white racist society. It is that peculiar feeling that makes you know that there is something seriously wrong with the society, even though you may not possess the intellectual or political power to do anything about it. No black person can escape the Blues, because the Blues are an inherent part of black existence in America. To be black is to be blue.[10] Leadbelly is right: ‘All Negroes like the Blues...because they was born with the Blues.’[11]

For Black folk, being victimized by the sin and evil of institutional racism (including poverty) is both a cultural experience and a theological problem. While it is true that our own cultural experiences condition and frame our encounters with the deeper levels of our human experience, theologically, our experiences as humans reared in Black culture cannot but go hand-in-hand with what it means for us to be human. Both our shared human experience with people not racialized as Black and our unique Black experience and culture impact our theological understanding of self, community, and God.

It is irresponsible and belies a white supremacist orientation to theology to demand that Black theologians ignore Black culture in their theological reflections in favor of some supposedly objective (read: white), colorblind approach to theology. This is why Black theologians should not hesitate to seek the Spiritual within and reflect theologically upon all facets of cultural productions present in the Black community that are shaping the contours of Black life. This led Cone to examine the Blues as theological texts, defying the binary mentioned at the beginning of this essay in which some theologians ignore the religious depth of so-called secular texts.

According to Cone,

The important contributions of the Blues is their affirmation of black humanity in the face of immediate absurdity. Although blacks were beaten and shot, they refused to allow their perception of black humanity to be reduced to the sum total of their brutalization. They transcended the restrictions of history by affirming that perception of black humanity revealed in and through the historical struggle of being.[12]

“Black music,” Cone goes on to write, “is unity music. It unites the joy and the sorrow, the love of and the hate, the hope and the despair of black people; and it moves the people toward the direction of total liberation. It shapes and defines black existence and creates cultural structures for black oppression.”[13] The affirmation of humanity, the persistence of hope, and the transcendence of brutalization, this all represents the movement of the Holy Spirit within and underneath Black culture.

(Photo: Boswell) Juke Joint Festival 2018 (Clarksdale, MS)

(Photo: Boswell) Juke Joint Festival 2018 (Clarksdale, MS)

Situating the Blues within Black culture, it should be noted that all forms of Black music have cultural antecedents that help to define the contours of Black culture properly speaking. The Blues are no different in that the musical contours are descriptive and visible, illuminating the existential depth of Black life in the United States. Whether we recognize the Spirit of liberation in the cultural practices of impoverished Black neighborhoods, in the cultural/decorative textures of the actual club building where the musicians perform, or in the cultural witness of the lively humanity inside the clubs, the collaboration of Spirit and culture in the Black community is critical to the existence and flourishing of the Black community. These cultural structures, which are produced under the creative inspiration of the Holy Spirit, help to define what it means to be Black.

 James H. Cone's Pneumatological Language

In The Spiritual and the Blues, Cone does not use the words “Holy Spirit.” Rather, he uses such phrases as the divine Spirit, the Spirit, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Black humanity in bondage, God’s Spirit, the Spirit of Black emotion and the spirit. By doing so, Cone shows the spiritual connection between the songs of the Black slave experience (the Spirituals) and the crusader message of the Blues as they are both representative of the creative ways Black people express their humanity in the Black religious experience. In his text, A Black Theology of Liberation, Cone concludes:

The blackness of God means that the essence of the nature of God is to be found in the concept of liberation. Taking seriously the Trinitarian view of the Godhead, black theology says that as Creator, God identified with oppressed Israel, participating in the bringing into being of this people; as Redeemer, God became the Oppressed One in order that all may be free from oppression; as Holy Spirit, God continues the work of liberation. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Creator and the Redeemer at work in the forces of human liberation in our society today. In America, the Holy Spirit is black persons making decisions about their togetherness, which means making preparation for an encounter with whites.[14]

For Cone, the work of the Holy Spirit in the context of Black oppression in the United States defines the cultural essence and spiritual substance of God’s revelation for humanity. For liberating reasons, the Spirit of God works in the life of oppressed Black people. Notice, though, in the above excerpt, how Cone works to hold together the Trinitarian formula, while giving a substantial treatment of the role of the Spirit in the liberation movement of his day.

(Photo: Boswell) Red’s Juke Joint (Clarksdale, MS)

(Photo: Boswell) Red’s Juke Joint (Clarksdale, MS)

The work of Hodgson again is helpful at this juncture. Hodgson’s survey of Black Theology turns its gaze beyond the Black experience in America to the work done by Black theologians in Africa, looking specifically at the treatment of the Spirit in certain key writings. African theologian Mercy Oduyoye argues that the spirit world is a reality in Africa, and that Christianity needs to “have room for the concept of many Christs, persons in whom the Spirit of God dwells in all its fullness.”[15] In this expansive sense of Spirit in African Christianity, emphasis is placed on the role of combat, healing, sacrifice, and the mediation of ancestors and companions. “In African Charismatic Christianity, the theology is Christocentric but with the emphasis being placed on the Holy Spirit, one reads a binitarian approach to the Godhead. In this theology, Christ and the Holy Spirit take the place of the spirit powers that are in the service of God in the traditional cosmology.”[16] The work of the Holy Spirit in the context of Black oppression defines the spiritual essence of God’s revelation and human revolution. In the generative realm of Black culture, thus, the Spirit of God creatively works on behalf of all generations of oppressed Black people.

 To conclude, we see robust ways in which Black theologians, including Cone and Oduyoye, engage the ream of the Spirit in their analyses of Black culture. These important contributions demonstrate a helpful pneumatological orientation to cultural analysis. The beauty of their work is that they deny the secular/sacred false binary, such that Cone can affirm the theological importance of Black music. He writes,

Black music is also theological. That is, it tells us about the divine Spirit that moves the people toward unity and self-determination. It is not possible to be black and encounter the Spirit of black emotion and not be moved. My purpose is to uncover the theological presuppositions of black music as reflected in the spirituals and the Blues, asking: What do they tell us about black people's deepest aspiration and devotion? I will ask questions about God, Jesus Christ, life after death, and suffering; and I will seek to investigate these questions in the light of black people's historical strivings for freedom.[17]

Cone is adamant that, “Theologically (and culturally too), there is more to be said about the music than what was revealed in the black spirituals. To be sure, a significant number of black people were confident that the God of Israel was involved in black history, liberating them from slavery and oppression.”[18] As a Christian theologian of color, I also believe that there is more to be said about how the Holy Spirit liberates and contributes to the development of Black culture. The creative development of Black culture in the United States and abroad represents one particular way in which the Spirit gives life and utterance to an oppressed group of human beings. Black theologians would do well to continue to engage contemporary expression of Black culture as they seek to gauge the way the liberating Spirit of God is moving in any of our contexts, both in America and beyond.

[1]     James H. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992), 103.

[2]     Ibid., 104.

[3]     Peter C. Hodgson, Winds of the Spirit: A Constructive Theology (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 240.

[4]     Ibid.

[5]     Takatso Mofokeng's work points to a collaborative practice of and between practical theology, reformed theology and Black Theology in South Africa. Mofokeng's sees the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the individual believer and the Christian church as transformative and developmental. Mofokeng sees African life as more so of a life that is lived in the Spirit of Christ than a life focused solely on information about the earthly life of Jesus Christ.

[6]     Peter C. Hodgson, Winds of the Spirit: A Constructive Theology, 240.

[7]     James H. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues, 97.

[8]     Ibid.

[9]     Ibid., 120.

[10]   Ibid.

[11]   Cited in Arnold Shaw, The World of Soul (New York, NY: Coronet Communications, 1971), 31.

[12]   James H. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues, 114.

[13]   Ibid., 5.

[14]   James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation: Twentieth Anniversary Edition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990), 64. Emphasis added.

[15]   Peter C. Hodgson, Winds of the Spirit, 240.

[16]   Ibid.

[17]   James H. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues, 6.

[18]   Ibid., 97.


The Reverend Doctor Darvin A. Adams I completed his Ph.D. in Theology and Ethics at the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

A native of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, Dr. Adams is a pastor in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church tradition and an elected city councilman in Hopkinsville (Ward 1).

His research interests are Contemporary Theology, Black Theology (first-generation) and Poverty, John Wesley and the Poor, Pneumatology, Black Culture, Black Religion, Slavery, Marxism and Late Capitalism, and Poetry.