Despite what the lyrics may say, at its heart the blues is fundamentally optimistic. When you experience a crisis that is too difficult to articulate fully, that seems too intractable to be resolved, the ability to give voice—rhythmically and poetically—to that frustration becomes an expression of the indomitability of the human soul. It is a fundamentally optimistic assertion about the nature of life.
The blues performer, who gives that voice, becomes, as theologian James Cone notes in his book The Spirituals and the Blues, a kind of spiritual mediator in a different kind of sacred space, and the cathartic nature of the blues is not unlike the cathartic nature of a religious service.
At its best, the blues is like good preaching. It offers the same unapologetic engagement of virtually every aspect of human life. It deals honestly with reality, leaves no stone unturned, no issue unexplored, no problem untouched, even the more difficult human emotions. In its attempt to ennoble the specific suffering of the African-American community and, by extension, the general sense of suffering humanity, it touches the human condition in an extraordinary, uplifting way.
Hugh “The Professor” Page plays harp and is the lead vocalist with the blues group The Oblates of Blues. An Episcopal priest, he also serves as dean of Notre Dame’s First Year of Studies and is the Walter associate professor of theology at the University. To hear “The Professor” and the Oblates go to www.oblatesofblues.com/OblatesMusic.htm.
Photo of Hugh Page with The Oblates of Blues by Matt Cashore