A Blue Note Gospel: The Gospel Shout and the Blues Moan
By Rev. Otis Moss III
Special to UC
Scripture: Ezra 3:8-13 (NIV)
Scripture: Ezra 3:12 (OM3 Version)
The Tremé is a small section in the crescent city of New Orleans. It is an easy block and half away from the famous French Quarter. The Tremé is primarily an African American neighborhood, rich in culture, architecture, food, language and, most importantly, music.
HBO created a compelling dramatic series honoring this diverse and rich cultural gem of African-American culture and American history. The Tremé is the birthplace of jazz and it sits within an earshot of the epicenter of the cultural tsunami known as the Congo Square, where enslaved Africans, freed Haitians, Indian traders and French colonists unknowingly consummated a relationship that gave birth to "Jazz" -- a cultural legacy. In the days of slavery, people in the public square had never seen nor will witness again, this cultural musical breach birth known as Jazz. They could not distinguish between the Gospel Shout and the Blues moan.
In the thick humid air of Louisiana, the rhythms of Africans mingled with Haitian, Creole, French New World songs, Indian syncopations and French chamber music to produce, "Jazz." The basis of this unique democratic sound was what scholars call the "Blue Note." Chords and rhythms fused in the voices of a people ripped from the womb of their cultural mother, forced to nurse from the dysfunctional breast of chattel slavery, and ingest the cancerous milk produced by the insanity of racism. As if it was a normative reality ordained by creation -- they could not distinguish between the Gospel Shout and the Blues moan.The Tremé and all Southern neighborhoods formed by the spirit of New World Africans is saturated with Blue Note tonality, produced by a people who have seen the horror of humanity gone awry, and watched the beauty of redemption and grace meet in unlikely corridors, once exclusive havens for hate and harm.
In the Tremé and all places where Africans gathered across the expanse of North America, the Blue Note can be heard in song, speech, prose, poetry, sermon; even our food has the sorrow of yesterday with a Blue Note testimony. The delightful delicacy called "gumbo" is more than a meal, but a sermon of resistance. Women unable to feed the bellies of hungry children, were forced to rummage through garbage, and by the grace of God, and anointed creativity, found leftovers okra, rice, tomato, a scrap of pork and a fragment of shrimp to create a meal we call gumbo. Now, today, Paula Deen, Wolfgang Puck, and Emerile LaGasse will charge you $20 a bowl to serve you this culinary testimony. The spicy smell of gumbo brings a smile to the diner's face, but this delightful delicacy was birthed by the Blue Note.
The Blue Note is the major artery of our culture. It is not a single style of music but the spiritual heartbeat of a people who know what it is to live on the B-side of life, and live as seventh sons and daughters in a new world they helped to build. And they could not distinguish between the Gospel Shout and the Blues moan.
What is the Blue Note? It is who we are as a people. A people who look through the lens of the Blue Note, know, joy is married to sorrow and tragedy is forever engaged to triumph. Life with her sweet brutality and bitter blessings reminds us, praise and pain are first cousins, and worship and weeping constantly flirt with each other. The accurate hermeneutic for searching the biblical landscape is from the balcony of the Blue Note Gospel.
Thomas Wiggins, known as "Blind Tom," born in 1849 in Columbus, GA was born blind but at the age of seven, this enslaved African could flawlessly play spirituals and European classical music. He made his way into the "big house," listened to Beethoven and Chopin, and it is alleged, he memorized over 8,000 compositions. One reviewer stated they had never heard a person play with such skill and beauty; they said, anytime Blind Tom played, tears would begin to flow. Many music critics could not understand how this untrained, blind black man could play this beautiful music but I would suggest, Blind Tom, had the Blues flowing in his spirit and it would make its way into the concert hall, and touch the souls of people who did not see Blind Tom as a full person.