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The Blues & Gospel: A Tale Of Saturday Night Versus Sunday Morning

Jorge Cortell
Flickr - Creative Commons

As Christmas approaches it seems an appropriate time to discuss and listen to the music that is certainly the closest kin to the Blues: Gospel.

The Saturday night Blues world has long been vexed by the Sunday morning world of Gospel. There have always been people who do both styles of music comfortably. Yet others believed that the Blues was the Devil’s music and if one crossed over into Blues they were surely doomed to Hell.

This belief has been a thorn in the side of many.

It’s a split that had devastating effects on more than one relationship, dividing husbands and wives, parents and children, and previously tight friends.

When The Staple Singers had their major hits with “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There,” they faced diminished audiences in their traditional Gospel venues and even received boos in places where they had been wildly cheered. All this over songs that could easily be seen as having dual, Saturday night/Sunday morning meaning.

Howlin’ Wolf had even more disturbing difficulties playing the Blues. He had a terrible relationship with his very religious mother Gertrude even before he started to play. Once, when he was a young boy, she threw him out of the house for refusing to work on the farm. Wolf ran away from home when he was 13 and went years without seeing Gertrude. When he did, it was a trip he made to his Mississippi hometown while at the peak of his success. Proud of his success, he tried to help her financially, putting a $100 bill in her pocket. She ripped it out, threw it to the floor and said she would not accept any money made by playing the “Devil’s music.” Howlin’ Wolf anguished over the relationship his entire life.

Another victim of the religious divide was Son House. In early life House had a great opposition to secular music and became a pastor with his own church. But at age 25 House was drawn into the Blues and to his own horror, he became a heavy drinker and played the most secular of Blues music. To the end of his life Son House would swing wildly from one extreme to the other, even inserting short sermons during Blues concerts and agonizing about how he was doomed by his Blues playing and lifestyle, yet he played the Blues to the end of his life. It has been said that the power paradoxically contained in his unique and seemingly fragile voice was the product of his tortured soul and it cannot be denied that the ghost like singing of Son House is one of the Blues’ great treasures.

Many others can tell similar unfortunate stories of the wrestling they have done with the question of the secular verses the sacred. Many more have no problem with crossing the divide.

One artist who moves back and forth with ease is Catfish Keith whose new album, A True Friend is Hard to Find on the Fish Tail label is a collection of very well performed Gospel. Catfish brings his quirky and delightful guitar playing and distinctive voice to the effort and the results are worth a listen. Tune in to the Nine O’clock Blues this week and I’ll play a sampler set from A True Friend is Hard to Find.

Also on this week’s program we’ll hear from the 1950s and 60s star Dion. Both as a solo artist and with his group, Dion and the Belmonts, Dion DiMucci has had many hits and has been a major influence on many artists including Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and Lou Reed.

After a series of changes that took Dion down the roads of Doo Wop, Teeny Pop, ballads and more, Dion has now taken a path that walks the line between the secular and sacred that I discussed earlier as he practices a ministry that reaches out to people attempting to recover from addiction.   At the same time he has embarked on a series of albums that explore the Blues.   This week we’ll hear a track from Dion’s Tank Full of Blues.

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