Singing the Winter Blues

More years ago than I care to count, I took a friend to see blues-bluegrass singer and guitar virtuoso Doc Watson play to a sold-out crowd in Alexandria. As Doc sauntered across the stage with his accompanist guiding him by the elbow, my friend whispered to me, “I didn’t know he was blind.” From there he mesmerized us with his flatpicking and down-to-earth style. As I recall, “Deep River Blues” was one of the tunes he performed. It has one of those choruses that is as memorable as it is simple: “Let it rain, let it pour, let it rain a whole lot more, ‘cause I got them deep river blues.”

The winter season usually brings more cold and snow than river-fillin’ buckets of rain, but it can provoke the same kind of feeling. When the deep chill settles in, we long for the spring thaw to come.

I am no expert on the blues, but it seems to me that they express not only loss, but also longing. And if that is the case, then the blues musn’t be sung just when we’re in the midst of the winter doldrums.  They belong to the believers’ repertoire because we live and sing as people who are on the way, pilgrims venturing through what is oftentimes a cold and harsh climate, longing for our true home.

The psalmist is a trusty guide in these matters. Consider how Psalm 142 opens:

“With my voice I cry out to the Lord . . .”

Why a cry? Because some trouble is causing his ‘spirit to faint’ (verses 2 and 3). As he looks about, he finds no one willing to care for him, let alone a single person who will even take notice of him. There is no glossing over the reality of loss here; it is palpable. The psalmist’s experience of loss may have centered on the opposition he endured from rival politicos, as real as you and me. Loss comes in many different shapes and forms in our lives—varying from person to person, and from one to degree to another. From the vantage point of pilgrims on the way, loss can simply signify the breadth of challenges and frustrations that often characterize and color the pilgrimage itself.

And yet loss is not the final word. “You are my refuge,” the psalmist cries out to God, “my portion in the land of the living.” When no other refuge is found, the psalmist knows the Lord will deal bountifully with him.

Jesus himself experienced the blues, in depths we can scarcely imagine. He sang them, too, I suspect, if the psalter’s laments can be seen as a kind of blues. So when we sing, we are echoing our Savior’s song.

Believers sing the blues not only when we are feeling broken down, but as an expression of our deepest longing, our most enduring expectation. It is that promise of an approaching eternal spring, bringing with it a thaw of cosmic magnitude, that makes singing the wintertime blues time well-spent.

Geoff Sackett
Dean of Students

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