The Blues and the Myth of Redemptive Violence
In the places where the blues were regularly performed in the early days, the juke joints, there was a considerable amount of violence. “Wherever the blues is played,” said Charles Love, ragtime jazzman, “there’s a fight right after.” A great deal of “cutting and shooting” went on in the juke. These could be very dangerous places; violence was widespread in country “frolics,” where blues were played. Memphis Minnie said that at juke joints she and her husband would “have to run at night when they start cutting and shooting.” Minnie herself was not averse to resorting to violence – Johnny Shines recalled, “they tell me she shot one old man’s arm off, or cut it with a hatchet…Minnie was a hellraiser, I know that!”
The mixture of letting your hair down on a Saturday night after a long week of hard labour, freedom from white supervision, alcohol and the music was an explosive one. The violence of the juke is evident from many of the blues songs – Mississippi John Hurt’s Make Me a Pallet, which talks about his “good gal” who might turn up and catch his new lover to “cut and shoot” her; Little Walter’s Boom Boom, Out Goes the Light, where the singer says “I’ve been looking for my baby all night, If I get her in my sight…Boom Boom! Out goes the light”; a popular early blues number, See See Rider 44, which says, “I’m gonna buy me a pistol, just as long as I am tall, Gonna kill my man and catch the Cannonball” – are just some examples.
Even as late as the sixties, there was violence associated with the blues. Paul Oscher was a white harmonica player for Muddy Waters for a while and recalls that everybody carried guns. He claimed that Muddy Waters always carried a .25 automatic and a .22 in his shirt pocket, not to mention the .38 in his car. Even with the band, it was said that the only reason everybody didn’t get killed was that everybody knew everybody else had a gun. Paul Butterfield, a white blues guitarist in the 60s said that many times in the Chicago blues clubs he was scared – “I saw knifings and shootings…It was a very violent scene, man.”
Violence, of course, is pretty much part of the fabric of life, and has been since Cain killed Abel. The bad guys use violence to get what they want and the good guys then need to defend themselves using violence. And so the spiral continues. There seems to be an inexorable logic about it – it’s a pity, but there it is, violence is needed to quench violence. It’s an idea that is played out night after night on our TV screens and in cinemas around the country. One of my favourite TV dramas at the moment is Justified – cool customer and lawman Raylan Givans can be relied on to sort out whatever ruthless, psychopathic criminals he comes across and it’s entirely right and proper that he pulls the trigger in order to do so, without a moment’s thought. I watched Man of Fire (2004) recently, starring Denzel Washington as a retired CIA operative who, at great personal cost goes after the kidnappers of child. He gets the job done – of course – but leaves a bloody trail of mayhem, explosions and shot-up bad guys behind him. Well, that’s what’s needed, right?
The continual diet of violence that we are exposed to, moulds our thinking, even if we don’t realize it. Quoting recent studies in the Lancet and other journals, and organizations like the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association, an article in the New York Times recently concluded that, “The weight of studies supports the position that exposure to media violence leads to aggression, desensitization toward violence and lack of sympathy for victims of violence.” At the very least we are convinced that violence is a legitimate means of bringing resolution and peace.
The myth of redemptive violence. That’s how theologian Walter Wink describes the paradigm which is reinforced in popular entertainment but which also underpins the very fabric of the modern nation-state. Wink says this is “the real myth of the modern world…the dominant religion in our society today.” Wink explores the primordial myth of ancient Babylon where creation is essentially an act of violence played out amongst the gods, where order is brought out of chaos by violent disorder. He suggests that this same myth prevails across a wide range of cultures, resulting in a view that violence in itself is not wrong, it is simply a fact – the social order depends critically on violence to suppress the powers of disorder.
He then goes on to discuss the way the Bible tells its creation story. Here we have a good God who creates a good creation, where good is prior to evil. Neither evil nor violence is part of the creation, but enter later, as a result of the first couple’s sin and the connivance of the serpent. He says “A basically good reality is thus corrupted by free decisions reached by creatures. In this far more complex and subtle explanation of the origins of things, violence emerges for the first time as a problem requiring solution.”
While we must reckon with the troublesome way violence is portrayed in the Old Testament as God-sanctioned – and easy, spiritualizing ways won’t cut it – the way of Jesus seems quite clear: love your enemies, pray for them, go the extra mile, turn the other check. All of which is followed up by the earliest Jesus-followers – St Paul, for example, with “bless people who harass you…don’t pay back evil for evil…live at peace with everyone…don’t try to get revenge for yourselves.”
Why have Jesus followers so easily made peace with war, when the New Testament and the early history of the church shows a strong commitment to peace and non-violence? Well I guess it’s not easy to disengage with the prevalent, assumed value of the need and the right of violence that is all around. Wink says that “the Myth of Redemptive Violence is the simplest, laziest, most exciting, uncomplicated, irrational, and primitive depiction of evil the world has even known.” He goes on to suggest that violence has become “pleasurable, fascinating, and entertaining,” in such a way that we are deluded into” compliance with a system that is cheating [us of our] very lives.”
The old blues songs merely reflect the violence that was and is part of society, whether as part of the oppression by whites on blacks during the Jim Crow era or within the juke. More recent songs kick back at the need for violence. Check out blues woman Caroline Wonderland’s powerful song about peace, Only God Knows When. The first verse has the great line “violence is no solution when life ain’t like you planned”, which Carolyn tells us applies to individuals and nations alike. Despite the appetite for war we’ve seen over the past ten years in the US and Britain, “There’s a hollow victory in winning, when everybody pays the cost, With retaliations by the hour, lives and generations lost”.
Or Walter Trout’s Brothers Keeper, which asks, “Are we supposed to be our brother’s keeper, Are we supposed to catch him, Catch him when he falls?” It recalls the murder of Abel by Cain, where Cain cynically asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Trout answers the question by taking us to the words of Jesus – “Jesus said to feed the hungry, Jesus said to help the poor.” Violence is not the answer to the anyone’s problems – there is another way; there is a better way. Time to see the myth of redemptive violence for what it is – destructive, life-sapping, false.
(first published at Down at the Crossroads)