Scott Black Johnston: Mercy Mercy!


When my wife and I married a little over 22 years ago, I got the Blues.

I wasn't depressed - not at all. I was receiving a gift. One of the many blessings that came from marrying Amy was being immersed in the music that she loves.


As we set up our first apartment, my bride unpacked two boxes of vinyl LPs. Before long, the scratchy, low-down tones of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton and Robert Cray were bouncing off our cinderblock walls.

Amy schooled me in the Blues.

The Blues have their roots in the music and experience of African American communities in the "Deep South." In these incubators, the spirituals and work songs of slaves became the backbone of a new music. With a 12-bar chord progression and stirring narratives, Blues ballads offer unvarnished accounts of suffering and hardship. It is pleading, blunt, from-the-heart music. And it grabbed me.

Amy showed me how the Blues were the rich soil out of which jazz, R&B and rock & roll grew. Everyone from Elvis to the Beatles, from Bob Dylan to Bono owes their sound and their soul to the Blues. Over time, I would listen to Chicago Blues, Memphis Blues, Delta Blues, Jump Blues, Vaudeville Blues and Texas Blues.

Hearing all these songs, you quickly discover that the cause of a singer's suffering - and hence the subject of a classic Blues song - varies a lot. Music critic Edward Comentale observes that a Blues singer may feel assailed by "a feeling, a mood, a nameless threat, a person, a lover, a boss man, a mob, and, of course, the Devil himself."

In the face of these antagonists and tormentors, the singer cries out for help. In "Cross Roads Blues," Robert Johnson - the "great" Robert Johnson - sings this plaintive refrain:

 I went down to the crossroad, fell down on my knees

I went down to the crossroad, fell down on my knees

Asked the Lord above, "Have mercy now

Save poor Bob if you please." 

Maybe you have sung this song, too. Or something like it. The power of Blues lies in its ability to name our suffering. It lies in connecting with those times when we want to slip our name into the final verse: "Have mercy now, save poor Scott or Jim or Beth or Janet if you please."

One of the great blessings of our faith is that it encourages us to sing the Blues. More than a third of the Biblical psalms are psalms of lament. Last Sunday we heard the scratchy, low-down tones of Psalm 13, and we sang along. Because, as Amy will testify, it is crucially important that everyone know how to sing the Blues.

Taken with permission from Scott's blog, Sharp About Your Prayers.