(Max Ernst, The Temptation Of St. Anthony; special thanks to D. Eric Bookhardt)
One of the wonderful things about American music is its alternately combative and reverent relationship with religion. Music, American music especially, in performance and on record, allows us revel in our cynicism, celebrate our confusion, and just maybe find some peace with the innumerable dichotomies of human existence.
For every best selling book confusing the post operative delirium of a child with the profundity of Gustav Flaubert, for every person proudly carrying a sign with a hateful message from "God" at a soldier's funeral, for every hip-hop, country and rock artist musician thanking "God" at a glitzy awards show, for every politician explaining that banging a mistress or two is the physical manifestation of their own genuinely "passionate" feelings about our country, there's a song like THIS:
Son House, "Preachin' Blues"
Blues, funk, and gospel music all speak of humankind's sometimes ambivalent, sometimes joyous relationship with God using a variety of voices, rhythms, and harmonies. But one sound that recurs as a thread connecting these disparate styles is that of a scream. A cry, half of agony and half of ecstasy, that author Michael Ventura describes so well in his essay Hear That Long Snake Moan. The feeling behind that scream is something we all share and artists as varied as Bruce Springsteen (think of the very end of "Born in the USA"), James Brown ("This Is A Man's World"), and Janis Joplin (just about everything she recorded) articulate(d) on stage and behind the mic.
Then again, there's something to be said for subtlety; when anger and agony is being held in check, and yet clearly palpable in the delivery of the song:
Meshell Ndegeocello, "Leviticus: Faggot"
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Blues, funk and - well, in the case of Tom Waits' "Way Down In The Hole", you're talking Gospel, albeit a very stylized and self-aware form of Gospel. The Blind Boys Of Alabama, The Neville Brothers, Steve Earle, and perhaps most movingly, five Baltimore teenagers Ivan Ashford, Markel Steele, Cameron Brown, Tariq Al-Sabir, and Avery Bargasse, each recorded a unique interpretation of Waits' song for the opening credits of different seasons of the HBO series The Wire. "Way Down In The Hole" was transformed from a vehicle for Waits' postmodern flim-flammery to a composition expressing a stunning range of emotional urgency and distress.
For some of us, the country seems to be losing its collective mind. But its music ain't going anywhere. It's elemental. It's probably a part of our DNA. It ain't always pretty, but it's ours to take comfort in and share.
Tom Waits, "Way Down In The Hole"