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Healing Power of the Blues

Even very early in life, spirituals and blues music spoke to me on a very deep level. But why? I was from a middle class family of non-African descent, and most of my family memories involve games and laughter. What was it about blues music in particular that has always resonated with me?

Despite the family joyfulness and comfortable life I remember having, there was also always a deep unspoken sorrow that rarely surfaced. As the youngest in the family, born when my parents were older, quite a few years after the rest of my siblings, I was insulated from much of it.

My dad was born in 1918 in the Crimea, and as a result of the political instability that came along with the Russian Revolution he would lose his father when he was barely a year old to bandits who were aligned with the Bolsheviks. The family ran a store, and later when the store burned down all of the records of their debtors burned with it. The creditors, however, managed to remember the debt the family owed, and they lost the store not long after losing their dad. They were among a group of German-speaking pacifists who had been invited to farm in Russia in 1763 by Catherine the Great.

Robbed of their dad by bandits, and left without financial support partly by the machinations of their own community, my father and his 5 brothers and sister and mother were soon displaced and began their long journey as refugees. Eventually they came to Canada, and were granted land to farm (another story) by the Canadian government – just prior to the Great Depression.

They survived near-starvation and ultimately most of them moved off the farm and found work in cities. A fresh wound would be opened for the family in 1956, however.

I knew my dad’s brothers growing up, but never met his sister. One day when I was quite young and we were visiting with the uncles, I asked about where she was. Nobody answered. Everyone just turned ashen and looked away. It would be quite some time before I would find out that my Dad’s sister, her husband, and daughter were murdered in Vancouver. David and Helen Pauls and their daughter Dorothy were brutally killed and the identity of their killer was never discovered. Helen had worked at the docks, and her bosses were Russian, so one source of family suspicion was that Russian spies had been behind the killing when they discovered that Helen understood something of the Russian language conversations they had. Another source of suspicion was a member of their faith community, who had demonstrated violent tendencies and emotional instability but had escaped consequences due to a somewhat misplaced notion of ‘forgiveness’.

In any case, this was the subsurface emotional reality in my household, and I wonder if I sensed it. When my mother died of cancer when I was 12, I experienced a personal loss as well. The only grandparent I had ever known, her mom, had died about a year or so prior. So maybe that has something to do with why I always loved the blues. The blues, unlike other music, recognizes the reality of loss and injustice and wrong, but true blues music doesn’t glorify any of that. It’s like a recognition of realities that many of us prefer not to see, and bringing that reality into ‘the light’ allows for a feeling of relief and of peace.

Here are my lyrics;

Healing Power of the Blues

Your words exposed a wound
that I’d denied was there.
At first I thought the pain
was more than I could bear.
But when, what I’d been hiding,
was in the open air –
it finally started healing.
I got back some feeling.
The power of the blues was everywhere.

The blues, they have a power
to purify a soul-
like an old-time gospel hour
or like losing all your gold.
When you know a kind of peace
in the middle of bad news,
you know the healing power of the blues.

The analyst may say I need some sessions-
that my nature needs some nurture,
or my soul requires confession.
Bruised ego may be what behind my trauma,
or unconscious childhood forces may be causing inner drama –

But when I’m in the darkness,
clouds hanging ’round my head-
I’m drowning in my misery
while lying there in bed-
I’ll put aside the bottle,
take up the blues instead.
There I’ll find a peace,
like a prisoner released
from the chains those faithful blues helped me to shed.

When times were good, I could fool myself
that everything was fine-
while I was dying a bit at a time.
Then suddenly, the ground broke away,
and I was falling through-
when I was saved by the power of the blues.

The blues, they have a power
to purify a soul-
like an old-time gospel hour
or like losing all your gold.
When you know a kind of peace
in the middle of bad news,
you know the healing power of the blues.

When you know a kind of peace
in the middle of bad news,
you know the healing power of…
the blues.

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