On the insert of Kate Campbell’s new album, Blues and Lamentations, the lyrics and other written information are arranged in a pattern that reminds me of a labyrinth, or at least half of one.
Labyrinths became tools for spiritual exploration in the Christian tradition during the Middle Ages. Whether laid out in stone, woven in tapestry or produced in some other medium, the purpose of a labyrinth is to lay out a physical path that can be traveled while a parallel inner path of spiritual exploration accompanies it.
Campbell has produced something like an aural labyrinth. While a traditional labyrinth leads the traveler into the center of the pattern and back out again, Campbell’s selections on Blues and Lamentations, like the lyrics on the insert, appropriately move to the center, but not back out again.
I have heard people raise the question of whether Christian blues would be an appropriate musical form. To me it has seemed that the inclusion of the lament psalms, the complaints of Jeremiah and the speculations of Ecclesiastes in the Christian canon make the answer to that question obvious.
There are 13 songs on this album, 10 of which Campbell wrote or co-wrote. Four of the songs have the words “blue” or “blues” in the title, so the motif is apparent throughout the collection. The opening song, “Miles of Blues,” paints a geographic expanse across the American landscape and establishes the settings for songs that address more specific issues.
“Genesis Blues” asserts that “Eden is down in the delta south of Memphis,” and is followed by “Freedom Train,” which opens with the Deuteronomy 34 portrait of Moses overlooking the Promised Land. So, the foundational, biblical images of creation and deliverance are pulled into the conversation by the third and fourth songs. Campbell mines her experience of living in the South skillfully, putting its distinctive traditions—from Bible stories to biscuits and gravy—on full artistic display.
The middle of the collection develops the painful themes of hard work, disappointment, lost love and death. In the midst of these themes, a surprise is offered as “Wheels Within Wheels” tells the story of Rev. Burrell Cannon. In 1902, Rev. Cannon reportedly built a flying machine based on the vision recorded in the first two chapters of the book of Ezekiel.
Some witnesses claim that Cannon’s “Ezekiel Airship” flew briefly the year before the first documented flight by the Wright Brothers. The machine was destroyed in a train crash, however, on the way to the Saint Louis World’s Fair in 1903. According to the song, Cannon interpreted the accident as a message that God did not want humans to fly, so he abandoned his project and began producing agricultural equipment.
A brief respite from the dominant pattern, blue in sound and lyric, appears in the sweet and hopeful “Lay Back the Darkness,” the 11th song on the album. This is no easy denial of suffering, though. The final verse contains both “We’re all born to trouble” and “Every new morning mercies come round.” Moses reappears in this song with its hints of salvation, but the song ends with the first half of the conditional sentence, “If I could lay down these blues for good.” No corresponding apodosis of comfort is offered.
It is too easy to attach an orthodox conclusion to the end of any expression of lament. The closing verses of many lament poems, like Psalm 13 and Psalm 28, can feel artificial. On the other hand, this well-established pattern places the desperate endings of psalms like 89 and 137 in even sharper relief.
In “Peace Comes Stealing Slow,” her final song on Blues and Lamentations, Campbell avoids such easy resolution. Reminders that the pain of war and homelessness persist lead into a final prayer: “We live in a world of trials and tribulations, people filled with hatred everywhere. So we bow our heads and we raise our voices, offer our petition in this prayer.”
This is daring, prophetic speech in a world where false gospels of success and safety seem always on the rise. Here is music to help us back onto a path that follows the way of the cross. Like half of a labyrinth, the blues lead us into the painful depths of our souls without leading us back out again.
Campbell manages to point us in a hopeful direction, and her music offers companionship for the hard, outward journey, but refuses to travel it for us.
Mark McEntire is associate professor of religion at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.