Images of The Apocalypse in African American Blues and Spirituals

Destruction in this Land

by Małgorzata Ziółek-Sowińska (Author)
©2017 Monographs 136 Pages
Series: New Americanists in Poland, Volume 7


This book explores the recurrence of Apocalyptic motifs and imagery in blues and spirituals recorded by blues musicians. It looks at the ways in which Black Americans portray Apocalypse ideas about the Last Judgement from the Book of Revelation. It also focuses on how literary themes in spirituals and blues depict the destruction of the world, death, Christian judgement, heaven and catastrophic events in personal lives of African Americans that result in loss. Selected blues lyrics and texts of spirituals show the persistence of these themes. The book was written with a broad potential audience in mind especially among those interested in religion, eschatology, spirituals, blues and African American studies.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. The Spiritual Dimension of the Emergent Blues
  • Political and Social Conditions of Black Americans in the South after the Emancipation Proclamation and the Rise of Blues
  • Spirituals and the Blues: African Antecedents and New World Realities
  • Religion and the Blues
  • Chapter 2. Visions of the Apocalypse and Cataclysmic Events in Religious Disaster Songs and the Blues
  • The Power of Apocalyptic Rhetoric and the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking in the Blues
  • Cataclysmic Events and Apocalyptic Imagery in Religious Disaster Songs
  • Natural Calamities and Apocalyptic Themes in Blues Lyrics Recorded by Women in the 1920s and 1930s
  • Natural Disasters and Apocalyptic Imagery in Blues Lyrics Recorded by Men in the 1920s and 1930s
  • Chapter 3. The Approaching Apocalypse: The Last Judgement and The Book of Revelation in Spirituals and Blues Recorded by Blues Musicians
  • Signs of the Forthcoming Apocalypse and Last Judgement in Spirituals Performed by Bluesmen
  • Images of the Apocalypse and Last Judgement in Selected Blues Lyrics
  • Symbolism from the Book of Revelation in Blind Willie Johnson’s “John the Revelator,” Son House’s “John the Revelator” and Blind Gary Davis’s “I’m Gonna Meet You at the Station”
  • Chapter 4. Images of Death and Heaven in Spirituals and Blues Recorded by Blues Musicians
  • Images of Death in Spirituals
  • Visions of Death in Blues Lyrics
  • Images of Heaven and the Afterlife in Spirituals Recorded by Bluesmen
  • Epilogue
  • Bibliography

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This book has been made possible with the collaborative effort and help of many people who supported me during my work on this project. Thus, I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to those who have enabled me to complete this book.

A very special thanks must go to Cheryl Adams—the librarian whom I met when I was conducting research at the Library of Congress in Washington D. C and thanks to whom I was able to collect books, scholarly articles and other materials that have proved necessary for this book. I wish to express my deep gratitude to Cheryl Adams as it is my belief that without her help with collecting all the materials, I would not have been able to discuss the topic of my book with such detail and insight.

I would also like to express my deepest gratitude to my mentor and friend, Dr. Miles White, who has encouraged me in my work throughout the last years. Thanks to him I gained knowledge about the culture and music of black Americans. I am deeply indebted to Dr. White as has offered me his much needed assistance, and has read the entire text of this book, providing necessary critical comments. I also value his encouragement as he never doubted that my book would bring new insights towards a better understanding of the close relationship between spirituals and deep religious themes in the blues.

Further thanks go to my friend, Professor Ewa Łuczak, who has offered constant words of encouragement and support and who has always been a source of motivation for me. I express gratitude for the knowledge gained from numerous informal conversations with her. Her critical comments pertaining to my work and her passion for the culture of Black Americans inspired me in various ways and contributed to the broadening of the ideas dealt with in this book. Another person who deserves many thanks is my friend, Professor Andrea O’Reilly Herrera who has been a source of encouragement, tremendous support and who had strong faith that this work would be completed.

I would like to thank my colleagues Justyna Wierzchowska and Katarzyna Cybulska who have been encouraging me throughout my journey to complete this work. I would also like to express my gratitude to Professor Bohdan Szklarski—the director of the American Studies Center at Warsaw University, who urged the publication of this book. My gratitude is also due to Professor Tomasz Basiuk for reading the manuscript and his valuable comments and suggestions. ← 7 | 8 →

Finally, I wish to say thanks to my family and friends for their words of encouragement, for all those who firmly believed that my book would be completed. To my husband Bartłomiej Sowiński, my mother, Halina Ziółek, my mother-in-law, Iwona Sowińska, in particular. To my Polish and American friends Katarzyna Bartoszcze, Andrzej Woźniak, Anna Karaś, Pamela and Tim Peckinpaugh, Carolyn McComas, Vince and Linda Vaise, who in different ways have contributed to the completion of this book.

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My book, Images of the Apocalypse in African American Blues and Spirituals: “Destruction in this Land” will explore the recurrence of Apocalyptic motifs and imagery in blues and spirituals recorded by blues musicians. Apocalyptic themes in black American blues have been relatively understudied in the extant literature on this style of music. There have been numerous historical books and sociological studies on the blues,1 as well as biographies of blues singers.2 Modern African American scholars such as LeRoi Jones, Albert Murray, Julio Finn, and Daphne Duval Harrison have also written valuable monographs.3

Aside from a discussion of the theology of the blues in James H. Cone’s The Spirituals and the Blues, and in the work of Jon Michael Spencer’s Blues and Evil, nothing has been written on Apocalyptic tropes and themes in the blues. Therefore, it is important to look at the blues in a new light and explore eschatological thinking and imagery in this musical idiom. I hope that my book will contribute to scholarship on spirituals and the blues as it will reveal the unknown story of these two musical styles—the preoccupation with the Apocalypse and the end of time. I believe that one aspect of the book, namely the stress on the fact that throughout the centuries black Americans were—to use Gayraud S. Wilmore’s phrase—“eschatological people,” pondering on the meaning of dying, death or life after death, makes the book unique. ← 9 | 10 →

Although blues is secular and may be regarded as often profane and spirituals are sacred and often profound, both contain Apocalyptic themes. I want to argue that a thorough examination of Apocalyptic tropes in literary themes in both traditions may be a first step to fully comprehend the meaning of Apocalyptic thinking and eschatology for African American culture. My work is concerned with revealing how “end of time thinking” was retained in the consciousness of bluesmen.

Images of the Apocalypse in African American Blues and Spirituals: “Destruction in this Land” was written with a broad potential audience in mind especially among those interested in religion, eschatology, spirituals, blues and African American studies. It is my firm belief that those who are interested in the religious dimension of black music might become the potential readers of my book. Also those who are interested in the literary tradition of black music might read a well-researched study of the language of the Apocalypse in the lyrics of blues and spirituals performed by seminal blues artists.

A word should be said here about the important characteristics of blues texts. The first salient feature of blues lyrics is their division into rhyme patterns and stanza chorus forms.4 This statement is correct for people from a literacy-based culture as not many of them have written down blues lyrics and depicted them as poetic texts.5 Before analyzing rhyme patterns and chorus forms we should be cognizant of the fact that peoples of oral-based cultures employed the different ways of word play on blues texts.6 The blues singer used the following techniques in lyrics: appropriation, phrase-formulas and borrowings, phonetic imitation, paraphrase, verbal and nonverbal substitutions, telescoping, rhythmic version, adaptation of locale and gender and lists.7 Using the above mentioned techniques a significant number of lyrics can be created and the blues singer may choose texts at any time to be suitable for a specific venue or event.8 Many blues singers altered the rhythm and lyrics of the same song for a music performance. To provide one of the examples, Son House – the Delta blues musician composed different renditions of the same song “Death Letter.” ← 10 | 11 →

In my analysis of selected blues lyrics, as my primary sources I chose blues anthologies such as The Blues Line. Blues Lyrics from Leadbelly to Muddy Waters, Eric Sackheim, ed. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1969; Macleod, R. R. Yazoo 1–20. Scotland: PAT Publications, 1988; Macleod, R. R. Yazoo 21– 83. Scotland: PAT Publications, 1992; Michael Taft, Blues Lyric Poetry: an Anthology. New York: Garland Pub., 1983; Michael Taft, Talkin’ to Myself. Blues Lyrics, 1921–1942. New York: Routledge, 2005. Doing my research I was unable to find all Apocalyptic blues lyrics in the anthologies and therefore in my work I also used texts which were reprinted in books and some were available online. I was conscious of many versions of the same song, but my book explored the lyrics from the above mentioned blues anthologies, several books and Internet sources. In my analysis of selected spirituals recorded by bluesmen I also examined texts that were included in blues anthologies, books and some that I found online.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (March)
Apocalyptic Tropes Blues and Spirituals Catastrophic Events Christian Judgement Death Heaven
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 136 pp.

Biographical notes

Małgorzata Ziółek-Sowińska (Author)

Małgorzata Ziółek-Sowińska graduated from the Institute of Art, Music Department at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, Lublin; the American Studies Center at the University of Warsaw, and from the Institute of English Studies at the University of Warsaw. She earned her Ph.D. degree from the Modern Languages Department, University of Warsaw. She teaches at the American Studies Center, University of Warsaw.


Title: Images of The Apocalypse in African American Blues and Spirituals