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Images of The Apocalypse in African American Blues and Spirituals

Destruction in this Land

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Małgorzata Ziółek-Sowińska

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.

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Chapter 3.The Approaching Apocalypse: The Last Judgement and The Book of Revelation in Spirituals and Blues Recorded by Blues Musicians

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Chapter 3.   The Approaching Apocalypse: The Last Judgement and the Book Of Revelation In Spirituals and Blues Recorded by Blues Musicians

The vivid imagery of the Last Days from the Book of Revelation profoundly stirred the imagination of blues singers. The motifs of the end of time found reflection in spirituals performed by many blues artists in five decades of the twentieth century—from the 1920s till 1960s. This chapter analyzes the signs of the impending Apocalypse, the images of humanity’s final days and visions of Christian Judgement in selected spirituals and blues texts. We will see that some spiritual songs are frequently constructed as a sermon in which the singer, who assumes the role of a Christian preacher—aims to, on the one hand, frighten sinners and warn them about the Day of Doom; on the other hand, however, his goal is to spread the message of spiritual conversion before the unexpected arrival of the Lord of the Apocalypse.

Although there is a widespread belief that religious themes are rare in blues, selected blues lyrics will be discussed to show the presence of Apocalyptic tropes and themes connected with the end of time, visions of the Last Judgement, Christian conversion and death. I will analyze blues texts such as Big Bill Broonzy’s “Preaching the Blues,” Roy Brown’s “Judgement Day Blues,” and Lewis Bronzeville Five’s “Mississippi Fire Blues” and “Natchez Mississippi Blues.”

In some spirituals bluesmen used specific symbolism from...

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