Dr. Craig Werner is a professor of African-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin who was written several books – two of which are essential to understanding the power of black music in American life: A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race, and the Soul of America and Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul.
Most of the courses he teaches are about black music and African-American literature, but right now he is offering a seminar on the music of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Dr. Werner recently read my book, Working On a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen, along with the handful of articles I’ve written about Bob Dylan’s too often overlooked Christian music. He invited me to visit Madison, Wisconsin and speak to his students.
I was thrilled to accept the invitation. I arrived in Madison on Monday November 12th, and met with Dr. Werner for drinks at a local blues club called The Harmony Bar and Grill. After getting to know each other much of our conversation focused on the problems that result from contemporary culture’s insistence on compartmentalizing the human condition. There is a self-defeating tendency to separate the mind, body, and spirit into three independent entities when a realistic view of life and a healthy approach is to understand that the soul and the intellect – the spiritual and the sexual – are always interconnected. Life is at its best – its most terrifying and thrilling – when the interplay is at its most intense.
Dr. Werner’s book A Change is Gonna Come explains and articulates this idea with the predicate of black music in a way that provides new understanding, insight, and clairvoyance. In jazz, blues, and soul – from Ray Charles to Mary J. Blige – there exists the exercise of what Werner calls the “gospel impulse.”
Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan are rare in that they are white artists who imbue their work with the gospel impulse, and that they both submit everything to an ongoing process of sacralization. Springsteen often takes concepts from the Catholicism of his childhood and simply removes the capital letter. The phrase “sanctity of life” comes from the Catholic church, but Springsteen transforms the phrase into a catholic principle by making the body sacred, friendship sacred, community sacred, and sexuality sacred. The socio-spiritual quality of Bob Dylan’s Christian music – songs that divide between angry gospel and love songs to God – shows the same inspired and inspirational determination.
During my visit with the students I explained that one of the functions of great writers – whether they are working with a guitar or a notebook, a keyboard or a keypad – is to take something that everyone is thinking about and articulate it with a language that allows everyone to realize they’ve been thinking about it and then go out and talk about it.
Werner’s writing on the gospel impulse does exactly that. He defines it as “the belief that life’s burdens can be transformed into hope and salvation. It is the promise of redemption.” He goes on to elaborate:
At its best, the gospel impulse helps people experience themselves in relation to rather than on their own. Gospel makes the feeling of human separateness, which is what the blues are all about, bearable. It’s why DJs and the dancers they shape into momentary communities are telling the truth when they describe dance as a religious experience.
The gospel impulse half-remembers the values brought to the new world by the men and women uprooted from West African cultures: the connection between the spiritual and material worlds; the interdependence of self and community; the honoring of the elders and the ancestors; the recognition of the ever-changing flow of experience that renders all absolute ideologies meaningless….
The gospel impulse consists of a three-step process: (1) acknowledging the burden; (2) bearing witness; (3) finding redemption. The burden grounds the song in the history of suffering that links individual and community experiences….We don’t choose our burdens; we do choose our responses.
Musicians grounded in the gospel impulse respond by bearing witness to the troubles they’ve seen, telling the deepest truths they know….The word “witness” works partly because the burden involves history, power. There’s an evil in the world and…lots of it comes from the Devil. Call him sex or money, hypocrisy or capitalism, the landlord or Governor Wallace, but the Devil’s real. You deal with him or he, maybe she, will most definitely deal with you…Gospel promises, or at least holds out the possibility, that tomorrow may be different, better…Whatever its specific incarnation, gospel redemption breaks down the difference between personal salvation and communal liberation. No one makes it alone. If we’re going to bear up under the weight of the cross, find the strength to renounce the Devil, if we’re going to survive to bear witness and move on up, we’re going to have to connect. The music shows us how.
Without planning on it when I originally received the invitation to speak at the University of Wisconsin, I was able to add my own ornamentation to the tree that Werner built for his students. I played the Springsteen song “Human Touch” and discussed how, in the school of Al Green and Marvin Gaye, Springsteen presents sexuality as a sanctuary from a troubled world. It is not only physically stimulating, but also spiritually edifying. It is sacred – not a hedonistic tool used for manipulation that goes toward conquering another person for the purposes of your own pleasure nor a sacrifice made on the altar of a church’s doctrinal demand.
I also played “Shot of Love” by Bob Dylan and explained how it represents and expresses a form of spiritual combat. Surrounded by sin and social injustice, Dylan cries out that he needs a “shot of love” rather than submitting to the pressure to conform to a materialistic order or fighting fire with fire by engaging in the same kind of hate and hostility that he condemns. He has faith in God, but he isn’t optimistic: “What I got ain’t painful / It’s just bound to kill me dead / Like the men who followed Jesus when they put a price upon his head.”
I once watched Dr. Cornel West explain at St. Sabina Church on the southside of Chicago how listening to certain forms of music – blues, gospel – can make you a better person. I believe that is true, because I’m a product of it.
Conversation can also make us better – intellectually, spiritually, and morally. Dr. Werner’s contribution to a national conversation, and his inclusion of me in it, has made me better. I hope that my contribution to the conversation in his classroom has made his students better.