Soul music

Wikipedia says that “soul music originated in the African American community in the United States in the 1950’s and 1960’s.” the article goes on to speak about the combination of gospel, rhythm and blues, and jazz. It speaks of the relationship between the growth of soul music and the civil rights movement in the United States. There is a discussion of the role of Motown records, Stax records and Atlantic records. It goes on to outline the differences between the sounds of soul in different cities such as Detroit, Memphis, Birmingham, New Orleans, Chicago, and Philadelphia. There is commentary on some of the greats such as James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Solomon Burke, Isaac Hayes, and Al Green.

I don’t want to dispute the article. It is worth reading and it is great to listen to some of the great soul recordings. One of the fun things about the Internet and the way that music is distributed these days is that instant access to almost any kind of music is fairly easy. I can listen to whatever kind of music that captures my imagination at the moment.

I’ve lived much of my life far away from the centers of American Soul Music and my experience with the genre is mostly from recordings rather than live performances. But we are all shaped by the music of our times and I grew up listening to the radio in the 1950’s and 1960’s and being influenced by the music of the time.

In another sense, however, soul music is not a product of the 20th century. People have been producing music from the depths of their beings for millennia. Early humans, before the advent of mass communications, used music as a way of expressing feelings that were deep within them. There are many times when language fails us as the only way to express what is going on in our lives. At those times, music becomes another vehicle for expression.

For our people, the book of Psalms is a partial record of some of the deep songs of our past. I use the word partial intentionally because what we have is a set of 150 poems without the tones employed to sing them. The melodies are lost to the passage of time and what remains is a written record of words. That isn’t surprising because part of our story is how our people used a somewhat unique alphabetic language to preserve our culture and tradition during a time of persecution and exile. We got good at writing things down and what was written down were the thing that our people held as most important. Christians, Jews and Muslims are known as “People of the Book” because of our shared reverence for the Hebrew Scriptures, often referred to by Christians as the old testament. At the heart of those scriptures are the psalms.

Psalm 103 literally speaks of soul music. It begins, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name.” Then it repeats, “Bless the Lord, O my soul . . .” The writer of the psalm reaches into the depths of being with a wish that the blessing could come from the very essence of life itself. Can there be a blessing that expresses all of a person? The psalmist believes that there can. Psalm 103 is just one of a large number of hymns of praise that are a part of our scriptures. As such it can sometimes be read as part of an introduction to the last third of the book of Psalms, part of a series of Psalms of praise. There is a lot of what seems like repetition in those Psalms. How may ways are there to express praise and thanksgiving to God? The Psalm follows a familiar pattern, giving thanks to God for personal salvation and also thanks to God for the salvation of the people. It recalls the time of Moses and the rescue of the people of Israel when they were oppressed in Egypt. It recalls the compassion of a parent for a child and how God’s protection of the people has been the source of comfort in times of trial, tragedy and terror. It sings of the feeling of liberation that comes from being forgiven and welcomed back home when one has strayed from the family.

Yesterday, when I was reading the Psalm with someone who is trying to make sense out of the radical and deep changes in our society brought about by our response to the global coronavirus pandemic, the third verse of the Psalm stood out for both of us. Here it is in context:
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and all that is within me,
    bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and do not forget all his benefits—
who forgives all your iniquity,
    who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit,
    who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good as long as you live
    so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

God is praised from the depths of the soul because of forgiveness and healing. The phrase, “who heals all your diseases” is comprehensive. It doesn’t say some of your diseases. It says all.

In the depths of our being - at the core of the collective religious imagination of generations and generations of faithful people - is the concept that there is healing from every disease. Even if the disease results in death, healing and wholeness are possible. In a time when we are surrounded and reminded daily of the power of disease to disrupt and create incredible human suffering we are called to reach into the depths of our souls and look for healing. Despite the counts of the numbers infected, despite the rising death toll, healing is possible. Healing occurs. Healing is a gift of God.

When we look to the soul of our people there is a song of praise.

Bless the Lord, O my soul!

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!