Balm in Gilead (Artful Devotion)

Hirsch, Joseph_Lynch Family
Joseph Hirsch (American, 1910–1981), Lynch Family, 1946. Oil on canvas, 35 × 33 in. (88.9 × 83.8 cm). Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. [zoom in]

My joy is gone; grief is upon me;
my heart is sick within me.
Behold, the cry of the daughter of my people
from the length and breadth of the land:
“Is the Lord not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?”
. . .
“The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.”
For the wound of the daughter of my people is my heart wounded;
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold on me.

Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of the daughter of my people
not been restored?

—Jeremiah 8:18–22

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SONG: “There Is a Balm in Gilead” | Negro spiritual | Arranged and performed by Archie Shepp (tenor sax), feat. Jeanne Lee, on Blasé (1969, reissued 2009)

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In this coming Sunday’s lectionary reading from the Prophets, Jeremiah grieves over the suffering of his people. “Is there no balm in Gilead?” he cries. Gilead was a region in ancient Palestine, east of the Jordan River. Now it is known primarily as the fictional locale of two famous contemporary novels, but back then it was known for the soothing, aromatic plant resins produced there, which were used medicinally. In Israel’s desolation, though, they could feel no balm—not even in the place where it was said to abound.

The anonymous writer(s) of the slave song featured above knew communal suffering well. He or she taps into Jeremiah’s poetic grief, extracting the “balm in Gilead” expression but bending it toward hope. There is a balm, the song attests, albeit wearily, through tears. And this balm makes the wounded whole. Archie Shepp’s soulful arrangement, with vocals by Jeanne Lee, express that woundedness and yearning for deliverance so poignantly.

As a visual point of focus, I’ve chosen Joseph Hirsch’s Lynch Family, a forward extension of the history of African American oppression. The gallery label for the painting reads,

Joseph Hirsch painted Lynch Family as a response to racial disturbances in the South in 1946. That year the number of lynchings rose from an all-time low in January to a fevered pitch by August. Citizens across the country urged President Truman and Congress to end the horrors. To capture the tragedy of Lynch Family, Hirsch presented a mother with her baby, presumably survivors of a lynching victim, in abstracted surroundings. The painting focuses on the mother’s intense yet restrained hold on her defiant child while she turns to hide her anguish. The blue background floats around the figures. It both highlights their pain and contrasts with the sheer beauty of Hirsch’s painterly technique.

Though painted in the 1940s, this work bears strong relevance for today. The figures could be any black mother and child left to grieve the loss of husband and father—to prison, or to death by shooting.

For another painting by Hirsch from the blog, see “Stations of the Cross at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.”


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 20, cycle C, click here.

Roundup: Rock Hall inductions; James Cone; lynching memorial; “Christ in Alabama”

NEW ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAMERS:

Last month Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915–1973), one of the few female guitar evangelists of the ’30s and ’40s and the first gospel superstar, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She was named an “Early Influence” for her electric sound and original guitar picking, which influenced the likes of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, and Johnny Cash, among many others. (“Tharpe’s unique guitar style blended melody-driven urban blues with traditional folk arrangements and incorporated a pulsating swing sound that is one of the first clear precursors of rock and roll.”) Performing (controversially) both sacred and secular music, in churches and nightclubs, Tharpe collaborated with heavy-hitting artists of the time, including Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and the Dixie Hummingbirds, and she even hired a white group, the Jordanaires, to sing backup during one of her tours.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Photo: Chris Ware/Getty Images

Two of Tharpe’s best-known songs are her versions of the Negro spirituals “Up Above My Head” and “Strange Things Happening Everyday,” but probably my two favorites of hers are “Use Me” and “Two Loaves of Fishes and Five Loaves of Bread”:

In 2011 BBC Four premiered Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock and Roll, a documentary written and directed by UK filmmaker Mick Csaky. Its US television premiere was in 2013, part of PBS’s American Masters series. Watch the trailer below, or watch the full documentary online.

If you’re not familiar with Tharpe, you need to be! My husband and I cycle through dozens of her songs regularly on our customized Spotify gospel playlist. If you enjoy the documentary and want to learn more, check out the biography Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe by Gayle Wald.

Another April Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, who’s more of a household name, is Nina Simone (1933–2003). One of her most famous songs (certainly her most sampled) is “Sinnerman,” a Negro spiritual inspired by Revelation 6:12–17:

When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”

When Simone (then Eunice Waymon) was a young girl, her mother, a Methodist minister, had her play the song on the piano at revival and prayer meetings as a means of compelling sinners to the altar. (Before pursuing her career as a singer and recording artist, she wanted to be a classical concert pianist. She plays the piano on “Sinnerman” and many other tracks.) Because she recorded her version of “Sinnerman” at the height of her civil rights activism, in 1965, some have speculated that the song is a veiled condemnation of the sins of white America.   Continue reading “Roundup: Rock Hall inductions; James Cone; lynching memorial; “Christ in Alabama””