Lord have mercy on Robert Johnson

“Robert Johnson wakes up the genius in everyone, and his music speaks to all of us – but with that genius also comes the devil,” observed blues singer Keb’ Mo’ in the new Netflix documentary “Devil at the Crossroads: A Robert Johnson Story.” Solid for music and blues aficionados.

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The fate of an ancient faith

6 O’Clock Prayer is held outside The Church of Mar Addai, with Father Thabet (left) leading the prayer, (Father Yousif (center) and Bishop Michael Najib (right). Photo: ALEXANDRA ROSE HOWLAND

Please take the time to read Emma Green’s article in The Atlantic: “The Impossible Future of Christians in the Middle East.” Through the story of Catrin and Evan Almako’s story, Green reports on the fate of pluralism in the region. She is simply a top-notch reporter.

  • “The graph of the religion’s decline in the Middle East has in recent years transformed from a steady downward slope into a cliff. The numbers in Iraq are especially stark: Before the American invasion, as many as 1.4 million Christians lived in the country. Today, fewer than 250,000 remain—an 80 percent drop in less than two decades.”
  • “The precarious state of Christianity in Iraq is tragic on its own terms. The world may soon witness the permanent displacement of an ancient religion, and an ancient people. Those indigenous to this area share more than faith: They call themselves Suraye and claim a connection to the ancient peoples who inhabited this land long before the birth of Christ.”
  • Continue reading
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Torchbearers for Eddie Cochran

The Stray Cats playing their hit “(She’s) Sexy & 17” at the Rockpalast Festival in Germany in 1983. From left: Setzer, a fan onstage and Rocker. (Manfred Becker)

“If you weren’t around, it may be hard to understand the rise of the Stray Cats,” writes Geoff Edgers for the Washington Post. “It’s as if they appeared from outer space, or at least a Pomade-speared time machine packed with hot rods, tattoos and Eddie Cochran licks. That a rockabilly trio could top the MTV stable in 1982, the same 1982 stuffed with leg warmers, Members Only jackets and synthesizers, would seem not merely unlikely, but impossible.”

Amen to that. Nothing but deep gratitude and respect for these guys. First saw them at the Hollywood Palladium on August 21, 1982 — a night tattooed in my greaser soul. It flipped my world upside down.

“One way to start explaining the Stray Cats is with a photo. It was snapped as they played their hit “(She’s) Sexy & 17” at the huge Rockpalast Festival in Germany in 1983,” writes Edgers. “The image, black-and-white and blurry in spots, features Setzer, the singer and leader, swinging his Gretsch, eyes closed, air between his white shoes and the ground below. Rocker isn’t wearing a shirt and has his back to camera, suspended in the air as he balances one boot on a stand-up bass adorned with the word ‘Dangerous.’ Phantom is out of the frame but we know what he’s up to. He’s standing — the drummer always stood — pounding his snare like Joe Frazier on the heavy bag.”

Slim Jim Phantom (James McDonnell) loved music, “whether the Beatles or the Stones. But as he got older, he started noticing the song credits. That Aerosmith adapted ’50s rocker Johnny Burnette’s ‘Train Kept a-Rollin’ ‘ and that the Beatles played a killer version of Carl Perkins’s ‘Honey, Don’t.’ Humble Pie did Cochran’s ‘C’mon Everybody.’

“Lee and I had always played,” Phantom says. “We had some older guys that we played with, and we knew all the blues and Jimmy Reed and those kinds of songs. But at the same time, we were trying to find something that was a little bit different.”

“Enter Brian Setzer. He was two years older and had been taking guitar lessons since he was 8. By his 16th birthday, Setzer already had the look. He could play the guitar better than anybody they knew. He could also write music. … Sometime in the mid-’70s, Setzer heard Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-a-Lula” playing on a jukebox at CBGB, a punk rock club in New York. That got him hooked on the music that had emerged in the 1950s by loosely combining R&B and the raw energy of hillbilly music.”

After their meteoric success, the Stray Cats broke up. “Put it in this order,” Setzer told Edgers. “Youth, success, separation, alcohol. All of that. I don’t really need to get into it.”

“I think the bigger picture really has come into focus,” says Phantom. “If we scrutinize it, the why will become we love this music. We’re still the torchbearers for Eddie Cochran.”


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Bob Marley wrote that. I can’t change that.

One of my favorite Johnny Cash stories revolves around his duet of Bob Marley’s anthem “Redemption Song” with Joe Strummer of The Clash. That is some wild chemistry. Cash was recording at Rick Rubin’s house in LA and they were sifting through songs for “American IV: The Man Comes Around.” Strummer was on vacation and came by Rubin’s every day so he could watch Cash sing. Strummer extended his vacation and had been hanging out at the house for a week and a half. Because Cash had a home in Jamaica, they decided to do a reggae song. (“If you’re going to do a song from Jamaica, it has to be a Bob Marley song,” said Cash.) Rubin talked Cash and Strummer into singing “Redemption Song” as a duet while Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine) played guitar.

According to Rubin, “There was one line I was wary about because it was not good English and I said, ‘Johnny do you want to change this word to say it the way you’d say it?’” Cash looked at Rubin and said, “Bob Marley wrote that. I can’t change that!” That is top-shelf respect – and one more reason why I love The Man in Black.

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Prostitutes and Preachers: The Spiritual Childhood of James Brown

By James Brown (1933-2006)

Excerpt from James Brown: The Godfather of Soul(Macmillen 1986)

In Augusta, Georgia, Aunt Minnie and I lived with another aunt of mine in a house at 944 Twiggs Street. That’s one place I will never forget. Outside, Highway 1 ran right by the door. You could go all the way to New York on that highway. Inside, there was gambling, moonshine liquor, and prostitution. I wasn’t quite six years old.

My aunt who had the house on Twiggs Street was named Handsome Washington, but everybody called her Honey. She was very intelligent, and she supported a lot of people. We had about twelve to fifteen men staying there, in and out, and the woman ran the house because she was the most intelligent. A lot of the men were ex-farm workers who couldn’t get jobs, and Honey just fed ’em all. She fed a lot of the people who lived in Helmuth Alley behind the house, too – young mothers who needed things. She brought them meat and sugar, and she gave them money for groceries. And she loved the children.

Honey just didn’t want to see anybody hungry.

Honey was a good woman and Iloved her to death, but she was a madam with other things on her mind. It was Aunt Minnie who acted more like a mother to me. I shared a room upstairs with Aunt Minnie, away from what was going on downstairs. She read to me, talked to me, held me close. I’d lie there and daydream and tryto envision something better. I felt terrible about what went on in that house. I knew people could live a lot cleaner, because I saw some who did, and I wanted to be like them. Continue reading

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Bruce Springsteen and Martin Scorsese discuss faith, O’Connor

Readers may find these tidbits fascinating from Chris Willman’s full reporting in Variety:

In their conversation Sunday night at a privateNetflix event honoring “Springsteen on Broadway,” Bruce Springsteen and Martin Scorsese spent close to a third of the 45-minute chat discussing their mutual roots in east coast Catholicism and how they’ve both come to terms with a kind of faith. “I think as you get older, what you grow comfortable with is that faith is faith,” Springsteen said. “It’s about all of the mysteries and the answers that you’re never gonna come up with. And I think trying to build it around these concrete answers is vain and humanistic. But if you let it be, that’s where you find a little bit of peace in it. That’s what I’ve found, anyway.”


They bonded over their share love for Catholic literary great Flannery O’Connor, with Springsteen saying that his 1982 album “Nebraska” “was very influenced by Flannery O’Connor stories, and her stories were always filled with the unknowability of God.” Scorsese seemed surprised that Springsteen had not read her collected letters, and urged Springsteen, “Oh, just a few pages a night, every few nights. … I have a quote here from [a letter]…  She said, ‘You arrive at enough certainty to be able to make your way, but it is making it in darkness. Don’t expect faith to clear things up for you. It’s trust, not certainty.’”

“If you’re an artist,” responded Springsteen, “that darkness is always more interesting than the light. It’s nice when you let the light in at the end of something. But I was always interested in, what were the things that didn’t go right? I had a habit: I would drive back through my hometown, and I would do this over and over and over again. And I used to ask myself, why am I coming back here? And I still do. Seventy years old, I still do it. I don’t know if you’re going back to fix things, but there’s so much there that informed your work and your life that it still remains just a rich location. But I always wanted to base the heart of my work in the dark side of things and then find my way. Then you had to earn the light.”

Springsteen wasn’t kidding when he said he still drives back through his hometown. That’s evident in his closing monolog in “Springsteen on Broadway,” when he come back late at night and laments the cutting down of his favorite tree, then comes to spiritual terms with it. He reinforced the truth of those homecomings with an anecdote in Sunday’s discussion.

“The faith you had as a child was very fear-based,” he said. “My initial recollection of my experience in the church was: it was dark. Now, if I go back to my hometown church, it’s been painted entirely white. And it’s bright and it’s supposed to be happy, I guess.”

“Oh, no, no, that’s not good!” protested Scorsese.

“Occasionally I get drawn back to my church,” Springsteen continued. “I was at my church — I attended some stranger’s funeral about a month ago.” The audience laughed. “I was driving by and I saw the door was open, and I said, ‘I’ve got to go in. I’ve got to go back.’ And I went in and there was some nice man’s funeral going on, and I sat in the back. And,” he admitted, “it was completely bizarre.”

Readers are encouraged to read the entire report HERE

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The fevered love of June and Johnny

By Steve Beard

Today marks the anniversary of the death of June Carter Cash (1929-2003). She died of complications from heart surgery. She was 73. Johnny Cash died four months later.

It is strangely fitting that the last time the public saw the face of June Carter Cash was on the enormously popular music video for her husband’s rendition of Trent Reznor’s song “Hurt.” She is seen looking down upon her beloved husband, Johnny Cash, as he sings about pain and loss. The well-worn lines upon her face express love, betray concern, and proclaim pride. Johnny was her man through thick and thin.

“I hurt myself today/ To see if I still feel/ I focus on the pain/ The only thing that’s real,” Cash sings. “The needle tears a hole/ The old familiar sting/ Try to kill it all away/ But I remember everything” – a poignant reminder of his dark years in the 1960s.

June remembers those days of thunder and lightning. She stood by Johnny’s side – doing everything she could to break his voracious dependence on pills and save his soul. “She’d take my drugs and throw them away, and we’d have a big fight over it. I’d get some more, and she’d do it again,” Cash recalls. “I’d make her promise not to, but she would do it anyway. She’d lie to me. She’d hide my money. She’d do anything. She fought me with everything she had.”

She waged this war because she loved Cash too much to watch him die. Through the power of prayer and June’s tough love, Johnny was able to break the power of addiction and find peace in his heart. Their love and dependency upon one another become a spectacular love story. Continue reading

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Garrison Keillor reflects on Easter Sunday

Garrison Keillor of “A Prairie Home Companion.” (Pioneer Press: Jean Pieri)

Church was packed on Easter morning, brass players up in the choir loft, ladies with big hats, girls in spring dresses, and when the choir and clergy processed up the aisle, the woman swinging the censer looked like a drum major leading the team to victory, which is what Easter is about, the triumph over death. Resurrection is not something we Christians talk about in the same way we talk about our plans for summer vacation or retirement, but it is proclaimed on Easter and the hymns are quite confident (with added brass) and the rector seemed to believe in it herself and so an old writer sitting halfway back and surrounded by good singers has to think along those lines. It’s right there in the Nicene Creed and in Luke’s Gospel — the women come to the tomb and find the stone rolled away and the mysterious strangers say, “Why seek ye the living among the dead?”

And then, on my way back from Communion, the choir struck up a hymn, “I am the bread of life,” with a rocking chorus, “And I will raise them up. And I will raise them up. And I will raise them up on the last day.” As the congregation sang, a few people stood and some raised their hands in the air, a charismatic touch unusual among Anglicans, and then more people stood. I stood. I raised my right hand. I imagined my long-gone parents and brother and grandson and aunts and uncles rising from the dead and coming into radiant glory, and then I was weeping and my mouth got rubbery and I couldn’t form the consonants. I stayed for the benediction, slipped out a side door onto Amsterdam Avenue, and headed home.

That’s what I go to church for, to be surprised by faith and to fall apart. Without the Resurrection, Episcopalians would be just a wonderful club of very nice people with excellent taste in music and literature, but when it hits you what you’ve actually subscribed to, it blows the top of your head off.

What happened in church on Sunday, I think (hat tip to Ethan Richardson at mbird.com)

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Shepherd to the fringes: John “Bullfrog” Smith (1942-2019)

Photo from Blues Preacher


Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on the town’s garbage heap; at a crossroad so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and Latin and Greek … at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that is where He died. And that is what He died for. And that is what He died about. That is where churchmen ought to be and what churchmen ought to be about.”– The Rev. George Macleod, Church of Scotland clergyman and one of the founders of the Iona Community (1895-1991).

More than 20 years ago, I was sitting across the table in a Chinese restaurant in Nicholasville, Kentucky, when John Smith recited Macleod’s sentiments with righteous authority and a piercing gaze to describe part of the inspiration of the calling on his life. At that time, Smith, a well-known media commentator and evangelist to those on the cultural fringe in Australia, was doing doctoral work in missiology at Asbury Theological Seminary.

As a well-scrubbed son of a Methodist minister and a brand new Bible school graduate in the late 1960s, Smith recalls driving past a “bunch of menacing-looking outlaw bikers parked by the side of the road. Oddly, I felt a surge of compassion for these guys who no one really wanted to know. I couldn’t see the local minister making much headway with people like that,” he wrote in his autobiography, On the Side of the Angels. Continue reading

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Happy Birthday Flannery O’Connor

Art by Kevin Christy, The Atlantic

Today marks the birthday anniversary of the late Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964), the acclaimed novelist who wrote with a splash of hellfire and holy water. She used her enormous writing talents to often delve into spiritual transformation of those in the “Christ-haunted” American South.

Bruce Springsteen once said, “the short stories of Flannery O’Connor landed hard on me. You could feel within them the unknowability of God, the intangible mysteries of life that confounded her characters, and which I find by my side every day. They contained the dark Gothicness of my childhood and yet made me feel fortunate to sit at the center of this swirling black puzzle, stars reeling overhead, the earth barely beneath us.”

“There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored,” she observed. “The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his sense tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.”

O’Connor, a devout Catholic lay woman, was never short of pithy statements about the human condition.
• “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
• “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.”
• “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”
• “I can, with one eyed squinted, take it all as a blessing.”
• “There is a question whether faith can or is supposed to be emotionally satisfying. I must say that the thought of everyone lolling about in an emotionally satisfying faith is repugnant to me.”
• “‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief’ … is the most natural and most human and most agonizing prayer in the gospels, and I think it is the foundation prayer of faith.”
• “Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that i will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing. I do no know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.”

O’Connor died at age 39 after having suffered from lupus for the final decade of her life. We are grateful for her gifts and remember her talents with great appreciation.

“What people don’t realize is how much religion costs,” O’Connor wrote. “They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God.”

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