Way up north in the Motor-City where they were ‘Dancing in the Street’ and ‘Not Too Proud to Beg’ it’s not the ‘Same old Song’ or ‘Track of My Tears’. It’s the joyful, yet true-hearted country blues sung by a true-life minister of the Sweet Kingdom Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit, Rev. Robert Jones.
Some people falsely believe that blues is “The Devil’s Music.” Not this man of the cloth, who declares, “The blues is good. It’s a gift by the African-American community to the world. If it was the devils music, it could not possibly be good. It is good! So it can’t be from the devil. There was a time when perhaps in some segments of the black church they felt that secular music was a distraction, that the blues represented something opposite of the church, but people are pretty much over that now.” So here is he, a modern day Christian bluesman, a guitar-evangelist, who carries on a long tradition of religious musicians, including Blind Willie Johnson, Gary Davis, Flora Molton, and many more. After all, the blues took from the Negro-Spirituals and from that root scame both blues and gospel music, as well as soul music and R&B.
Even the much maligned and demonized Robert Johnson, who was devoured by the latter day marketers who did indeed sell his soul, and not by an actual Faustian deal with Mephistopheles, sang “I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees asked the Lord above – Have mercy, save poor Bob, if you please.” In the few songs that Robert Johnson recorded they made a big deal about all the so called-devil stuff, but this one powerful lyrical line was all but forgotten. If that young man was a proponent of the devil’s music with a soul sold into eternal damnation, why would he pray to the Lord above for mercy? We know that the perception of “Devil’s music” was real in the black community at one time, and some like to perpetuate that into modern day. In the early and mid 20th Century the black church objected to the thinly veiled sexual innuendo of the blues, and the barrelhouse drinking and fighting, sexually charged dancing and the dens of sins that were the juke joints. Today, frankly, they have bigger fish to fry.
Here is a bluesman who brings you “Holy Blues” with a positive message. Rev. Robert Jones, winner of the Blues Foundation’s prestigious “Keeping The Blues Alive” award, is having too much fun with too much to say than to worry about that nonsense. He reports that he only plays in places where people come to listen and stays clear of bars or lewd places where they mix alcohol and music, and he prefers coffeehouses, festivals, concert halls and schools. His blues roots trace to Son House, Rev. Gary Davis, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee and Lightning Hopkins and he openly identifies himself as a blues singer. None of the usual “I only play gospel stuff.” “Blues and Gospel is the same voice at a different time,” he says. “I am a promoter, advocate, teacher and performer of this music, the blues, and for that I am blessed.” So are we!
Rev. Robert Jones plays guitar, mandolin, cane fife and even a “little” fiddle and, of course, he sings. He is a radio producer, also a storyteller in the African-American tradition who is active on that circuit, with appearances at the major national storytelling festivals. “I like to bring characters alive. I am a one-man-show.” He’s not always alone as he often performs with his wife, Sister Bernice Jones, a wonderful singer in the spiritual/gospel tradition with a powerful church choir voice. When she sings with her amazingly inspirational voice with the reverend the angels up above will stop to listen in.
Rev. Jones is an active blues educator and performer in the schools who strongly believes that he has a responsibility to pass on the blues music and culture to the next generation. “The kids will never know some of these great artists unless we bring it to the schools and bring it to life for them. I give them the story of American music.Roots music. I love the entire spectrum of American roots – I listen to it all. Homemade folk music I once heard Mike Seeger. He was amazing. That’s when I knew I’d rather be the black Mike Seeger than the short Taj Mahal.”
Today, he is a cultural force in Detroit as well as the national and international blues scene, a top tier acoustic blues performer and a wonderful educator and storyteller whose prominence is rising.Together with his wife Bernice they have joined their religious mission with the blues, spreading a positive message wherever they go. All that and some mighty fine blues.For more than 30 years they have played everywhere, from civil rights organizations to churches, from blues festivals to storytelling festivals…and seemingly they are just getting started.