Voice from the Deep River

A river deep and wide runs through the Rev. Robert Jones, a river of musical tradition steeped in spirituality. Yet Jones stands firmly planted in one place as the waters rush by – Detroit.

The river symbolized in African-American blues tradition is a spiritual and cultural journey, one that begins with slavery, and is still relevant, even critical to crossing the turbulence in Detroit's cityscape to its more promising future.

Jones is host of WDET-FM's "Deep River" program and pastor of Sweet Kingdom Missionary Baptist Church. The blues is the music of his grandmother – an acoustic music of his Southern African-American heritage. Jones, a self-taught musician, took to the blues as his own and has become Detroit's leading proponent of acoustic blues.

As a performer and educator, the music occasionally took him as far as Europe and earned him the 2007 Blues Educator of the Year Award by The Blues Foundation, based in Memphis.

His radio program's name is drawn from a spiritual that comes from the African American slavery experience: "Deep River… my home is over Jordan. I want to cross over to the campground."

"I think probably it was a spiritual that talked about escape from slavery," Jones says. "If you crossed the deep river, you had to cross the Ohio River, and in order to get into Canada, you had to cross the Detroit River. 'Campground,' I think is Canada.

"At the same time, it gave me a river with a lot of tributaries flowing out of it; a lot of sources going into it, a lot of branches flowing out of it. The idea of it being deep is that there really is a lot of depth to this music. It's the music of the Civil Rights movement. It's the music of the Underground Railroad. It's the music of protest. It's the music of praise. People have used sacred music in a powerful way to change minds and hearts for as long as this has been a country."

Starting in the Lowlands

A native Detroiter, Jones began his radio career hosting WDET's "Blues from the Lowlands," a program that represented the continuum of blues, the dark side and the light.

He performed throughout the area and educated young people in the music for more than 20 years. His music features blues styles from the Mississippi Delta, Tennessee, Texas, Georgia, and early 20th Century Chicago. On the academic side, he has taught blues at Central Michigan University, the Detroit Institute of Arts, Kalamazoo College, even occasionally in Europe.

He developed a program called, "Blues for Schools," which has been offered in classrooms throughout the country. In addition to his award from The Blues Foundation, he's received the 1991 Metro Times "Detroit's Best Blues Instrumentalist" and the 1995 Living Blues Magazine's "One of America's Top Blues Performers."

Home and the River

His performing and broadcasting career came to a halt early in the new Millennium when Robert Jones, the bluesman, became Pastor Robert Jones of Sweet Kingdom, a small congregation on Detroit's Near East Side.

In a sense, he returned home to the area where he was raised and the church where he worshiped, where he met his wife, Bernice Banks, an accomplished gospel singer, and where they married.

The pressures of his pastoral calling caused him to question the appropriateness of blues in his life. How can the music of the barroom and bedroom co-exist with the church?

That dilemma gave birth to "Deep River." It brought him back to the stage and classroom, teaching an American musical tradition with roots in Africa and relevance for the modern day. It also gave his marriage to Bernice Jones, a gospel singer, an added dimension. They now perform spiritual blues and gospel music as a duo.

Light and dark

Blues performers have long wrestled with the light and dark sides of the music, explains John Penny, a former WDET program host and longtime colleague of Jones. He cites the story of Thomas Dorsey (Georgia Tom), once a leader of Ma Rainey's band in Chicago during the 1920s and a performer in Al Capone's clubs. In 1932, Dorsey rededicated himself to sacred blues and became the first publisher of black gospel music. He went on to compose "Precious Lord," one of the most famous gospel songs, which combines sacred music with the blues.

"It's not so much that the blues is the devil's music but it tends to be made in the devil's workshop," explains Penny. "It's music that people talk about what happens at the crossroads." Penny produces a radio program on WRCJ 90.9 FM, as well as the Motor City Blues and Boogie Woogie Festival. "There is a dichotomy in the continuity between morality and vice (in blues); the devil's workshop and the Lord's temple were right next to each other," he says. "People didn't feel that bad going from one to the other."

Jones says that "Deep River" may be a harder sell, but it's more rewarding to produce than "Lowlands." He sees the challenge of presenting the historic sacred music in the blues tradition as part of his ministry.

While he doesn't perform in church, Jones says he's "making an effort to get kids to see me playing guitar." Encouraging kids to play music remains a calling. He has identified 22 young people in his congregation with talent and desire to learn to perform music. "Now, my job is to find somebody who is going to introduce them to these instruments. I'm not trying to start a music school, but I am trying to give kids access to creating music in the hopes that it will spark something."

Pointing to the elementary school diagonal to his church on Chene Avenue, he says, "That's the first place where I picked up an instrument. I had violin lessons in fourth grade."

He thinks of not only the children in his congregation with talent, but the many children in Detroit schools.

In 2007, he and fellow WDET program host Matt Watroba collaborated with the Boll Family YMCA to establish the Deep River Choir. Watroba, is a folk music performer and host of "Folks Like Us."

In the Deep River Choir, both take anonymous roles as contributing voices in a diverse choir of 25 people representing all ethnicities, races, and genders. "It looks like the U.N. and it's a great choir," says Jones. "In this choir we're not about singing just sacred music, but all inspirational material from all cultures. … This choir is spreading the message of diversity and inspirational message: This is Detroit. This is what works."

The muse that inspires Robert Jones has taken him from the "lowlands" to the high road of spiritual music within the blues tradition and within the culture of Detroit.

Reflecting on the Detroit River – the crossing point for many taking the Underground Railroad to freedom in Canada – with the energy of its crosscurrents, Jones has found his callings come together.

"The messages coming out of the blues and coming out of the church seemed to be diametrically opposed. … The bluesman used to be the secular spokesman for what was happening in the community. The preacher was the sacred spokesman."

Rev. Jones has found a way to unite the two. "Right now you need to deal with reality: the sacred and the secular of what's happening in the community."

"Deep River" airs from 3-5 p.m. Sundays on WDET-FM 101.9.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.

Robert Jones Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

Read more articles by Dennis Archambault.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.
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