There have already been a number of on-line tributes to B. B. King. I prefer to remember him for his music and the way he made his guitar “Lucille” sing for him.
I came to the blues during two periods of my life. The first was as a youth in the mid-1960s when bluesmen like Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, B. B. King, and others were “rediscovered” during the British music invasion. Then in the early 1980s a blues revival hit the country with the introduction of the CD, placing the credit (and many financial rewards finally) where it belonged. Suddenly the older recordings of Son House, Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Sonny Boy Williamson, and others became available side-by-side with the electric sound of Robert Collins, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, and Stevie Ray Vaughn, among so many others.
The blues have spoken to me ever since. It is the music of a people who face hard times and indignity, yet are able to enjoy the little things in life. As an American folk form, it is among the headwaters of jazz, rhythm & blues, and rock and roll. Without the blues, the full expression of the human condition cannot be documented. Unlike so-called “Classical” music, which is really a set of disparate styles of music from different periods, the blues does not exist or continue to exist because of the social and cultural ambitions of political and economic elites. Instead, it is the music of the people: it originally springs from a people–from the freed-slave African-American experience–who were denied equal rights, their humanity, basic dignity, and the ability to express themselves when they wished in the normal course of life until the last quarter of the 20th century. But the blues, sung in roadhouses, honky tonks, juke joints, front porches, and within the safety of their homes, gave life to this expression.
As any American should or would, I found a common appeal to the blues, though I come from a different set of ethnic origins, part of the immigrant experience in fleeing Europe. For within the blues is expressed the basic striving of humanity. My background growing up in my earliest years in the tenements of Hoboken, a melting pot of immigrants and ethnic groups all striving to one day find a better life and some human dignity, is, I think, the reason for it. There I viewed and played with other children of every color and hue. Even later, during our own flight into the suburbs, that experience from my formative years stayed with me.
I listened to an interview that B. B. King gave back in the early ’90s where he explained that in the blues there is always some twist that demonstrates the comedy in the tragedy of human life. He cited as his example the song “Nobody Love Me But My Mother.” The lyrics go like this: “Nobody loves me but my mother. And she could be jiving too.”
Now, brother, that is the blues.
But the blues doesn’t discriminate, because as with all American folk music, it a democratic music. Women blues singers, both black and white, reach back to Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Victoria Spivey, Billie Holiday, and Big Maybelle, through Alberta Hunter, Etta James, Koko Taylor, Sippie Wallace, Nina Simone, to more recent blues singers such as Irma Thomas, Bonnie Raitt, Janis Joplin, Susan Tedeschi, Shemekia Copeland, Marcia Ball, and Ruth Brown, and the list could go on. The blues is alive and vital.
The blues as a folk form originated from a different place, but intersected with the folk music of singers as varied as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Carter Family, Hank Williams, and Jimmie Rodgers. Sometimes both traditions became embodied in one person, such as Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) and the aforementioned Muddy Waters.
Like the music and the society around him, B. B. King changed with the times. His early music concentrated on rhythm & blues and electric blues focused on a largely African American audience. Later in life he expanded the blues audience into the larger society, merging it with other musical styles such as blues rock. As such, he became the penultimate blues popularist. So in tribute to the great B.B. King, who will be missed, I bring you two of his performances on the excellent Austin City Limits, one from 1983 and one from 1996. The King is dead, long live the blues.