Monday, May 18, 2015

The Passing of a King and the Reign of the Blues

BB King died last Friday.

That's tough for me to write. Like Louis Armstrong or Frank Sinatra, BB King was a cultural icon. One I had the pleasure of seeing perform several times. He was a living link to America's musical past, long before the days when people could access any music from anywhere at the touch of a button. BB King was from an era of juke joints, traveling musicians, and the segregation of people and songs.

To realize how long BB King was in public consciousness, his first hit came in 1952, 63 years ago. BB King had a hit three years before Chuck Berry's first big song, and only a year after Ike Turner made "Rocket 88", the first rock and roll song.

Prior to his first hit, BB King was a staple of the Memphis music scene, hosting shows as the "Beale Street Blues Boy" on WDIA as early as 1949. WDIA was the first radio station in America to market entirely to African-American listeners.  BB King did so well on WDIA, his show was expanded. According to BB King's original program manager, he was "too hot for radio".

Of course, BB King went on to national acclaim: Grammy awards, Presidential Medals, Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame induction, and many, many more.

But I want to go a little deeper. I want to write about BB King, and the blues in general, and their place in modern culture.

The blues was America's first underground music. It was born from the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta. Blues music was a way for sharecroppers and the lower class to express their frustration at a society that was only one generation removed from thinking of people as property. The forefathers of this music - the Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, Barbecue Bob, Mississippi John Hurt - were the artists who influenced BB King.

But the blues had limited shelf life to the Black Community. While it provided personal or individual empowerment - the ability to have talent and words heard, recorded, or broadcast - it lacked community empowerment. The blues was about the individual. When James Brown and other Soul, Funk, and R&B singers put the growing black community efforts in their songs, the blues no longer had young black listeners. So in order to survive, the blues had to find a new audience.

The story of British audiences embracing BB King, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and the other greats of the blues is well documented. The music of the blues masters influenced The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Yardbirds. Even Black Sabbath started as a blues rock band.

This created the interesting situation we have now. New African-American blues players are as rare as white heavyweight boxers. The blues, once a staple of the black community, has been kept alive by white musicians raised on Eric Clapton and other British guitar legends. While Clapton and others can play Robert Johnson note for note and even express some of the same individual emotional pain of Johnson, they will never match the world Johnson came from. Even the most itinerant white musician of the last 60 years will never face the same circumstances Johnson and others faced in the Jim Crow Mississippi Delta.

The concept of the blues means something different to white musicians than the black musicians they listen to. Again, not to say white people can't have or play the blues - anyone can do that. What I am saying is that modern white musicians lack the cultural depth black blues players have.

(And don't get me started on the "Cell Phone Blues" or any other interpretation of modern problems. No "first world problem" should ever been the subject of a blues song.)

This cultural appropriation, whether accidental or not, is why I think the black community is more protective of hip-hop than almost any other music. Hip-hop was born of soul and R&B and in many cases carries on the messages of community empowerment. Again, white rappers such as Eminem may be able to flip and bounce words and rhymes as good as any African-American rapper and they might be able to articulate their struggle just as well, but their message is often individual and lacks the message of community uplift that Nas, Public Enemy, or even the Wu-Tang Clan has.

Therein lies BB King's place in history. Like Louis Armstrong, he was a giant in American music. Like Louis Armstrong, his legacy paved the way for modern music, especially in regards to the acceptance and integration of African-American culture in US music.

To an extent, BB King is the personification of the blues in American history.

Without BB King, WDIA might not have been as popular. Without Black radio, musicians such as BB King might not have been heard, signed, and recorded. Without the growth of Black radio, Black communities might not have become organized, and community messages might not have been reflected in new music. But that organization and message eventually forced blues to be seek another demographic, a demographic that embraced it, kept it alive, and celebrated its heroes.

Without the Beale Street Blues Boy and WDIA, Elvis Presley might not have been inspired. Without Elvis, rock'n'roll might not have crossed over into white living rooms and middle class consciousness.

And without Elvis, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones, and their white audiences, BB King's career might not have continued as it did.