B.B. King’s Universal Language | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

B.B. King’s Universal Language

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Joe Atkins

OXFORD—Blues music may be singing the "No Future Tomorrow" blues once B.B. King hangs up his guitar for good, Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer warned back in 2004.

Speaking at a "Blues Today" symposium in Oxford, Iglauer, whose Chicago-based company recorded Hound Dog Taylor and other greats, called bluesman B.B. King the music's standard-bearer. "Sooner or later, he's going to be forced to retire. He's an icon. When he does, that blues is history. ... I'm very scared about the future," he said.

To keep the music alive, Iglauer said, blues musicians must be "nurtured" to be able to connect with contemporary audiences. "If we don't nurture the young musicians, we are talking about a museum," he said.

King, who died May 14 at the age of 89, got his nurturing from folks like his cousin, country blues artist Bukka White, and the music he heard along Beale Street in Memphis back in the 1940s. "I'm a self-taught man," King told an audience in Oxford during that same blues symposium. "Every time I'd hear something, I'd learn a little more about it, and I'd play it. It's like learning a language," he said.

In an interview I had with the Mississippi-born blues great that same year, he said he was optimistic about the genre's future. "There is a young guy, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Keb Mo, Corey Harris. They don't play what I play. I don't play like Bukka did. I wish I could. What I'm trying to say is that each generation brings about their own musicians."

King was right. Compare the clean, soul-rending notes from his guitar, Lucille, on "Three O'Clock Blues" to the raw chords you hear on Bukka White's "Parchman Farm Blues" in the 1940s or Charley Patton's "Pea Vine Blues" in the 1920s. King's lineage may be more evident in Blind Willie Johnson's 1927 classic "Dark Was The Night," in which Johnson's bottleneck echoes every emotion-filled moan.

It's all blues, just different kinds of blues—different generations of musicians with something to say to an audience that knows exactly what the musicians mean.

You can see the nurturing Iglauer called for in places like the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, where young local musicians get training that allows them to tap into their region's rich cultural legacy. The upcoming young blues prodigy Christone "Kingfish" Ingram is a product of that training.

The blues grew out of a South haunted by poverty, isolation, racial oppression, old-time religion and intolerant, oligarchical rule. It was the music of poor people, a kind of rebellion against those crushing forces. It's the same with poor people's music everywhere in the world—flamenco in Spain, fado in Portugal, tango in Argentina.

The music crosses racial and even class lines, however. Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf liked to listen to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. Bluegrass and country greats Bill Monroe, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams all learned from the blues.

To some, the genre lost much of its poignancy when it left the backwater South and went commercial in Chicago. In the 1930s, Mississippian Robert Johnson's blues laments about "hellhound on my trail" and "me and the devil ... walking side by side" were existential cries of anguish. By the 1960s, Texas guitarist Lightnin' Hopkins once complained, practically every Chicago blues song was about a woman.

In many ways, B.B. King straddled those different eras of blues. From learning at the knee of Bukka White to singing duos with Eric Clapton, he was a part of the blues' evolution from the music that W.C. Handy heard at the Tutwiler train station back in 1903 to what The Rolling Stones were singing in the 1960s and beyond. That's why he was, in Iglauer's words, "an ideal spokesman for 
his music."

"I think one of the things about the blues is truth," King told me in 2004. "It's truth without a lot of makeup. If we hear Frank Sinatra, he paints a beautiful picture. He sings about a girl in a beautiful meadow. He finally tells her he loves her. That makes the picture. In the blues, the guy doesn't know all these beautiful lines. The blues singer just says, 'Baby, I love you!'" That's a universal language, and people are going to want to hear those who speak it well for a long time, whether the words are about hellhounds, lost love, or loneliness and an empty bed at three o'clock in the morning.

Joe Atkins is a veteran journalist, columnist and professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi. He can be reached at jbatkins@olemiss.edu.

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