In my inaugural post for this website I discussed the subtle humor of the blues, and how that humor helps to give the blues its healing power. Last week we lost an American icon, a musician who is perhaps the best-known blues musician of them all.
B.B. King was neither the most versatile nor the most emotionally impactful blues musician. The ever-amiable master displayed little of the hellhounds that cast tortured shadows over the early delta players, the sheer frightening force of Howlin’ Wolf or the commandeering magnetism of Muddy Waters. But the “Blues Boy” developed his own influential style of fluid, single note guitar leads – moving seamlessly through his very being and out through his fingertips – which became the defining sound that many think of when they think of the blues. He spoke through his fingers. Tone flowed through his veins. His immense popularity and consistency made him the unquestionable ambassador of the blues to the world, and for that he rightly earned the title of King.
B.B. King defined his long and impressive career with class, sophistication and an effortless grace. But he wasn’t above a little good-natured humor, and had no reservations about making music with any artist from any genre, human or otherwise.
Here is a clip of the “King of the Blues” sitting in with the gang from Sesame Street, singing a song about the importance of the letter B. It’s a fun, humorous clip, but it underscores a deeper truth. Without the letter B, so the song goes, there would be no birds, no Berts and, most importantly, no blues. And without the blues, there would be no spirituals, no jazz, no honky tonk country, no R&B, no Rock ‘n’ Roll, no soul music, no funk, no hip-hop, not even pop. Without the blues there would be no anecdote for life’s unbearable heft. There could be no healing. Without the blues there is no American music. There is no America.
Play on, Blues Boy.