By Mary Lou Beatty
"We blues singers tell stories. We tell stories about things we like, things we dislike, things we wish, and things we wish would not be."
Still going strong after more than fifty years in the music business, the legendary B.B. King dropped in at the National Endowment for the Humanities the other afternoon, playing his guitar and talking about the history of the music and receiving a plaque as "Ambassador of the Blues." He spoke about growing up in the South "plowing the mule and chopping cotton," and how he took up music and thought he might become a gospel singer until he found that he made better money on street corners singing the blues.
He shared the stage with NEH Chairman William R. Ferris, who like King grew up in Mississippi and has a passion for the music of the Delta. Both are members of the Blues Hall of Fame. In his 1978 book, Blues from the Delta, Ferris examined the roots of the music and analyzed its cadences. "Blues probably developed after the Civil War," Ferris writes, "when black musicians were free to travel throughout the South and develop their repertoires. . . . Certainly the instrument most commonly associated with the blues—the guitar—is never seen in pre-Civil War illustrations, and unlike most early slave songs and hymns, blues are performed by solo music."
In an interview at the time, King described how the blues tradition was handed down. "I used to hear Blind Lemon, Lonnie Johnson, and quite a few of the older blues singers That was real blues to me. . . . A lot of old blues go way back. Each generation puts its own thing to it and makes it sound a little different. But the roots are still right there and you can feel it when you play."
At the Endowment, King was asked about his younger days. He didn’t talk about the most painful parts—the mother who died when he was young, or the grandmother who died the next year, but he talked about everyday life for a black person in the South of the 1930s, about starched jeans for a night on the town, about the segregated washrooms and the "White" and "Colored" drinking fountains in the parks. "There’s an old saying: ‘You never miss what you never had,’ We knew things wasn’t what we thought they should be. . . . But we had nothing to compare it with."
B.B. King left Mississippi for Memphis and Chicago and a wider stage, playing his guitar and singing the blues in what one admiring reviewer called "those chilling falsetto wails." He is, says music historian Lee Hildebrand, "an icon of U.S. culture, acknowledged by blacks and whites alike as the king of the blues—and rightly so. No other blues artist has had a wider influence, instrumentally and vocally." Another writes: "If it were not for B.B. King, there would be no Clapton, no Harrison, no Beck. There’d be no lead guitar, no rock and roll as we know it."
King has given his records and memorabilia for the creation of a Blues Archive at the University of Mississippi. Ferris was director of the University’s Center for Southern Culture for eighteen years before coming to the Endowment. King also contributes to the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, another NEH-supported project, which is expanding its exhibition space to an old railroad station.
As the visit came to a close, King turned to Ferris: "Want to grab your guitar?" And then the two of them sat down and played together. "How Blue Can You Get?" It was a remarkable moment.