The death of Blues guitarist BB King at the age of 89 yesterday didn’t just mark the end of a life or even a career of impressive longevity; it severed the last remaining link with the roots of the twentieth century’s most innovative, explosive and enjoyable cultural revolution. Without BB King and his fellow Blues troubadours, most of whom were already approaching middle-age when their influence finally reached out of the segregated circuit they’d played for decades, the soundtrack that has shaped our listening habits would have been very different indeed.
King was so old he had been born on a cotton plantation in the Deep South; even the authenticity of his origins appear mythological, surrounded as he was by the realities of the world that formed the basis of rock ‘n’ roll’s lyrical landscape. As with Country, the folk music of white rural America, the Blues was an autobiographical format that black rural America felt an instinctive connection with because it translated their collective experiences into song – the draining monotony of menial labour, the struggle to make ends meet, and (perhaps most of all) what happens when your woman walks out.
In an era when there was little cultural exchange between black and white, the groundbreaking move from acoustic to electric guitars that BB King, along with contemporaries such as Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and John Lee Hooker, helped pioneer went largely unnoticed outside of the parallel universe that had been labelled ‘Race Music’. But while mainstream America was tuned into the lush ballads of the crooners and torch singers, the uniquely harsh segregation of the South created circumstances that fed the curiosity of a generation of poor white kids. Alien sounds drifting across the late night airwaves from the other side of the tracks prompted them to pick up guitars and blend their Country traditions with the Blues.
While rock ‘n’ roll was swiftly stripped of the initial animalistic qualities that appalled Middle America as the mainstream absorbed its energy and Hollywood castrated Elvis, the Blues found a receptive audience across the Atlantic. Those raised in a nation struggling to recover from the exhaustive trauma of the Second World War found a truth and relevance in the Blues that spoke to them. Colour wasn’t an issue; it was all about context. From The Rolling Stones, The Pretty Things and The Yardbirds through to Cream, Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac, the Blues permeated the British music scene like no other American export has before or since. The veneration the Brit Bluesmen had for the founding fathers saw many of them flown over here to make a pretty penny on the road, received as rock royalty by enthusiastic audiences, some of whom were young enough to be their grandchildren.
America eventually recognised and rewarded its musical pioneers, culminating in BB King himself playing with Obama at the White House. Not bad for a Mississippi cotton-picker. But then, the legacy he leaves behind is with us every time we strap on our air guitars and let rip to our favourite riffs – riffs that he wrote more than half-a-century ago. The one-time omnipotence of the Blues may have faded from a mainstream music industry that has retreated back to the sanitised anaemia of Tin Pan Alley, but where ever there’s a crowd who like their sounds down, dirty and bluntly honest, there’ll always be a place for the Blues.