I’m still learning about this blogging thing, to put it mildly. Writing is fairly hard work (well, it ain’t digging ditches, but it takes effort), and I like to be lazy. So when word came that B.B. King had finished his run on the planet, I didn’t automatically say, “Ah hah, I have a column!” as so many bloggers did. (The journalists getting paychecks may have said it with a groan.)
But my trusty webmaster in a gentle-but-effective recent note pointed out that B.B.’s life fell squarely into On Highway 61 turf, and that it was time to get off – or rather, get back on – my ass, and get to work. Thanks, Anne.
So the last giant of the post-war blues is gone. He went, as every article points out, from bottom-of-the-pyramid life in the Delta to a Las Vegas mansion and enjoyed the loving worship of a whole bunch of fans on the way. Also a big bunch of kids by a big bunch of different ladies. Not a bad life.
But being a historian, my mind has turned not to his endings so much as his beginnings. Riley B. King was born in 1925, McKinley “Muddy Waters” Morganfield in 1913, Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnette in 1910, all of them in Mississippi.
Which is to say, they were born in the second era of slavery, when the South, in particular the planters of the Mississippi Delta, rebounded from their military loss in the Civil War and out-maneuvered the North to resume life as the top dogs – on the backs of the black people who made the cotton grow and the Delta function. It was called the sharecropping system, and it lasted from after the Civil War until it wasn’t needed any more, when the mechanical cotton picker and pesticides made the sharecroppers dispensable. Isn’t capitalism grand?
Because Alan Lomax, for all his flaws, really did go to Clarksdale in August of 1941 and record Muddy Waters playing the rural acoustic blues, the scene is a permanent tableaux in American history. Muddy was a tractor driver making 22 1/2 cents an hour, played guitar for fun and also happened to run a juke joint up the road…but his life and his social status in Mississippi were not terribly different from 1920 or 1900 or 1880. No wonder he sang the blues.
And of course the significant thing, as we look back on it, is that he left. Asked for a raise, he was told to get lost – and did, taking the train to Chicago. There he added electricity to his music and became a legend. So did Wolf, with a stop in Memphis, and so did B.B. They got out.
It was powerful art, and it sang the story of the African-American diaspora. And eventually it was acknowledged by the mainstream (read: white) culture, and eventually even by the government of the state of Mississippi. When you enter Mississippi on the outskirts of Memphis, the sign reads “Welcome to Mississippi, Birthplace of America’s Music.” There’s historical markers all over that recount the history of the blues – and that’s a good thing.
So honor B.B.’s memory. Honor the suffering and honor the glory of the artistic result. The man could play. I saw him most recently in Sonoma, and he wasn’t at the top of his game. The band largely carried the show, but every once in a while there’d be fire from his fingertips, and I was grateful to be there.
Go to Mississippi, and soon, because even Mississippi is changing. In the 25 years since I first visited, the differences are obvious. What was once nothing but cotton fields as far as the eye can see now contains soy beans. On my first trip for On Highway 61 (in 2002), I covered the Mississippi end of the trip alone (my partner Lou Tambakos could only make it down to St. Louis), and was entranced. When I returned in 2010 with my photographer wife Susana, she remarked – she is a true foodie — that we needed to plan on a special meal somewhere. I replied that there wasn’t that kind of thing in Mississippi.
Boy, was I wrong. Eventually, the terrific photographer Dick Waterman and his wife Cinda took us to lunch at a place called City Grocery in Oxford – a fabulous meal. But hell, it’s a university town, I said to myself. Then we got to B.B.’s home town of Indianola. We of course paid homage at his museum – it is world class, as good as the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, a must-see for anybody interested in American history.
But the shock came when we went looking for food around the corner. I’m sorry to say that we can’t, for the life of us, be sure of the name – it might be Nola – but the fact is, we wandered down the street, saw a restaurant, liked the feel, and found food as good as any in San Francisco…and that’s not the Mississippi of old.
Go to the museum and cherish B.B.’s memory. It’ll do you good.
A slightly side-ways note: I heard from some folks making what sounds like a fascinating movie called Renegade Dreamers. It’s about the ongoing tradition of rebellious poets and folk singers, and they’ve already done interviews with people like Tom Paxton, Dave Van Ronk, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, David Amram, and Izzy Young of the Greenwich Village Folk Center. It’s an important part of our heritage. They’re raising funds to complete editing… how about you go to http://www.renegadedreamers.com and check it out and even donate something.
Recent Interview on Tipjarmag.com, Dennis McNally on Zen, Music and the 50th Anniversary of the Grateful Dead : (It’s a new blog from my buddy Nick Hutchinson, and I recommend it.)
New Upcoming Appearance:
I’m actually going to be fairly busy this summer and you can check the Upcoming Appearances slot here at the website. The brand new one is that I’ll be talking about Jerry Garcia’s art teacher, Wally Hedrick, and Wally’s really fascinating history, at the Beatnik Shindig at Fort Mason on Sunday morning, 10 a.m., June 28. I’d be very happy to see you there.
Nick Hutchinson says
Dennis, Thanks for honoring the legacy of B.B. King and for helping keeping roots music and our American history alive!
Dennis McNally says
Well, I’d say the honor is all to B.B. … but it’s surely my privilege. He really was somethin’.