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Southern Foodways Alliance: So, B.B. …

Music changed my life, many years ago. It is my purest form of hope. In my mind, it is the undisputed king of art.

BB king 4

The written word is second, and food comes in closely third. The failing of the written word or food is that there is no inflection like there is in music. Meaning, I can say I love you a million times over, but without a sonic inflection, we are left to create it on our own (without direction from the artist). And, free and clear of any spiritual traditions judgment, sonic inflection is the heartbeat of all creation.

So, B.B….

When so many people made up the gumbo of my life, B.B. played his part. In the soup of all musical parts, BB still stands alone as a conduit of feeling. Feeling, not emotion. Emotion is something that drives us, but feeling, as an action, is the ability to harness our emotions, and drive them to an ultimate experience. That experience, is what I think (and hope) is the best part of being human. To understand why B.B. is that conduit is to understand his music. “King of the Blues”, “Worlds Greatest Blues Singer”… those things fall so short of his genius.
What was B.B.? Fundamentally, he was a guitar player. It’s funny though, the song that I go running back to was from a performance at Cook County Jail, where I can’t even detect a note from Lucille – no GUITAR! Just feeling… Listen to this. It brings me to tears almost every time I hear it.

But when B.B. plays, he can “phrase” like no other. Phrasing is taking a series of notes or chords and turning them from mechanical repetition into something that is alive. B.B. made single notes come alive with simple scales, string bends and vibrato. But that was just his guitar. He performed with his whole person. When he sang, Lucille was quiet, and when Lucille was done, B.B. sang. He was a master of conversation between instrument and player. You almost didn’t know who the instrument or player was; they conversed in a completely fluid manner.

That extended to B.B.’s whole style. He performed live more than most players, and his performances were interactions between the crowd and the band. He was as much a bandleader as Duke Ellington or Count Basie. This performance from the Regal is a full manifestation of how a performer can take an audience in and have a completely interactive experience. Tracks 2, 3 & 4 highlight that.

The thing that is going down into the grave today, beyond his phenomenal person – his genuineness, grace and humility…his ability to make people feel what he felt, with the touch of a string, or beauty of his voice – is the language.

I’ve thought a lot about the fact that I’ve wished people of the CMT generation would appreciate the beautiful musicianship of people like B.B. King (and a lot of others). But that’s a misguided hope. B.B. never wrote a popular song or a top 10 hit. His music, and genius, was expressed as a whole language. Learning that language is what I hope the CMT generation learns.
But it takes a lot to learn a language, and it’s easy to watch languages die – take Latin, for instance. The thing that can’t be forgotten in what the likes of Robert Johnson, Blind Willie, Son House…all the way up to B.B. have done, is that the language they spoke created the opportunity for a new generation to move on and have popular hits that make millions of dollars. That pop culture isn’t bad, it’s just different, and its soul is in a different place. B.B.’s soul was in the space that channeled feeling in a way that he could give it to other people, and they could make it their own.

I’m not the best utilizer of the gift, but I’m thankful that I speak the language.


Drew Robinson is an SFA board member, a chef, a pitmaster, a music lover, and (whether he’s willing to admit it or not) a writer. Article republished with permission by Southern Foodways Alliance.

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