The death of B.B. King forces us to think about the custody of the blues itself. Where does the music go now? Or has it already left? And to where?
King, who died in Las Vegas on Thursday at the age of 89, was one of the last in a pantheon of great electric blues players. With the help of his famous guitar Lucille, he forged a sound that was admired as eagerly as it was copied.
It’s quaint to think of music as a nifty little torch that gets passed from hand to hand, generation to generation, but we should know by now that the transaction of influence is infinitely messier. Little embers jump off the torch’s flame. New fires burn wild and loud.
And in America, the blues sparked an unprecedented kind of wildfire. It determined the way in which all rock-and-rollers would handle their guitars. It helped steer the curve of vocalized vowels in Motown and every town. Electrified in Chicago, it presaged hip-hop as an idiom designed to express black urban hardship at high decibels.
But when the blues first arrived in America’s mass consciousness roughly half a century ago, largely via British blues players, it was seen as the primordial style upon which rock-and-roll was building tomorrow’s castles. Plenty of rock millionaires took pains to advertise this connection, occasionally collaborating with their heroes while basking in the glow of their credibility. In the second half of his career, King was happy to shine in his duets with Eric Clapton and U2.
Partnerships like these cemented the idea of the blues as human fingertips bending electric guitar strings into amplified wails. And in 2015, you can hear that sound inside countless nightclubs and just about every Guitar Center showroom across the country. You can also hear it being made more urgently by a few professional young guns, including Gary Clark Jr., the most recent figure to make the electric blues sound alive, or at least alert.
But if we think of the blues more broadly — as a confessional purge, as a sonic act of unburdening — we can hear it all around us. It’s as if this music has been pulverized into tiny particles that we’ve been unwittingly breathing for decades.
Contemporary rap is where you’ll hear it most distinctly, a genre where the most commanding vocalists are currently using Auto-Tune to bend their semi-improvisational rhymes into bruised sobs and groans, not dissimilar to the sore notes King bent on Lucille’s fretboard.
(For those who still consider Auto-Tune to be a musical crutch: Was Lucille a crutch because she was electric? Musicians will always seek new ways to express big emotions through new technology.)
In many ways, the great Atlanta rapper Future, and his scores of imitators, feel like the information-age heirs to the original Delta bluesmen. Much like their forebears, these are young black artists expressing their individuality, and their anguish with expressive spontaneity.
Don’t be unsettled by this inheritance. Influence spreads across genre lines as effortlessly as spores on the breeze. It’s out there. We can still find the blues inside the nightclubs, dive-bars and guitar shops, where’s it’s expected, but we might happen upon something more vital if we start listening for it everywhere else.
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to mourn here.
With King’s death, we lose our access to a pioneer who invented new ways to improvise the sound of his humanity on six strings. And while we may have called what he was doing “the blues,” it’s important to remember that we didn’t love King for his ability to carry a tradition into the 21st century. We were drawn to his music because it was a manifestation of his pain.
We can’t — and shouldn’t — expect the musicians of today, tomorrow or the day after to express anyone’s blues other than their own.