Weirdly, the news of B.B. King’s recent passing did not spark in me the immediate sadness or regret I might have expected. It wasn’t just because news reports suggested he had died on his own terms—at home, in hospice care—or because, at age 89, he had lived a life of fullness and success far beyond what the world had prepared for a black man born in Mississippi in 1925. Instead, the feelings I experienced were more of joy and thankfulness for the example of a person whose humanity and exuberance had prevailed in a world that most days seems designed to be a slow-motion slaughterhouse for our hopes and dreams.
The thing is, at times B.B. King made it look too easy. Watching or listening to him perform, one might easily forget what Ralph Ellison once said of the blues: that it “is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness […] and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.” B.B. King never presented himself as the tortured, driven artist; the terrors of poverty, lynching, and other degradations heaped upon African-Americans of his generation rarely seemed on parade in his music (though he was more frank about such things in his autobiography, Blues All Around Me). Those rippling guitar lines, those sashaying horn arrangements, those cry-and-wail vocals, were defiant signs of life, to the point of sometimes allowing us to forget that the wolf—or the lynch mob—might be lurking at the juke-joint door.
If blues is a tincture of sweetness squeezed from the bitter fruit of history and experience, then just think how much strength and effort it must have taken over a lifetime for someone like B.B. King to spread as much soul-soothing honey as he did. The sweeter the sting of the blue notes, the deeper must be the blues from which they came, and the greater the soul of the artist who can perform such alchemy. Without denying the blackness of the blues’ origins, B.B. King insisted that the blues were for everyone—and he gave the blues as a gift with no strings attached to all comers, including the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who had enslaved, exploited, excluded, and otherwise disrespected and denied the humanity of folks like Riley B. King.
As a white American still struggling to understand my complicity and responsibility with respect to our nation’s troubling racial legacies, I didn’t earn the many pleasures I’ve derived from the gift of B.B. King’s music; but B.B. didn’t care. He let me and so many others like me into the joyful musical space that he and other black musicians had carved out of their shared pain.
So this is what has come into focus for me in the hours since I heard of B.B. King’s passing: not the depth of sorrow and loss (though that is there), but more the power of generosity and forgiveness, sent forth on waves of string-stretching blue notes that have now circled the earth more times than one could have imagined when B.B. King’s career began. Some obits have referred to him as “the Ambassador of the Blues,” but that seems a little too regal and generic for me.
He was more like a special envoy, using the blues to heal the rifts and trouble spots out of which the blues sprang to begin with. I stand in awe at the dignity and near-godly spiritual strength of the bluesman who night after night for more than 60 years stood up onstage with a guitar and delivered the message to brothers, sisters, strangers, and oppressors alike—a message whose words (in my head at least) sounded something like this: Much has been done, and it ain’t all right, but the blues is all right, and I’m here to sing ‘em for you!
AJ Scheiber is a Twin-Cities-based musician who currently sings and plays in the honky-tonk band Wilkinson James. In his other life, he teaches literature and writing at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.