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Blues, the Devil’s music

The death of B.B. King represents the end of an era

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

The death of B.B. King, the Mississippi bluesman whose high falsetto notes and distinct guitar bending lifted him from the misery of life as a sharecropper to the status of the most recognized blues icon in the world, represents the end of an era. He was the last of the giants that dominated the post-war blues world. His contemporaries were Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James, Little Walter and John Lee Hooker. This is the most impressive pantheon of electric blues deities since the 1930’s and 1940’s when the founders of the Delta blues - greats like Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Skip James and Son House - made their groundbreaking acoustic blues recordings and created an enduring music legacy that continues to reverberate around the world.

B.B. King’s discography reflects his immense ability to synthesize different blues styles, and to incorporate other music genres like jazz, gospel and rock which helped him ‘cross’ to a wider audience, particularly after his outstanding recording of "The thrill is gone" (1969). B.B. King’s Apex was reached in November 1964 when he recorded Live at the Regal, probably the best live recording in the history of the blues. On that cold night, B.B. King created the perfect fusion between his powerful voice, alternating between growling, wailing and a supple timber and the magical sound of his guitar, Lucille. You did not have to be at the Regal Theater in Chicago that evening to experience blues ecstasy.

America’s gift

Blues music is quintessentially American. It is gritty and hard hitting; it can be rough in one chord, then tender in the next; it sours joyfully and slides soulfully, and blues, even when it sounds ‘blue,’ is always vibrant and life affirming. Blues had roots in West Africa that were watered by some small Arab and Berber tributaries. But blues, particularly Delta blues is like the mighty Mississippi River, with which it is eternally linked, and is the South’s gift to America and the world. Blues is the mother of most American music; it evolved and borrowed from Gospel and Negro Spirituals; Jazz emerged from its bosom and as Muddy Waters sang, the blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll.

B.B. King’s discography reflects his immense ability to synthesize different blues styles, and to incorporate other music genres like jazz, gospel and rock

Hisham Melhem

The blues had a history before the term blues was introduced early in the twentieth century in Mississippi. Delta blues, one of the earliest, and arguably the fountainhead of all great blues, was created by the poorest, most marginalized of black people. Life in Mississippi for blacks, particularly sharecroppers was so harsh that it felt “like being in hell” as John Lee Hooker once said. The state was infamous for its racism and lynchings.

The Delta had the richest and most fertile soil on the banks of the Mississippi and the most poverty. The Mississippi ‘Delta’ should not be confused with the real delta where the river fans out into the Gulf of Mexico, it is in fact located few hundred miles north and it refers loosely to a large swathe of the state flanked on the West by the Mississippi River and on the East by one of its tributaries, the Yazoo River. Most of the area was wetlands that were filled and leveled by slaves before the civil war. Most of the inhabitants were poor black sharecroppers - virtual serfs, working on large white-owned plantations. Cotton was king. While picking cotton, men and women would sing, or rather ‘holler,’ in a mode of call-and-response style.

The Devil’s music

Because the early bluesmen and women were the downtrodden illiterate descendants of slaves who were not seen as skilled enough to work as servants or in other reputable functions, blues was not considered respectable. Later on, blues developed in the seedy parts of towns, in Juke joints (bars), speakeasies (illicit nightclubs) and brothels. And because some of the lyrics were raunchy, and most songs were about man-woman relations, drinking, lust, love, loss and longing, blues was considered sinful. The fact that bluesmen like Son House and Lead Belly were convicted killers, and the legendary Robert Johnson was poisoned by the jealous husband of the woman he loved did not help solidify the reputation of the bluesmen as righteous members of the community.

But what enraged the pious Christian blacks, who found in the Church the only meaningful social institution, was the way Bluesmen would borrow Christian hymns and turn them into blues songs. To most blacks, blues was the Devil’s music. A traditional gospel like “This Train is Bound For Glory” which carries only the ‘righteous and the holy’ would be transformed by the amazingly talented Little Walter in his song "My Babe" into a ‘secular’ song about how his babe “she don’t stand none of that midnight creepin’” and “when she’s hot there ain’t no coolin.” This gave rise to a conflict between the Christian preachers, and the preachers of blues. Son House, a major Delta bluesman wanted to be a Baptist preacher according to his song “Preachin’ Blues.”

Delta blues

Delta blues music is suffused with religion, myths, magic, and voodoo. One of its most enduring and endearing myth is that of the Crossroads. Tommy Johnson an itinerant influential bluesman in the 1920’s and 30’s claimed that his incredible skills as a guitarist were attributed to a meeting with a mysterious black figure at a crossroads. According to the legend, Johnson gave the man – presumably the devil - his guitar to tune it for him and to teach him how to play perfectly in return for his soul. Later on that myth was further embellished by the other more famous, and not related, Robert Johnson, who sang about the famous meeting at the Crossroad.

Many Delta blues singers believed in the power of Mojo, which is a magic spell or charm that gives a person magical powers to succeed in every endeavor, including the art of seduction. The word has become an integral part of daily discourse. The great bluesman Muddy Waters, borrowed an up-tempo ‘jump blues’ song by an obscure blueswoman Ann Cole titled “Got My Mojo Working” and turned it into a classic Delta style song, thus immortalizing the magic and mythology of Mojo power.

Most of the great Delta blues singers were illiterate or had rudimentary education, and none of them studied music, and yet they ended up creating some of the most enduring and charming songs produced anywhere in the twentieth century. Most musicians would sing standard blues songs, but would add and subtract verses as they go along. Some of them, like Sonny Boy Williamson wrote their own lyrics and were both itinerants of music and poetry. The early instruments of the blues were the banjo, later replaced by the guitar, and the harmonica, with piano and drums introduced later in Juke joints. But the great Delta bluesmen from the 1920’s until the early 1940’s were solo acts. Bluesmen like Robert Johnson, Charley Patton and Son House would play to black audiences at fish fries for small fees. Many sang about their yearnings, their loss, their lovers, their demons. Charley Patton, arguably the greatest of them, had a small frame but he belted the blues as if he was a giant. Charley, who had a light skin and a wavy hair, unlike the dark complexion of his father, which gave rise to rumors that Charley was not his father’s biological child, was a great showman and he was credited with much of the wizardry and dexterity associated with playing guitar. His voice was deep, powerful, and raspy. At times it is difficult to understand his words because he would slur them. His primitive and scratchy recordings are still fresh and powerful. On few of them he was accompanied by his immensely talented wife Bertha Lee. Their haunting song “Oh Death” is what makes Delta blues immortal, authentically American yet universally appealing. “It was soon one morning, when death come in the room ,Lord I know, Lord I know my time ain’t long,” read the lyrics. In another classic, “Down The Dirt Road Blues,” he sings of his desolate world: “I’m going away, to a world unknown , I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long, Every day seem like murder here.”

Chicago blues

In the 1940’s as WWII stimulated the American economy, another major migration of blacks from the South towards northern cities began. Vibrant Chicago, humming with factories, attracted large numbers of young black men from Mississippi and other Southern states. Mississippi bluesmen like Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and Elmore James and Sonny Boy Williamson flocked to the Windy City seeking jobs and gigs at nightclubs or on the streets. It was in Chicago that Delta blues was electrified and incorporated all the sounds and tempos that a great urban environment could provide. In the noisy clubs of Chicago, acoustic guitar and the harmonica were overwhelmed.

Electric guitars were first used in Jazz recordings earlier to make their sound louder. However, it was the genius of Muddy Waters recording with the talented Polish immigrant brothers Leonard and Phil Chess that created the unique style known later as Chicago blues. Muddy Waters established the prototype electric blues band, and he packed with tremendous talent. The band included Little Walter, who is probably the best harmonica player that ever lived, Jimmy Rogers, an outstanding guitarist, Elgin Evans on drums and Otis Spann, the best blues pianist in his generation. The band recorded a series of blues classics, some with bassist/songwriter Willie Dixon, including “I’m Ready,” “Hoochie Coochie Man,” and “I Just Want to Make Love to You.” The band used amplification and the echoes (with Little Walter’s harmonica) so creatively that they created a new unheard of rawer and more textured up tempo sound.

By the early 1960’s, blues began to fade. It was overshadowed by rhythm and blues, soul, and rock and roll. This was the era of Elvis Presley (whose first three hits were blues standards) and Chuck Berry. Blues greats were forced to travel to Europe in search of work. There they played with musicians like Eric Clapton, and they were watched by the likes of Mic Jagger and Paul McCartney. In fact Jagger and Keith Richard named their band the Rolling Stones after they borrowed the title from a song by Muddy Waters. When the British invasion began, the Rolling Stones, The Beatles and the Animals who covered the songs of their blues idols, introduced them to ‘white’ America.

From America to the world

I was enthralled by the blues even when I had limited exposure to its magic growing up in Beirut, Lebanon. Lyrics are not crucial to appreciating the blues; in fact some of the best bluesmen were known for slurring their words on purpose, or for not completing verses, or they would emit growls and sounds. Blues has its own otherworldly language. Blues is pure feeling; we are drawn to the rhythm, the intonation and the cadence. For most blues singers, ‘the blues is a feeling’. Bluesmen and women talk to their instrument, and some of their instruments become an extension of their bodies. When you listen to Sonny Boy Williamson it is difficult at times to know when his singing or moaning stops and the wailing of his harmonica takes off. One of the most haunting blues speaks a language without words. Yes the song has a title, but it comes from that place we call otherworldly: “Dark was the night, cold was the ground,” by Blind Willie Johnson.

America’s contribution to world music in the last century is immense. Every culture was touched and moved by blues, jazz , rock and roll and bluegrass. Along with America’s literary giants William Faulkner and Mark Twain and great inventors Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, stand Charley Patton, Muddy Waters, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. American harmony and joy to the world.

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Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.