--Music critic Henry Pleasants on blues artist B.B. King in The Great American Popular Singers: Their Lives, Careers & Art
Blues music is not old, country, depressing, or primitive—unless it’s performed poorly. Though the blues only comprises a small share of the commercial market it has long transcended commercial trends. In this regard LeRoi Jones’s (later Amiri Baraka) classic book 1963's Blues People: Negro Music in White America is an important work because it was one of the first serious studies of the genre to approach it historically as a distinctly American music and as a living art that infuses most aspects of American music from the classic blues to jazz to R&B. Over the course of the 20th century the rural roots of the blues expanded into various urban forms as its practitioners migrated and as technologies modernized popular music.
The blues has long divided races, classes, and generations in unusual ways. For example, though blacks pioneered the genre, for decades the blues was viewed as lewd, outdated, and vulgar to many middle-class and/or religious African-Americans. What was initially viewed as rural “race music” in the ‘20s and ‘30s eventually transformed a whole generation of British and white American musicians in the ‘60s. Similarly, despite its initial roots as music of the underclass the blues has cachet as a connoisseur’s music for serious aficionados.
B.B. King’s unfortunate passing in May has me thinking in a blue state of mind. The combination of his fluid playing on his beloved guitar Lucille with his poised, regal vocal style is the most iconic sound of blues in the modern era. Songs like “Rock Me Baby” and “The Thrill is Gone” have helped him serve as an enduring international ambassador of the genre through his recordings and concerts. King recorded from 1949 (on RPM Records) through 2012 (Shout Factory). During this 62 year period he adapted to production styles, expanded his repertoire, and recorded with figures as varied as U2 and Diane Schuur, and a host of duet partners on several albums in the 1990s and 2000s.
King’s death marks the demise of nearly a whole generation of performers who ushered key elements of the blues into the modern era in the 1950s, who have passed in the last decade including Bobby “Blue” Bland (2012), Etta James (2012), Koko Taylor (2009), Ruth Brown (2006), and John Lee Hooker (2001). We are fortunate their recordings remain in print ripe for discovery for new generations of listeners. It’s also essential to acknowledge the array of current performers recording within the blues tradition who span generations. Some important voices whose careers are honorable introductions to various sub-genres in the blues, and their recommended recordings, include the following:
Buddy Guy (b. 1936)
Modern electric blues and Chicago Blues
Recommended: Living Proof (2010)
Irma Thomas (b. 1941)
New Orleans Blues & R&B
Recommended: After the Rain (2006)
Maria Muldaur (b. 1943)
Classic Blues and Country Blues
Recommended: Richland Woman Blues (2001)
Angela Strehli (b. 1945)
Modern electric blues
Recommended: Blue Highway (2005)
Marcia Ball (b. 1949)
Texas and Louisiana blues
Recommended: Presumed Innocent (2001)
Rory Block (b. 1949)
Electric and country blues
Recommended: From the Dust (2005)
Eric Bibb (b. 1951)
Recommended: Blues People (2014)
Robert Cray (b. 1953)
Recommended: Cookin’ In Mobile (2010)
Catherine Russell (b. 1956)
Classic Blues and Swing
Recommended: Sentimental Streak (2006)
Ruthie Foster (b. 1964)
Recommended: The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster (2007)
Tedeschi Trucks Band: Susan Tedeschi (b. 1970) and Derek Trucks (b. 1979)
Modern electric blues
Recommended: Revelator (2010)
Beth Hart (1972)
Modern electric blues
Recommended: Seesaw [with Joe Bonamassa] (2012)
Shemekia Copeland (b. 1979)
Recommended: Never Going Back (2009)
Gary Clark Jr. (b. 1984)
Recommended: Blak and Blu (2012)
Listening to recordings by these notable contemporary performers is a great way to get to explore various genres and their individual styles. But, catching them live, whether at solo concerts or at local and regional festivals, is the ideal form for capturing musicians in their element. I have seen Bibb, Copeland, Foster and Russell live and can attest to the thrill of their live energy.
Students of the blues also have an array of recent books on the blues to immerse themselves in its history and development. Some important titles from the 2000s include Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music (Ted Gioia, W.W. Norton, 2008), Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (Elijah Wald, HarperCollins, 2004), and the book companion to the PBS TV series Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey (Peter Guralnick, Robert Santelli, Holly George-Warren, Christopher John Farley, editors, Amistad/HarperCollins, 2003).
There are also several classic blues histories still in print including Blues Fell this Morning (Paul Oliver); Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (Angela Y. Davis); Blues People (LeRoi Jones); Deep Blues (Robert Palmer); The Devil’s Music (Giles Oakley); Feel Like Going Home (Peter Guralnick); The History of the Blues (Francis Davis); and Lost Highway (Peter Guralnick). And of course, biographies, autobiographies, and film/DVDs are important sources for delving into the blues.
Some of the finest contemporary American music made today emanates from the blues circuit. Figures like King, and peers like Bland and James, helped translate the blues genre into the modern age and their legacies endure. As a contemporary form it discourages nostalgia and urges us to live in the moment to personalize the music for our age. The blues lives on in records, on film, in books, and on the concert stage because we can’t live without it.
COPYRIGHT ©2015 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.