When asked to define the blues, B.B. King once said, “It’s good for me when I am feeling bad; and it's good for me when I am feeling good.”
No more can reasonably be demanded from any music form.
We know from Ernie K-Doe, whose famous quote appeared in each issue of OffBeat Magazine, that, though he wasn’t sure, he thought that all music came from New Orleans.
K-Doe was right; of course, all music did come from New Orleans, particularly the American genres – except for the blues. B.B. King’s death last week reminded me of the strange relationship that New Orleans has with its region. This city is in the South but not of the South. King was born in Mississippi and his music would move up and down the river like barges filled with cotton, but the cotton was not grown in the city. It might have been distributed here, though cotton, like the blues, came from a different soil.
Blues is a mournful music made famous by black men who had a lot to be mournful about, but who found some solace from their guitars. Jelly Roll Martin would claim that he first heard the blues in New Orleans in 1902. The music was most likely just passing through. In retrospect New Orleans could have never given birth to the blues because the city is too frenetic. There’s too much of a beat; too much rhythm; too much celebration. The city cannot sit still long enough for the blues to have taken root. New Orleans was much better for mixing sounds to a livelier beat that would one day, in Chicago, be branded as "jazz;" or blending some of the blues techniques with other forms to be called "rhythm and blues." In that form Ernie K-Doe could lament about his "Mother in Law" but this was not music for being melancholy; it was for dancing.
Probably the most important blues singer to come out of Louisiana wasn’t from New Orleans but form Shreveport, Huddie Ledbetter, forever known as Lead Belly. That same city was the home of the Louisiana Hayride, a weekly radio broadcast that beamed country music across the lower South. Hank Williams and Elvis were regulars there. Country music and blues are more about the South. Shreveport is a more southern city than New Orleans. The music belonged there.
King did play at the Jazz Fest in 1988 and most recently 2013, but the city that was closest to his life was Memphis. There the Mississippi Delta begins and spreads from Southern Tennessee into the farmlands of Northern Mississippi and Louisiana.
Bluesmen would perform on Beale Street in Memphis where B.B. King’s Blues Club remains open though its namesake spent his last years, and died, in Las Vegas. I once sat in on a session at King’s place. Unfortunately he was not there that night. Instead there was some white kid whose music was too amplified and whose sound was too rockandrollish. The music gave me the blues alright, but for the wrong reason.
Music is best in its own environment. I hope that somewhere tonight along the Mississippi Delta levee the sound of a lonely guitar is echoing and that whoever is playing it, like B.B. King would have, feels good because of the experience.
— 30 —
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and at book web sites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7PM, REPEATED AT 11:30 PM.WYES-TV, CH. 12.