Time Travelers Explore Past
Time Travelers Explore Past:
An Exciting Way To Learn About MS History
Blues Born in the Delta
By Bill Bailey (Greenwood, MS) Commonwealth - April 13, 1987
As the saucer skimmed through the air, Finny said, in our search for the spirit of Mississippi, we've toured a lot of Mississippi sights. I've told you many tales and legends about Mississippi. And you've learn-ed about some true 'noble crazies,'. It's all part of our unique spirit. "Now, let's take it one step further." Hover-ing over Oxford, Finny pointed to a tall, old building with a cylindrical tower. "We're on the Ole Miss campus and that's Barnard Observatory_ One of the most unique things in our state is housed there." The building looked old-timey, maybe haunted, thought Jeff, remembering Waverly. "What's in it?" he asked.
"It's the Center for Southern Culture," said Finny, "Just as we're trying to understand the spirit of Mississippi, the people at the Center are trying to understand the spirit of the South. And since Mississippi is at the heart of the South, you might say their search and ours are basically for the same thing.
"Of course, we are just flying over the surface of things. They, however, are digging deep into everything that is Southern and studying these Southern qualities closely.
The staff at the Center does a number of projects to help us understand ourselves and to help us preserve our history and culture. They have courses, conferences and lectures about the South. Also. they write books and make records and films about the South. They are interested in the accomplishments of Southerners such as some of Mississippi's great writers and singers. And they put a particular emphasis on the accomplishments of blacks and women because sometimes they have been neglected.
One of their current projects is a 1.000-page book called "Encyclopedia of Southern Culture It has articles on everything from Paul 'Bear' Bryant to grits and barbecue anything Southern. About 800 writers have contributed to it and it should be available in 1987.
"The fact that this unique Center is located in Mississippi is another clue for us in our search. Our tremendous interest in 'what is Southern' and in our pact is part of the spirit of Mississippi It shows our pride in our heritage. "
Another source of pride is the worldwide reputation which the Center of Southern Culture has. The famous composer and jazz performer Quincy Jones even visited the Center recently to do research for his musical score for the movie 'The Color Purple'. By the way, Jones is another outstanding black musician who grew up in Mississippi.
"Dr. Bill Ferris, director of the Center, is known all over the world as a blues scholar. Because of its influence on so many other kinds of music, Dr. Fer-ris says blues is the single most important form of popular music America has produced.
Dr. Ferris hosts a blues radio program each Saturday night at 10 on public radio, FM 90.3. His nickname is 'The Blues Doctor'," said Finny. "The show is fun as well as educational.
"The Center has the largest blues music collection of records and materials in the world, including 5.000 records from blues singer B.B. King's personal collection which he generously donated to the Center.
"You keep talking about blues," said Billy. "Exactly what is the blues, anyway'"
"The blues," said Finny, "was born in the Mississippi Delta when poor black sharecroppers sang about their problems while working in the cottonfields. Blues music has a painful, hurt quality to it. It is the music of the lost, lonely and downtrodden."
"Certainly it is another clue to the spirit of Mississippi that the music we gave birth to - the blues - was born by sharecropping blacks out of poverty. sadness and helplessness. It is a triumph of the spirit that some black Mississippi singers turned something bad into something good. They found their way out of their downtrodden, poor condition through their music. Blues singers like B.R. King found a silver lining with their music in the black cloud of poverty and pain.
This creative music came straight from the heart. The fact it had such a tremendous impact on so much of the music world is a credit to our state. The blues is a part of our heritage we can be very proud of. even if we're not proud of the poverty and harsh conditions which helped cause it.
Our state is one of the most rural. Many of its citizens have been and still are poor. It is a state which has had great dependency on cotton farming. Also it had racial problems which grew out of a segregated, agricultural society.
"Singing about their troubles, often expressed in terms of 'women troubles', helped give poor Delta blacks the strength to survive. This undefeated spirit of survival in the face of great hardship is a part of the spirit of Mississippi we need to hold onto.
"At one time many blacks thought blues was 'low down', that it was the devil's music'. Whites thought of it as 'cotton patch music.' But today blues music is appreciated as having had a great influence on country, rock and roll, jazz and popular music.
"Mississippi is proud of its blues heritage today and finally appreciates what it gave birth to," said Finny. "There is a unique museum in Clarksdale, the Delta Blues Museum at the Carnegie Public Library. It helps its visitors understand what the blues is. Also, it traces the link between the blues and other forms of popular music.
The Delta Blues Museum is a fun way for us to learn about this important part of our heritage. There are records, books, videotapes, photos, slide-and-sound programs and memorabilia for people to enjoy and learn from. Its director, Sid Graves, says he encourages Mississippians to visit the museum. just as visitors from Europe, other countries and other states are doing.
"Also, there are several blues festivals all over the state," said Finny. "The biggest, the Delta Blues Festival. is at Freedom Village near Greenville. Big-name blues singers and musicians come from far and wide to perform there each summer.
Then there are others, such as the B.B. King Blues Festival in Indianola," said Finny.
"You keep mentioning B.B. King. I've heard of him, but I'm not really sure who he is," said Jeff.
"Well, we'll just have to go visit him then," said Finny. '•He was born Riley B. King. not B.B., in 1925 on a cotton plantation between Itta Bena and Indianola, Mississippi. Of course, he has been called by such nicknames as 'King of the Blues', 'Bossman and 'The Main Man'. When you talk about bluesmen who rose over hardships and poverty in spite of all obstacles. B.B King is a prime ex-ample.
"He had a rough time of it growing up, with his parents separating when he was five. He hardly knew his father, Then his mother died when he was nine.
"But let's go back and see him and his mother before she died."
B.B. King takes blues road from poverty to fame
So off the saucer flew through time to Kilmachael [sic], Mississippi. Below them, Finny and the boys could see a boy walking hand-in-hand with his mother. They were singing while they walked to church. Both were smiling ''B.B.'s mother was the first influence on Pus music. He and his mother, a Christian woman, sang spirituals together often. whether it was at church, in the cottonfield or wherever."
Setting the dial for 1934. Finny and the boys spun forward a few years. Emerging near a cabin, they walked up to the window. Looking in. they saw young B.B. at the side of his mother's bed. Her voice was shaky but urgent. "Riley. if you are always kind to people, they w ill be kind to you." She added. And you will be happy In life "
Returning to the saucer, Finny said, "B.B - or Riley as he was called then - would never forget his mother's advice about life She died later that afternoon.
"Perhaps those last words were part of the reason B.B. grew up to be so kind to people. A man of great generosity, he has played at prisons for inmates And he has made special efforts to tell black children about the blues so they will know about their blues heritage. He has held free programs for many black schoolchildren in order to spread his blues message and instill pride in them.
"In some ways B.B. stands out in what can sometimes be a cutthroat music world. He has been fair in his business dealings and has been honest He keeps his promises and places great value on sticking to his word. To some extent. the person he became goes back to that day when his mother gave bun her deathbed advice. It was her version of the Bible's Golden Rule, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
"Riley lived with his grandmother for a while. But a few years later she died. His childhood sweetheart died when he was 11 Then he lived alone working for the white f .mils which his mother had worked for. It was a lonely, rootless world for a young, poor black to grow up in.
"He would walk 10 miles to and from a one-room school, which had about 50 students and one teacher for grades one through eight. He milked cows and worked hard after school. The teacher. Luther Henson. was an important influence on Riley, as he taught his students to work hard to improve themselves and helped them to believe in themselves. Before it was ever popular to teach black history. Mr. Henson taught Riley and his classmates about blacks who had made great achievements.
At age 14 Riley went to live with his father, working on a plantation near Lexington. As he said later, he worked from 'kin to caint.' That is. he worked from early in the morning when you can first see daylight until late in the evening when you can't. For these long work weeks. he was paid about $7 to $10 a week.
"One important influence on his music at this time was a Holiness preacher who played the electric guitar at the Church of God in Christ. Riley was fascinated with the guitar and attended church regularly The preacher soon took an interest in Riley and helped teach him how to play it.
"One story has it that Riley wanted to play so badly he made a one-string guitar .out of a piece of wire off a broom and used a board off his house to make the soundboard. The string was pulled tight between two nails. Another story tells of his getting his plantation boss to buy him an $8 guitar through the Sears and Roebuck catalog and to take the money out of his wages for him. The young Riley had a hunger to learn to play the guitar. It was like he was born to play the instrument that would be his ticket out of poverty.
"At this time. with the blues being considered the 'devil's music'. King started singing spirituals in a quartet. But soon he started hearing blues in the juke joints of Indianola and a new world opened up for him.
"After a brief stint in the Army where he began to sing the blues, he returned and began to play and sing the blues at nearby Delta towns in the joints and on the street corners.
"At 21, he made a courageous move. He left the farm and hitchhiked to Memphis. carrying his beat-up guitar. He stayed with his blues musician-cousin, Bukka White. He soon began to sing medicine commercials on the black radio station. WDIA. He sang a little jingle,
Pepticon, pepticon, sure is good.
You can get it anywhere in your neighborhood.'
"This was a long way from the kind of down-and-out, heart-tugging lyrics that made him famous, like
'Nobody loves me but my mother. And she could be jivin' too.'
But it was a start, he was on his way. He began to play at night clubs. Soon he became a disc jockey for the radio station and got to sing his songs on the air. Since he needed a catchy name. they called him Riley King, 'the Beale Street Blues Boy'. After all, he played lots of Memphis' Beale Street music. Soon the nickname became 'the Blues Boy', which later became simply B.B. And that's how he got the name B.B. King.
"B.B. began to make records and had his first big hit in 1954, 'Every Day I Have the Blues.' The poor black son of a sharecropper who would have seemed to have all the cards stacked against him was on his way to stardom.
"A big part of the B.B. King legend is his closest companion - Lucille."
"Who was she?" asked Billy.
"She was and is his guitar," laughed Finny.
"In fact. there's an interesting story about how she got her name. It was back in the 1950's when B.B. was playing for a dance in Arkansas. A fight broke out, knocking over some kerosene and causing a fire. At first B.B. ran out of the building with the crowd. Suddenly he remembered he had left his beloved guitar behind.
Risking his life, he ran back into the burning building to save the guitar. The two men who were fighting died in the blaze. Can you guess the name of the woman they were fighting over'!"
"Lucille," said Jeff.
"Right you are," said Finny. "And it is fitting that B.B. would give his guitar a person's name because the way he plays her, she has her own voice and personality. He can make her cry, howl, whine, sound smooth and sweet or angry and brassy. She expresses the moods of the blues On his guitar case, it says. 'My name is Lucille. Please handle me with care.
"In the 1960's when rock music became big, the Rolling Stones band and some others began to look for how rock got its start. They traced it back to the blues. B.B. went on tour with the Rolling Stones and it turned out to be a big break for him. Following that. he began to make some television appearances. Today his eyes-closed style of singing and playing is known around the world. as is his shiny friend, Lucille.
In 1970 his biggest hit to date, 'The Thrill Is Gone', received a Grammy Award for best vocal performance of the year. He has won many other awards for albums and as a blues performer.
"But the awards his mother might have been proudest of are probably those for his service to his fellow man, such as the Humanitarian Award he received for his performances in the prisons.
"Yes, B.B. has come a long way from the cottonfields near Itta Bena and Indianola, Mississippi, a long way from the days of his $8 guitar. He is recognized today as the 'King of the Blues'. He stands as a great example of what hard work and never giving up on one's dreams can achieve even when the odds are great against you.
"Well-dressed and polite. B.B. King and his guitar, Lucille, have brought respectability to the blues, which once was considered 'low down'. Along the way, he has been very kind to many people and the rewards have been great. His mother would be awfully proud."
1. What is the Center for Southern Culture and what does it do? What are some of the projects its staff does?
2. What is the blues? How was it born?
3. In what ways is blues a 'triumph of the spirit'?
4. How is blues looked at differently today than in the past?
5. What was the message B.B. King's mother gave him on her death-bed? How has he applied this message in his life?
6. How did Riley King get the name B.B.?
7. What is the name of B.B.'s guitar? How did it get its name?
Activities for students
1. There are some more clues to the spirit of Mississippi in bold print in today's lesson. Name some of these clues which help make up this unique spirit.
2. Write a couple of paragraphs, telling the life story of B.B. King. Be sure to write it in your own words. 3. Play some records or tapes of B.B. King and other blues singers in class.