When blues guitarist B. B. King died last week, the web lit up with tributes, and San Francisco jazz station KCSM devoted all of that day’s programming to selections from King’s vast repertoire.
Such a response is all the more striking, given the blues’ obscurity on modern radio. I’ve been a fan of the blues for nearly two decades, but at most it usually garners a one-hour radio program here, a weekly program there—usually on jazz stations (which face a struggle of their own). The Bay Area, where I live, has relatively plentiful blues airtime, with two separate stations devoting a combined six hours a week to the form. But it’s rare, perhaps impossible, to find radio stations dedicated to the blues, outside of those on satellite or the Internet.
Both jazz and the blues are distinctly American musical forms “rooted in the African-American experience.” While jazz encompasses incredible rhythmic and harmonic complexity—which can sometimes make for a more cerebral listening experience—the blues have a simpler structure and earthy emotionalism. And as King remarked during one of his three career appearances at the White House, the blues have a particular capacity to express suffering and anger.
I first discovered jazz in my teens, through a love affair with big band music and the discovery I could use burgeoning piano skills in the high school jazz band. It took me longer to appreciate the blues, though, probably because I hadn’t lived enough life yet.
By grad school, I’d begun listening to some of the classic rock musicians who owed a debt to B.B. King—Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, in particular. I liked them most for the catchy rhythms ...1
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