On June 8th, 2011, A special performance was held at the icon Royal Albert Hall in the United Kingdom. The show featured the guitarist “Slash” from the glam metal band Guns N’ Roses, Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones, Mick Hucknall from Simply Red, and…Blues great B.B King? Blues is a genre that created by African American musicians from the deep south and is rooted in African American history. It begs the question of why “The King of Blues” was performing on a stage of white and British musicians, for a predominantly white audience, all the way in England. However, there were a variety of events and factors that lead to this moment where a senior B.B King would be watching a red-haired British pop artist singing the icon blues hit “The Thrill is Gone”. It could be said that King was just a universal artist, but it is more accurate to say that cultural appropriation of BB King’s music occurred and drastically changed his career.
Cultural Appropriation is defined as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture”, and it is common with music. Of course, it is normal for musicians to have their influences, but the issue with the cultural appropriation of music comes down some main points. First, white musicians not giving credit to the Blues music they took from or, in some cases, the music they covered. Secondly, there are the labor implications for Blues musicians. In numerous cases, black musicians did not benefit in fortune nor in fame for their original work, while white musicians who appropriated their music often did. And lastly, it is a significant issue of cultural appropriation when the musicians taking from the Blues either do not understand the cultural history and significance or ignore it. For African American musicians, the blues music that was developed from the struggles of former slaves and the hardships of their people has constantly fallen victim to this cultural appropriation. White musicians would find inspiration and ideas from Blues musicians to make their own (and in most cases be paid more than their African American counterparts) or in some cases, cover the songs of blues musicians and find great success. Whether the careers of the blues musicians were hinder or promoted by cultural appropriation, it no doubly had an effect on African American music and labor.
B.B King was 86 years old at the time of the performance at the Royal Albert Hall. Such longevity in music is rare, and truly an accomplishment. At the start of the show, after he was announced, he slowly walked across the stage while the band behind him played an upbeat tune. He waved as we slowly made his way to a chair in the middle of the stage, getting help from stagehands all along the way. When he reached the chair, he turned to the applauding crowd of people and said thank you, before taking his seat and being handed his Gibson hollow body guitar that he played all throughout his career. Despite initially dropping his guitar pick, King got settled in and jumped right into the tune that band was playing with ease. Age may have slowed down his walking speed, but not his playing ability. Any musician would count themselves lucky to still be performing at age 86, especially at an esteemed venue such as the Royal Albert. However, getting to this point wasn’t a foregone conclusion for King. in the late 1960s, King career was past its peak. Joel Selvin with the San Francisco Gate said that:
“At age 42, his career was in decline. He had been on the road ceaselessly since before his “3 O’Clock Blues” was a No. 1 R&B hit for five weeks in 1952, after being released the year before — although the onetime Mississippi farmhand long maintained a residence in Las Vegas, he always said his home was “anyplace I stay three days” — but the natural constituency for his music was older black audiences. Soul power was the now sound, and blues was a reminder of bad old days, conks and Jim Crow. His popularity had steadily eroded in the black community.”
The eroding of King’s popularity was happening because Blues music was itself eroding in the Black Community in favor of the music of Motown and Soul. But what saved King’s career was what started happening in the 1960s: English white musicians began to take notice of King’s style of blues. Musicians such as Eric Clapton found inspiration from King’s style and created their own music based on what they heard. This style of blues was well enjoyed amongst the Rock musicians who found inspiration from King and began to use it in their own music. “He never received full recognition until the late Sixties, when British rock musicians began to appreciate his music,” said Elaine Lipworth with Independent. This explains what lead the infamous show at Fillmore in San Francisco. In 1967, King was booked for a show at the venue with The Steve Miller Band. He was put on the show by concert promoter Bill Graham, only after being encouraged to by white guitarist Mike Bloomfield. The audience for this show was filled with young white “hippies”, and king reportedly said “I need a drink of scotch” when he saw the crowd. This was the initial effects of cultural appropriation to B.B King’s music in particular after years of white musicians mimicking the great musicians of the blues for their own music.
While some might debate if Whites can sing the Blues, it is important to understand where the Blues came from. It was formed out of the history of African American culture and struggle. Blues musicians express their pain and the pain of their ancestors in their music. “It’s generally accepted that the music evolved from African spirituals, African chants, work songs, field hollers, rural fife and drum music, revivalist hymns, and country dance music.” The genre itself is rich with African American history, which details the issues of cultural appropriation. White musicians began to take from the culture of Blues for their own music and especially without the shared experiences of the history and culture that created it, and then greatly benefited from it. This was especially clear in the case of Elvis Presley and the song “Hound Dog”. With this tune, Presley benefited immensely from the song with fame and fortune, as the album sold more than three million copies. However, the song was first performed by Blues musician Big Momma Thorton in 1952. Thornton did not receive anywhere near the same accolades that Presley did for the song he appropriated from her. With Elvis singing the song, it really doesn’t make much sense content-wise. The original version of “Hound Dog” done by Thoroton was a true blues song with deep meanings in the lyrics. Briahna Joy Gray With Current Affairs said that“she tells off the low-down guy who keeps “snooping round her door.” It’s a declaration of independence by a woman who is sick and tired of having a “hound dog” of a man take her for granted”. But with Presley version, it was adopted in order to fit for a pop audience and completely lost the meaning of the song (it became about an actual Hound Dog). This song practically made Presley’s career, even after he drained it of its meaning and cultural messages that came with it. This highlights the two main issues along with cultural appropriation. When it is done, especially with a historically Black music genre with cultural implications, the deeper meanings of the song are lost, and the traditional influences of where blues music came from are forgotten through this process. At the same time, the white musicians who “adopt” the music essential exploit the labor of the Blues musicians who inspired them.
With B.B Kings case, it may be true that the embrace of white musicians and audience gave his career a boost, but King himself acknowledged the effects of cultural appropriation. ““I’m not white, I’m a black guy. White groups from England, they’re going to get played and people are going to look to them before me. They have all the radio and TV stations, something people like me have never had access to.” King said in an interview with Independent. The cultural appropriation itself was having an effect on African American labor. The music that grew in the Mississippi Delta area was now being adopted by white musicians who were seeing great fame, chart success, and wealth from it. Black Blues musicians such as Big Momma Thornton didn’t find themselves in the spotlight, or such as in B.B King’s career, found themselves performing for an entirely different audience.
About 12 minutes into the show at the Royal Albert, King was doing what he does best. With the band playing in the background, King announced he would have multiple guests on stage with him that night, making jokes all along the way. Even in old age, he had a mastery of his art. Before King invited his first guest on stage with him, he played a selection of passionate Blues tunes, and then introduced the song See That My Grave is Kept Clean with a story of the origin of the song. King told the crowd about how T-Bone Burnett who wrote the song for King just two years earlier. King joked to the crowd “Why did he wait until I got to be 84 to tell me about keeping some graves clean?” However, King was still making plenty of music late into his career, including his final album in 2008 One Kind Favor.
One of his notable later works was the album he did with guitarist Eric Clapton called Riding with The King in 2000. The album won a Grammy in that same year, and both Clapton and King saw great recognition for the album. Interestingly, in this case, was Eric Clapton, who was another one of the white musicians who was inspired by the music of King and other blues musicians. Clapton wrote in his autobiography that King was “without a doubt the most important artist the blues has ever produced.” However, Clapton wasn’t separate from the issues of cultural appropriation. Clapton constructed and spent a lot of time in his career trying to “perfect the performance stylings and musical arrangements of artists such as Freddy King, Robert Johnson, and Lowell Fulson.”But in regards to cultural appropriation, it is not just about taking things from a culture that isn’t your own, it is also about not appreciating or understand the culture that one is taking it from. In music especially, shared ideas and styles are common. But knowing about Clapton interesting past behavior, it would be a stretch to say he understood the cultural significance of the music he was influenced by. It is hard to forget the behavior of Clapton back in the 1970s when made the comment about Britain becoming “A black colony” and his endorsement of controversial British politician Enoch Powell.20 What is also relevant was Clapton’s claims to Blues legitimacy. Ulrich Adelt with the University of Iowa says that:
“Apart from his parents abandoning him as a child, Clapton has given other
reasons to authenticate his claim to be a blues musician. They underline his narcissistic
conception of the genre: what “gave” him the blues were his heroin and alcohol
addictions and his difficulties with romantic relationships, most notably his highly
publicized “secret” courtship of the former wife of Clapton’s friend and colleague George
Harrison, Pattie Boyd.”
Clapton simply did not understand what The Blues in cultural terms, which falls under the concept of cultural appropriation of taking something from a cultural, and not understanding it. of course, Clapton benefited immensely from his music both economically and with fame. He even created a trio band, Cream, based off a Buddy Guy show he saw back in London, England, which only added to his musical accolades. To Clapton’s credit, he did (at least) give acknowledgment to the Blues musicians that he took from. The situation was worse with other English groups and musicians. Led Zeppelin has a long track record of plagiarism lawsuits and evidence of cultural appropriation. Such as with the song “When The Levee Breaks” by Memphis Minnie was included on the band’s fourth album, but without the credit for Memphis Minnie as the originator of the song. By doing this, the song became synonymous with Led Zeppelin, and Memphis Minnie is relatively unknown. With the song “Hats off to Harper” the band pieced together parts from multiple blues songs, including “Shake ‘Em on Down” by Bukka White but just listed the song as “Traditional”. According to Nsenga Burton with The Root, former frontman of Led Zeppelin said that “[British people] didn’t really have the musical knowledge as you guys have [in America],” said Plant. “So we tapped as much American ‘spook music’ as we could — as much blues — mixed it up, and nobody liked it. But the feeling of freedom was fantastic.” Along with admitting to the obvious of tapping into American Blues music, Plant also showed a degree of ignorance to Black music history by using the term “spook music”, a derogatory term for black music, when speaking about the subject. The trend seems to be that white British musicians have a history of taking part in the practice of cultural appropriation, including The Beatles who “swiped elements from musicians ranging from Chuck Berry to Pee Wee Crayton, but were usually careful to disguise the source.” However, through all of this, these groups came out with labels such as “greatest of all time” and had limited consequences for the appropriation of Black music and labor. B.B King was caught in a different outcome than some of his predecessors and other musicians during this time of cultural appropriation. It isn’t necessarily that he “adapted” to fit the growing white audiences, but that these new white fans found something in his music that they enjoyed, and overwhelmingly embraced it (Much like the white musicians of the time). Ulrich Adelt said that “white audiences of blues were beginning to demand an older and “safer” conceptualization of blackness at the exact moment when calls for “black power” were becoming imminent. This process left “black” performers like B.B. King trapped in a place where they were economically rewarded for making music that catered to a nostalgic consumption of blackness”. After King was embraced by this new audience, he developed a new outline for his career which drifted farther from the traditional ideas of what the Blues music was. The goal now was to reach as many people as he could and to play to the best of his ability and led to him playing internationally in Europe and Asia and live television performances. While some may find shame in King for shifting into this new audience and mindset, capitalizing on his mobility within in music market paid dividends in saving his career, added to his musical longevity and was a precursor to the show at the Royal Albert all the way in 2011.
About an hour into the show, King was joined by all of his guest on stage. This included Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones, Mick Hucknall, and Slash of Guns n’ Roses. They all sat in chairs center stage with King in the middle, and begin to perform the hit song “The Thrill Is Gone”. The scene was one of comfort, unlike many music shows that are seen today (besides Ronnie Wood moving all around in his chair while playing). Hucknall sang the second verse and made sure to try and sing it like he was a bluesman himself, adding in the head gestures and everything. King said mid-song “out of all the records I’ve made, over 5000, I never made one that was called a “Hit” but this one we’re trying to do now.” “The Thrill is Gone” was an iconic song for King, but it also was one of the final pieces in the crossover of his career that gave him so much commercial success. Cultural Appropriation of blues music is an unfortunate reality, and when it is happening it always affects black cultural and labor to a certain degree. With Big Mamma Throtan and Memphis Minnie, it meant that whites were using their art and labor for their own success, while they received little to no recognition for it. For B.B King, it meant an entire career shift, and a completely different market to sing too. Whether saying that King lost his roots, or lost cultural significance with doing this or not is subjective. However, it is more likely to say King was caught into a time of rampant appropriation and successfully navigated it in order to keep performing, which is the goal of pretty much any musician. King ended the show with a rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” and receiving a well deserved thunderous applause for his performance. For himself and the audience, it was a wonderful night of music. But for other musicians who suffered from the effects of cultural appropriation and all the stories in the songs that were forgotten when they were white-washed, perhaps the thrill is gone.
Watch the full performance here; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E5_j91FjsXM
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