Blues All Around Me, The Autobiography of B.B. King by B.B. King with David Ritz
Book Club Questions
Throughout this book, B.B. King will talk about what the blues are about or for. In the second chapter, he covers what his great-grandmother told him the blues were for: “My great-grandmother, who’d also been a slave, talked about the old days. She’d talk about the beginnings of the blues. She said that, sure, singing helped the day go by. Singing about your sadness unburdens your soul. But the blues hollerers shouted about more than being sad. They were also delivering messages in musical code. If the master was coming, you might sing a hidden warning to the other field hands. Maybe you’d want to get out of his way or hide. That was important for the women because the master could have anything he wanted. If he liked a woman, he could take her sexually. And the woman had only two choices: Do what the master demands or kill herself. There was no in-between. The blues could warn you what was coming. I could see the blues was about survival” (8-9). Why is it important that we remember such other meanings behind the blues? How can we, as modern listeners, respect and remember this history as we listen and dance to the blues?
Sept 3 – Sept 9 Question
How do you see gospel music and blues music as interrelated?
Sept 10 – Sept 16 Question
In chapter 5 of B.B. King’s autobiography, he describes watching a man lynched in front of the courthouse. He says, “The black body is a dead body” (51), and discusses his anger and overwhelming emotions that he couldn’t, and never could, express, but had to keep secret. What kept him from hating whites, he said, was his mother. “Blind hatred, my mother had taught me, poisons the soul. I kept hearing her say, ‘If you’re kind to people, they’ll be kind to you'” (52). How do we fully process what B.B. King is saying in such an understated manner? How do we see this situation as related to the regularity of cops shooting blacks or otherwise murdering them and walking away with no consequences? And finally, how can we integrate King’s wish to be kind to people and receive kindness in return and initiate societal change?
Sept 17 – Sept 23 Question
B.B. King states that he was “brainwashed by a segregated system” (91) as a kid, and even after segregation formally ended, the principles he was brainwashed with stayed with him for life. Where do those principles of segregation still stand, if not formally, then in our minds today, and how does it hurt us? How does it inherently change how we deal with interracial relations? How does it change how we view blues music?
Sept 24 – Sept 30 Question
When B.B. King first went to Memphis, he didn’t play the blues; he listened to it: “I wasn’t about to play; all I could do was listen and learn. I listened for hours and, even though my guitar was under my arm, I never struck a note. All my confidence from all those Saturdays playing all those little Delta towns vanished—just like that. Before Beale Street, I thought I was pretty hot stuff. After Beale Street, I knew I stunk. The cats could play rings around me” (99). Why is listening so important? Where in your interaction with blues music and dance has listening been important to your blues experience?
Oct 1 – Oct 7 Question
B.B. King was very concerned with the image of the blues artist: “Being a bluesman carried a stigma, both from blacks and whites. I fear that’s true even today. A bluesman is supposed to be some guy falling off his head, his overalls ripped and smelly, a jug of corn liquor by his side. He talks lousy English and can’t carry on a conversation without cussin’ every other word. Ask him about his love life and he’ll tell you he just beat up his old lady. Give him a dollar and he’ll sing something dirty. He’s a combination clown and fool. No one respects him or pays him no mind. I resented that. Still do. That’s why looking to role-model musicians was so important. They told the public—and ambitious entertainers like me—that blues-rooted music could be presented with the same class as grand opera” (126-7). Has the image of the blues musician improved? Is there anything we can do as blues listeners to get rid of the stigma and poor image surrounding the musicians?
Oct 8 – Oct 14 Question
B.B. King said of the blues, “The older I got, the more I could see the majesty of the blues. The blues reminds me of the Pepticon I used to advertise, a tonic good for whatever ails you. The blues is the source. I still get irritated when I hear folks call the blues gloomy. The fact is that the blues contains all the basic feelings of human beings: pain, happiness, fear, courage, confusion, desire . . . everything. Complicated feelings told in simple stories. That’s the genius of blues” (160-1). What, for you, is the majesty and genius of the blues? What stories does it tell for you?
Oct 15 – Oct 21 Question
B.B. King was well aware of the struggles of being an artist from a minority culture, primarily when it came to successfully marketing a new musical style. “Blacks might invent a new style,” he said, “but chances are, only the white artists’ adaption of that style will result in mass-market success” (186). He doesn’t hold grudges against Elvis or others who made the music successful, but it was rough on him when he started to see his success shrink as rock and roll rose to popularity. What do you see as the underlying reasons for this lack of support for black artistic innovation? How can we make efforts to better the situation?
Oct 22 – Oct 28 Question
B. B. King states that he felt that at performances with jazz greats, the blues was often made to seem lesser than jazz. Perhaps this is because of the structure of the blues, but the blues and jazz are intricately related. King said, “Some see a blues musician like a follow-the-dots painter. Like any fool can do it. But simplicity is deceptive. And feeling is something that’s not easy to evaluate. Lightnin’ Hopkins may not have known many notes, but he knew all the right ones, and he knew where to put ’em. Some genius with four Ph.D.s in music theory might never be able to do in a lifetime what Lightnin’ did in a minute—tell the truth” (222-3). How do you see blues as an art and the musicians that play it as artists?
Oct 29 – Nov 4 Question
B.B. King mentions how Charles Kiel, a white academic, wrote a book called Urban Blues and fought, with much success, to change people’s minds about what the blues was as a genre. He helped get rid of the idea that B.B. King and Bobby Bland’s music was “impure” blues (230). The issue was with categories. How are genre categories useful? Where do we see that the genre language needs to be more flexible? And how can we adjust to make sure we’re not damning innovation by refusing to place it within certain genres simply because it is new, different?
Nov 5 – Nov 11 Question
“The Thrill Is Gone” had long haunted B.B. King, and his recording of the song won him a Grammy. Here’s what he has to say about it: “I felt especially proud ’cause the song was true to me. ‘The Thrill Is Gone’ is basically blues. The sound incorporated strings, but the feeling is still low-down. The lyric is also blues, the story of a man who’s wronged by his woman but free to go on with his life. Lucille is as much a part of the song as me. She starts off singing and stays with me all the way before she takes the final bow” (251). He played many versions of the song with many different musicians. Do you find the song haunting? What about this music speaks to you?
Nov 12 – Nov 18 Question
While B.B. King felt that the blues was prospering upon the writing of his autobiography, he still felt there as a great prejudice against the blues. He said, “Record executives won’t say it to your face, but I think they secretly feel blues is too simple, too old fashioned, too basic to have super-mass appeal. In my mind, it’s the simplicity of the blues that keeps them alive and makes them timeless. The blues will never die” (295). King spent his life trying to prove that point. Was King right? Can blues ever have mass appeal? Why or why not?