Authentic Blues

Today the world took a short break from arguing about deflated footballs to briefly note the passing of legendary blues guitarist B.B. KingSmithsonian Magazine reprinted an article from 2011 featuring comments by John Hasse, a Curator of Music at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

Hasse said that King had “unchallenged authenticity” which “made the blues seem real.”

With all due respect Dr. Hasse, what the hell are you talking about? Are there musicians prowling about the nation’s blues clubs whose “authenticity” we should be challenging? Are there players who make the blues seem unreal? Can the Smithsonian save us from this fearful epidemic of fake blues? Won’t someone please think of the children?!

I won’t presume to know what Dr. Hesse meant by these comments, but I have often found that, when it comes to the blues, words like “real” and “authentic” often refer to the artist’s personal background. B.B. King was black, from Mississippi, and grew up poor. Did this make him “authentic” and especially qualified to play “real blues?” Maybe. It’s worth noting, however, that King himself did not subscribe to this notion.

“Hard times don’t necessarily mean being poor all the time. I’ve known people that was part of a family and always feel that the family likes everybody else but them. That hurts and that’s as deep a hurt as you can possibly get. I’ve known people that would have problems with their love life. This is kind of how the blues began, out of feeling misused, mistreated, feeling like they had nobody to turn to.

Blues don’t necessarily have to be sung by a person that came from Mississippi as I did, because there are people having problems all over the world.” – B.B. King

King thought deeply about the blues and concluded that it belongs to us all. To paraphrase the Buddha, suffering is inherent to the human condition. The only qualification necessary to play “real,” “authentic” blues is humanity. Musical ability helps, too.

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