Legendary blues artist B.B. King died last night at the age of 89.
King’s influence on American music can’t be overstated. Through his dirt-road voice and exuberant guitar work (often on his famed favorite Gibson guitar Lucille), King brought the blues to mainstream audiences. You can read The New York Times‘ obituary of King here, but for my money, King might’ve been one of the greatest American musicians ever, ranking alongside the likes of Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and Billie Holiday.
The blues themselves are, of course, quintessentially American—the yin to gospel music’s yang that, together, undergird jazz and rock. And I think there’s a little gospel in the blues themselves. Few blues songs reference God or Jesus directly, of course: They’re laments of a life or a love gone wrong, a beautiful, primal sigh. But that’s what many Psalms did back in their day, too: They were anguished, pit-of-the-soul cries set to music about heartbreak and angst and despair. The Psalms were painfully honest, just like the blues. And under each, I think, you find an underlying sliver of hope—hope in a brighter, better day. For many blues artists, including King, that hope was pinned on Jesus.
King was a Christian who, as a boy, sang in a gospel choir and was inspired by his own pastor to pick up the guitar. “I believe all musical talent comes from God as a way to express beauty and human emotion,” he once said according to Christian Today. He had a lot to say about God and faith, according to the story. And I loved what he said about God’s creation.
“I believe God created everything. I’m awed by his handiwork, the forests and oceans and sky that surrounds us. I believe God made us. But our nature isn’t always godlike.”
When I heard about King’s death this morning, my mind didn’t float back to any of King’s classic songs—”Don’t Answer the Door” or “The Thrill is Gone” or “Why I Sing the Blues.” I remembered “When Love Comes to Town,” King’s duet with Bono and U2. Bono wrote the song specifically for King, and musically, it’s a meeting at the corner of the blues and gospel music. A shout of joy when the chains of sin have fallen away. On the version I have on my iPhone, King growls out these lyrics:
I was there when they crucified my Lord
I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword
I threw the dice when they pierced his side
But I’ve seen love conquer the great divide
What follows isn’t the version I’m most familiar with. But it’s still pretty cool.
Paul Asay is an author, journalist, and entertainment critic who now serves as a senior associate editor for the popular Christian entertainment review site Plugged In. He has been published in a variety of other secular and Christian publications, including The Washington Post, The Gazette in Colorado Springs, YouthWorker Journal and Beliefnet.com. You can follow Paul on Twitter (@AsayPaul), visit his website or just think nice, happy thoughts about him in your spare time.
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