I was doing research on another topic the other night and stumbled across a striking passage in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” an autobiography published by Douglass in 1845 and recalling his times as a slave on a Maryland plantation:
“While on their way, (the slaves) would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness. They would compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune. The thought that came up, came out—if not in the word, in the sound;—and as frequently in the one as in the other. They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone. …
I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do.
I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness. I have frequently found myself in tears while hearing them.”
That sounds an awful lot like what we now know as the blues.
Shortly after reading that, I saw the news that the great bluesman BB King is now in what is described as “home hospice” in Las Vegas, suffering from complications of diabetes and other ailments. BB was born in the Mississippi Delta way back in 1925, some 90 years ago, which puts his birth just 80 years after the publication of Douglass’ autobiography. (BB King’s grandfather was “Frederick Douglas King.”)
Viewed through that prism, only two human lifespans separate us from the world that Douglass describes so vividly in the written word, and BB has been an unmistakable, irreplaceable emissary drawing that world closer to this one. Here he is on Lucille, playing music that expresses “the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone,” “rude and apparently incoherent,” with “tones loud, long, and deep,” music that I suspect Frederick Douglass would recognize even when played on an electric guitar.
So tell us about it, Blues Boy.