Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
DOUBLE YOUR DONATION!
We don’t run corporate ads. We don’t shake our readers down for money every month or every quarter like some other sites out there. We provide our site for free to all, but the bandwidth we pay to do so doesn’t come cheap. A generous donor is matching all donations of $100 or more! So please donate now to double your punch!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Buddha of the Blues

In the summer of 1998, Alexander Cockburn and I spent a few days in North Richmond, California, a battered industrial city just outside of Berkeley. We had just published our book Whiteout on the CIA and drug trafficking and had been invited to speak at a black church about the horrific toll of the drug war on urban America. North Richmond was the Antietam of this senseless slaughter, its neighborhoods ravaged by gang shootings and police killings, most of them fueled by the crack trade abetted by US intelligence agencies to help fund their covert wars in Central America. At the time, North Richmond was staggering under the highest murder rate in California, more than 50 killings per hundred thousand residents. We spent the afternoon helping local organizers and grieving families place over 200 black crosses at sites where drug killings had occurred during the past few years.

After a somber day, Alex and I drove down to Oakland in Cockburn’s notoriously temperamental 1960 Valiant to see B.B. King perform. King was touring with his big band, under the immaculate direction of pianist Millard Lee, and they were smoking hot that night, opening with a driving rendition of “Sweet Little Angel” and closing it down 90 minutes later with a fiery version of “Let the Good Times Roll.” King had swelled to a Pantagruelian girth by then and he spent most of the evening performing from a chair. Even so, his voice remained robust and he picked and bent his notes as soulfully as ever. About halfway through the show, King summoned the bass player to hoist him from his seat. King strolled to the mic and told the crowd that he had spent the afternoon visiting with inmates at San Quentin. I jotted down what he said that night in my notebook. “Friends, there are too many of us locked away. Locked away and forgotten. They’re in prison, but let’s not think of them as prisoners. They are people, like you and me, down on their luck.” Then he launched into “Ten Long Years.” Afterwards, Alex told me it was the best concert he’d ever heard. (Of course, Cockburn had also made the same snap declaration about a Little Richard gig, during which Alex had nodded off 30 minutes into the performance.)

Thirty years earlier, King released Live in Cook County Jail, a scorching performance recorded before a thousand inmates in one of
KillingTrayvons1Chicago’s most notorious facilities. The platform King and his band played on during that seminal concert had served as a gallows for executions not too many years earlier. While he was at the jail, King spent the day talking to inmates, about 80 percent of whom were black. “They told me how they came to be locked up,” King said. “They would stay for seven or eight months before the trial took place because they couldn’t afford the bail. And then when they did go to trial, if they were guilty, the time was not deducted from the time they were given. And if they were innocent, they got no compensation.”

Like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, King made a point to perform in prisons and jails for decades until the American incarceration industry became sadistic enough to prevent inmates from enjoying live music. He played a stunning set at Sing Sing with Joan Baez, performed many times at San Quentin and in 1981, invited Congressman John Conyers to attend his concert before 3,000 inmates at the infamous Jackson State Penitentiary in Michigan, then the largest walled prison in the world. When King was asked why he played in prisons so often, he said he had envisioned himself behind bars. “”I’ve never been in trouble myself but I think about, it could have just as easily been B.B. King inside, instead of B.B. King going out there to play.”

King was so serious about the state of American prisons that in 1971 he teamed up with defense attorney F. Lee Bailey to start the Foundation for the Advancement of Inmate Rehabilitation and Recreation, which advocated for humane conditions in jailhouses, the education and training of inmates, an end to solitary confinement, and the introduction of more art and music into prison life. The timing for such a campaign couldn’t have been more urgent. That very year, Nixon had inaugurated his war on drugs, a cruel and relentless blitzkrieg against black Americans that would eventually ensnare King’s own daughter Patty, landing her in a grim Texas prison. In Nixon’s own words, scribbled down by HR Haldeman, “it’s all about the blacks.”

When King recorded Live in Cook County Jail, the US prison population stood at 450,000, less than 100 inmates per 100,000 people. By the year King died, the US sported the highest incarceration rate in the world, totaling about 2.3 million prisoners, more than 712 inmates per 100,000 people. The vast majority are jailed for drug crimes.

Riley B. King, great-grandson of liberated slaves, was born in 1925 on the Berclair cotton plantation outside of Ita Bena. Late in his life, King dispelled any notion that he left rural Mississippi for the neon lure of the big city.  Instead, King said he fled Indianola for Memphis out of fear: “I saw lynchings, seen people hanging, seen people drug through the streets. I had to get away.”

For the next 70 years, the hellhound of race-hatred haunted his trail, claiming friends, family and lovers, as the terrorists in white sheets of his youth mutated into state-sanctioned violence by men in blue. Yet BB King never surrendered to despondency. The great Buddha of the Blues remained a voice of compassion, a voice charged with the faith that no human life, however desiccated by the cruelties of the world, is ever beyond reclaiming.

When I’m down, I drop the needle on BB King. Almost any record will do, but there’s nothing quite like his raucous version of “Help the Poor,” from Live at the Regal, for psychic uplift. In his singing and playing, I hear the sounds of fierce struggle, of shackles breaking, of unyielding aspiration toward a freer future. King’s music is, and will always remain, an antidote to despair and nihilism.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

 

More articles by:

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

October 23, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
The Middle East, Not Russia, Will Prove Trump’s Downfall
Ipek S. Burnett
The Assault on The New Colossus: Trump’s Threat to Close the U.S.-Mexican Border
Mary Troy Johnston
The War on Terror is the Reign of Terror
Maximilian Werner
The Rhetoric and Reality of Death by Grizzly
David Macaray
Teamsters, Hells Angels, and Self-Determination
Jeffrey Sommers
“No People, Big Problem”: Democracy and Its Discontents In Latvia
Dean Baker
Looking for the Next Crisis: the Not Very Scary World of CLOs
Binoy Kampmark
Leaking for Change: ASIO, Jakarta, and Australia’s Jerusalem Problem
Chris Wright
The Necessity of “Lesser-Evil” Voting
Muhammad Othman
Daunting Challenge for Activists: The Cook Customer “Connection”
Don Fitz
A Debate for Auditor: What the Papers Wouldn’t Say
October 22, 2018
Henry Giroux
Neoliberalism in the Age of Pedagogical Terrorism
Melvin Goodman
Washington’s Latest Cold War Maneuver: Pulling Out of the INF
David Mattson
Basket of Deplorables Revisited: Grizzly Bears at the Mercy of Wyoming
Michelle Renee Matisons
Hurricane War Zone Further Immiserates Florida Panhandle, Panama City
Tom Gill
A Storm is Brewing in Europe: Italy and Its Public Finances Are at the Center of It
Suyapa Portillo Villeda
An Illegitimate, US-Backed Regime is Fueling the Honduran Refugee Crisis
Christopher Brauchli
The Liars’ Bench
Gary Leupp
Will Trump Split the World by Endorsing a Bold-Faced Lie?
Michael Howard
The New York Times’ Animal Cruelty Fetish
Alice Slater
Time Out for Nukes!
Geoff Dutton
Yes, Virginia, There are Conspiracies—I Think
Daniel Warner
Davos in the Desert: To Attend or Not, That is Not the Question
Priti Gulati Cox – Stan Cox
Mothers of Exiles: For Many, the Child-Separation Ordeal May Never End
Manuel E. Yepe
Pence v. China: Cold War 2.0 May Have Just Begun
Raouf Halaby
Of Pith Helmets and Sartorial Colonialism
Dan Carey
Aspirational Goals  
Wim Laven
Intentional or Incompetence—Voter Suppression Where We Live
Weekend Edition
October 19, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jason Hirthler
The Pieties of the Liberal Class
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Day in My Life at CounterPunch
Paul Street
“Male Energy,” Authoritarian Whiteness and Creeping Fascism in the Age of Trump
Nick Pemberton
Reflections on Chomsky’s Voting Strategy: Why The Democratic Party Can’t Be Saved
John Davis
The Last History of the United States
Yigal Bronner
The Road to Khan al-Akhmar
Robert Hunziker
The Negan Syndrome
Andrew Levine
Democrats Ahead: Progressives Beware
Rannie Amiri
There is No “Proxy War” in Yemen
David Rosen
America’s Lost Souls: the 21st Century Lumpen-Proletariat?
Joseph Natoli
The Age of Misrepresentations
Ron Jacobs
History Is Not Kind
John Laforge
White House Radiation: Weakened Regulations Would Save Industry Billions
Ramzy Baroud
The UN ‘Sheriff’: Nikki Haley Elevated Israel, Damaged US Standing
Robert Fantina
Trump, Human Rights and the Middle East
Anthony Pahnke – Jim Goodman
NAFTA 2.0 Will Help Corporations More Than Farmers
Jill Richardson
Identity Crisis: Elizabeth Warren’s Claims Cherokee Heritage
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail