Last week people across the world mourned the passing of Blues legend B.B. King. His legacy as a musician has been secure for decades. One of the hardest working men in show business (at the least enough of a hard worker to have an excellent show with the hardest working man in show business, James Brown), King’s career is an example of the larger African American experience in music and American entertainment. In my post for today, I am going to consider another part of King’s legacy. Later in his career, B.B. King was gravely concerned about the status of the Blues among African American listeners. Was it still a musical form, by the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, being consumed by African American listeners? Or had it become a genre mainly listened to by white listeners? And, finally, why should this question matter to intellectual historians?
Questions about African American identity and American music have long been a concern for intellectuals, lay listeners of music, and musicians. From Al Jolson’s performances in blackface in the early 20th century, to concerns about the appropriation of “black” music by superstars such as Elvis Presley, to modern-day debates about the merits of white hip hop artists such as Eminem and Iggy Azalea, the interrelated questions of who can perform “black” music and, more importantly, just what constitutes “black” music, has shaped modern American understandings of popular music. The blues has been no less plagued by this question.
As far back as 1979, readers in Ebony magazine were treated to this debate. The timing of this was not a coincidence. Consider the release of a recent book, Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South by Charles L. Hughes. In this book, Hughes argues that the 1960s and 1970s were a time in which both the genres of soul and country became places where black and white southerners teased out and re-shaped ideas of southern identity in the post-Civil Rights Movement era. Of course, other historians—Jefferson Cowie in Stayin’ Alive for instance—have also written about the 1970s as a period of cultural ferment in terms of white identity, especially in the American South. Not surprising, then, that the blues would be but one place where questions of identity manifested themselves.
African American blues and rock singers in the 1970s argued whether white performers could correctly “sing” the blues. For Ray Charles, the blues was born “out of a special African-American group experience,” as paraphrased by Hollie I. West, who interviewed Charles. This belief that the blues was special to African Americans precisely because of this relationship to African American history was something for which B.B. King also argued. And if you were black and not listening to the blues—well, various articles also expressed a fear among older African Americans that their legacy and heritage were being forgotten. Take notice of the language from this 1979 essay about white Americans singing the blues: “And while young Whites listen to traditional bluesmen, young Blacks support groups such as Earth, Wind and Fire and the O’Jays, musicians whose flashy style and breezy art fits the contemporary Black lifestyle—and dance steps—of young Blacks more than Muddy Waters’ or Joe Turner’s.” In other words, the question becomes: what does it mean for African American culture when the blues is no longer in vogue?
King himself addressed the question several times during his career. It seemed that Ebony, not surprisingly, did a reflective piece on either him or the blues field itself. By 1990 King was quoted as taking notice of the largely white audiences he was performing for, and later on he argued that the blues was central to the African American experience. King stated: “More than anything else, it is important to study history, to know history,” he says. “To be a black person and sing the blues, you are Black twice. I’ve heard it said, ‘If we don’t know whence we came, we don’t know how to where we are trying to go.’” Where you stand on the blues becomes a statement for how you believe African American society must adapt to the future. It seemed for Charles and King both that the blues was an integral part of African American identity. Without the blues as a glue to hold African American identity together, to serve as a reminder of both good days and bad, the idea of being African American turns to dust—or at least becomes something unrecognizable to members of an earlier generation.
For intellectual historians, the questions raised by Ray Charles, B.B. King, and other musicians—not to mention intellectuals from this era—about the African American experiences become crucial to thinking about other questions plaguing thinkers at the same time. Consider questions about the urban crisis during the 1970s and 1980s. And then tie them back to what Charles and King express, which is a reluctance to celebrate white Americans embracing a “black” art form. While much of that is born out of their own experiences with segregation and the exploitation of black talent and labor in the music industry during much of the 20th century, it’s also an exploration of the questions black intellectuals posed in the 1970s and 1980s about the gains and, yes, inferred losses for African American society due to desegregation. Often black intellectuals, activists, politicians, and community leaders would look back to previous generations and argue, “Those families, those groups were more stable .What happened to us since then?” A nostalgia for a more united black past—one born out of the fires of segregation and, before that, slavery, but lost with the advent of desegregation—permeates much of the language surrounding arguments about the fate of the blues. That’s not to dismiss those concerns. But as intellectual historians we should never forget the importance of music such as the blues to demarcating generational lines of agreement, disagreement, debate, and discussion. Or, at the very least, we should consider them as echoes of larger cultural and intellectual debates—perhaps, even, the echoes wars or fractures of culture.
 This isn’t the place to get into discussions of Iggy Azalea—I am confident cultural historians will have much substantive to say about her in the future. However, it is worth noting how Eminem and Azalea have been contrasted with one another, primarily due to Eminem often giving credit to many of the black musicians who have influenced his music, whereas Azalea, a native of Australia, has been faulted for not doing the same. As this The Guardian piece argues, Eminem has “unequivocally demonstrated his love for hip-hop as a culture and a genre.” See “Pop Appropriation: Why Hip-Hop Loves Eminem But Loathes Iggy Azalea,” http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/feb/11/hip-hop-appropriation-eminem-iggy-azalea.
 Hollie I. West. “Can White People Sing the Blues?” Ebony, July 1979, p. 140. It’s also worth noting that Charles argued that “If the blues ever gets sung by a White person, it’ll be a Jew that does it. They’ve known what it is to be somebody else’s footstool.” p. 140-142.
 West, 142.
 Lynn Norment, “B.B. King Talks About Love, The Blues, and History,” Ebony, February 1992, p. 46.