Sunday, May 27, 2007

King for a Day

It was May 1997, and we were driving between Dayton and Houston. It was the proverbial cold, dark night, and the rain was pouring, just pouring in buckets. We crept along I-55 into Memphis, trying to find a hotel. A few miles out of town, I was playing with the tuner trying to find a station—a challenge, to hear something over the din of rain—when I heard a guitar note, and was transfixed. I stayed frozen as we drove into Memphis, bathed in the wonder of the blues.

It was the first time I had ever been moved by music so deeply as to feel a city, a population, a race, a culture. I knew little, then, about the privations Memphis had experienced, yet already I could feel it in my bones from just those few guitar notes. What I learned later only deepened my appreciation for what I heard, but what I read simply could not match what I'd felt.

It's easy to argue that B.B. King is too commercial, too simplistic, too mainstream, too easy to appreciate. He is indeed all those things. But he is also capable of music of great power, and he opened my mind that night. In a few spare notes he made me feel a side of American culture that isn't in the version exported to foreigners.

Today was a great thrill, as B.B. received an honorary degree from Brown.

It's the first time I've attended even part of the main graduation ceremony at Brown, and my reward was getting to hear B.B. offer us a brief piece, a capella. Enjoying it as much as anyone else was Craig C. Mello, Brown alum and 2006 Nobel Laureate (seated).

Long Live the King!