B. B. King – A Celebration of his life and music
Early in 2008, eighty-two-year-old B.B. King, an age at which most performers have either long since retired or a simply coasting on their laurels, went into the studio with a producer whom he had never met, and no “super-star” acolytes to do the heavy lifting, to record his forty-second album in a fifty-nine-year recording career.
The finished album consisted of twelve deep blues songs that he had somehow never gotten around to recording before. Six were based on recordings by two of his earliest inspirations; three each by Lonnie Johnson and T-Bone Walker.
Two reached back to the repertoire of The Memphis Sheiks, but the oldest, the album’s opening song, has roots reaching back to a time before recorded sound, the late 1860’s shortly after the American Civil War.
Originally titled, ‘See That My Grave Is Kept Green’ is was a “parlor song”, a sing-along, a sentimental piece that could be sung by family and friends as part of an evening’s entertainment.
There is no way to know if Blind Lemon Jefferson was the first to change the words and arrangement (and in doing so, changing it’s meaning) but he was the first to record it. The first recording, in October of 1927 was released under the pseudonym Deacon L.J. Bates. His second recording of the song, in February 1928 was released under his own name. The lyrics are the same, but he changes the arrangement towards the end.
By the time that King got around to recording it, Jefferson’s recording was already eighty years old and had been performed and recorded countless times; proving to especially popular with “folk” artists in the early and mid-sixties. Undercutting too many of the sixties recordings was a desperate yearning for sympathy on behalf of the singer. They wanted (almost insisted) that the listener feel bad for them. One exception was Bob Dylan, who recorded the song for his first LP. Dylan sings with anger, almost a fury, in the face of death; unwilling to simply go quietly. His youth may explain his sense of injustice at his fate.
King sang “the blues” his entire career (though he was not afraid to experiment, being one of the earliest to record with rock artists, bringing jazz stylings to the forefront, slipping into a Philly Soul sound and even an ill-advised country outing) but his personal warmth and big-heartedness shone out of everything he did.
He didn’t shy from real world troubles, (‘Why I Sing the Blues’) but his was a message of love, a message he would eventually deliver literally all around the world.
In contrast to most covers of the song, King seems at peace with the inevitable (again, maybe due to his age). Set to a funky New Orleans second line rhythm, (credit for this most likely goes to producer T-Bone Burnett) the number becomes celebratory, not sad.
B.B. King: lead guitar & vocal /
Johnny Lee Schell: guitar / Nathan East: acoustic bass /
Mike Elizondo: electric bass /
Jim Keltner, Jay Bellerose: drums & percussion /
Dr. John: piano / Neil Larsen: B-3 organ
Released on “One Kind Favor” (Geffen) – August 26, 2008
See That My Grave Is Kept Clean (Blind Lemon Jefferson / Furry Lewis*) (4:54)
From the opening verse, King takes a gentler tone. Where the original and almost every cover after begins with the singer telling the listener of the favor being requested; King asks the favor, providing the petitioned a choice.
There is no fear, or sense of regret in King’s voice; he sings with strength and almost a sense of wonder at the way that the events are unfolding just as he had been told they would.
He also makes it clear that this is a future request. He adds the word “when” to the beginning of line “My heart stops beating and my hands get cold”, making it clear that he is still here.
This also changes the verse’s final line. As sung by Jefferson and all who came after him, the line “I believe what the Bible told” can be heard as a desperate hope or a final attempt at bettering one’s odds as to where you are going next. As sung by King, it explains his sense of calm and offers others the same sense of peace, if only they will embrace it.
King sings the song’s six verses (there were seven in Jefferson’s original*) straight through, without a break. At the end of the sixth, he adds an original aside, “I feel so good”.
He is so confident of the just reward that awaits him that the number becomes a way of reassuring others (as Death eventually comes for everyone) that it doesn’t have to be something to fear.
This leads into a brief break, followed by a reprise of the opening verse and here again, he places his stamp on the song; in the final line, he adds the word “Please” to his request that his grave be kept clean.
*On the CD the song is credited to both Jefferson and Furry Lewis. Lewis was a contemporary of Jefferson’s, having almost thirty titles released between 1927 and 1929. Rediscovered in the early sixties, Lewis recorded Jefferson’s song a few times in informal settings and in the studio. Lewis dropped some of Jefferson’s verses and added more than a few of his own.
However, as noted above, King sings all but one of the original verses and takes nothing from Lewis’ performances that I am aware of.
**Most of the covers that I have heard omit the second verse of Jefferson’s original,
“It’s a long lane that’s got no end” 3X
“And it’s a bad wind that never change”
For King, this verse would have introduced an element of ambiguity that would have been at odds with his interpretation of the song. As Jefferson performed the number, it was clear that he had no intention of going gently into that dark night.
Blind Lemon Jefferson
Blind Lemon Jefferson: guitar & vocal
Recorded February 1928
Released A-side Paramount 78
See That My Grave Is Kept Clean (Blind Lemon Jefferson) (3:00)