Les Back: How Blue Can You Get? BB King, Planetary Humanism and the Blues Behind Bars (PART TWO)

BB King Live in Cook County Jaillogo95x95How Blue Can You Get? BB King, Planetary Humanism and the blues behind bars


by Les Back

This is the second part of Les’ piece on BB King; you can read the first part here.


 After Attica

Elsewhere in the United States the crisis in the penal system remained. By the early seventies American prisons were filling up with activists from a range of politically radical movements. On September 9, 1971, two weeks after the killing of George Jackson at San Quentin, prisoners at Attica prison in upstate New York seized control of part of the prison, also taking hostages. In D-yard, they set up democratic structures to define and voice their concerns, which included the racism from the guards, poor food, and limits on religious freedom and political organisation.

By the order of State Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the state police and the National Guard took back the prison in a bloody and murderous operation. As tear gas was dropped, law enforcement officers opened fire indiscriminately in a six minute fusillade where 4,500 rounds were fired including illegal ‘dum dum’ bullets that exploded on impact. The hail of gun fire killed 29 prisoners.

It was falsely reported that the inmates had slit the throats of the hostages. However, the autopsy later showed that 10 hostages had been killed – not by the prisoner’s makeshift weapons – but by the same bullets that killed the convicts fired by the law enforcement officers.

In the days that followed there were reprisals and beatings of prisoners by guards. After Attica, the issue of prisons and prison life was put squarely on the public agenda. Over forty years later, the injustices of Attica are still an open wound. Photographer and filmmaker Bruce Jackson has studied the photographic evidence – some of which was suppressed in the subsequent law suits – and found that some of the convicts were killed at close quarters and not by the rooftop riflemen.[1] One of whom – Kenneth Molloy – had his eyes blown out with .357 Magnum hand gun after he was dead or while he was dying. Film footage now available of the aftermath shows a white law enforcement holding his clenched fist aloft saying boldly “that’s white power”.[2]

The significance of the Attica revolt is hard to overstate. These events played out on national television, much of it dis-information or just plain lies. John Lennon recorded a song called Attica State that denounced Rockefeller and appeared on the album Some Time in New York City. In December 1971, he performed the song at a benefit concert that took place at the Apollo Theatre, New York for the families of those killed.

This was the context in which BB King’s prison performances were taking place, their edginess – as a well as their joy – is charged by the historical and social forces that coalesced around the prison. As Avery Gordon has pointed out, it is often forgotten that slavery is still legal in the United States when it comes to prisoners. [3]   Legal enslavement is enshrined in the US Constitution’s Thirteenth Amendment, pointing to the significance of the history of plantation slavery and politics of prisons.

The prisoners of Attica seem to reference this in the five demands they issued to the people of America during the revolt; they wrote: “WE are MEN! We are not beasts and do not intend to be beaten or driven as such. The entire prison populace has set forth to change forever the ruthless brutalization and disregard for the lives of the prisoners here and throughout the United States. What has happened here is but the sound before the fury of those who are oppressed.”[4]

No wonder then that BB King felt drawn to perform for prisoners and why his performances are loaded with such intensity and historic weight – his guitar is the same sound that was given a name so aptly in the statement made by the prisoners of Attica. It cries out for a sense of humanity even, or perhaps particularly, in the midst of the confinements of the prison.

Thanksgiving, Sing Sing 1972

The experience of BB King chimes with Paul Gilroy’s argument for the usefulness of the idea of ‘planetarity’ to convey a different sense of human experience. [5] This quality of experience involves both movement and contingency. For Gilroy the art and lives of musicians – from Curtis Mayfield to Bob Marley – offer clues about ways to think about the link between human life and inhumanities of racism. His sense of planetary humanism aims to link the two and develop an ethics and politics “capable of comprehending the universality of our elemental vulnerability to the wrong we visit upon each other.”[6]

Life on the road for BB King meant coming into routine confrontation with the limitations of the colour bar manifest in the ‘white only’ restaurants & hotels.   He toured relentlessly and in 1956 he played a staggering 342 one nighters.[7] It was for this reason that BB was so proud of his tour bus, the first he bought in 1955. The tour bus served as his home from home and shelter from Jim Crow racism. Between gigs there were routine reminders for a travelling musician that for white society black people were less than fully human.

On the 23rd November 1972 – Thanksgiving Day – BB King’s tour bus rolled into the small village of Ossining on the Hudson River, 30 miles from New York, and the location of Ossining Correctional Facility, known more commonly as Sing Sing. The prison was notorious for electric chair “Old Sparky”; it was where high profile executions took place, including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for alleged cold war espionage on June 19, 1953. The last person executed in New York State was African American, Eddie Lee Mays, for murder, on August 15, 1963.

BB King was there to perform as part of a project developed by David Hoffman and Harry Wiland. David Hoffman explained from his home in Santa Cruz, California: “Attica changed everything – it was like a war inside a prison. Prior to that nobody was really paying attention to prisons around New York State that had real reputations for being notorious but no-one knew anything about prisons at all.”[8] He lived close to Sing Sing in Westchester and with his colleague decided to teach a class on filmmaking and theatre. The culmination of this yearlong prison arts project was a concert that would be filmed.   This included not only BB King but also Joan Baez, The Voices of East Harlem and jazz comedian Jimmy Walker.

The film BB King and Joan Baez in Sing Sing is an extraordinary document of this ‘happening.’[9] Filmed over two days and with seven camera crews the film takes the viewer inside the prison from the prisoner’s point of view. David Hoffman told me that the star of the film is Tony Pabone, who introduces the film and acts as the concert stage manager. At Sing Sing he was head of the Young Lords, a famous Puerto Rican gang. Hoffman referred to him as “a spectacular talker and great thinker”.

Hoffman explained that part of what made the performances special was the quality of the sound system and the stage, purpose-built and well lit: “BB said it was his best performance to date. I don’t think he ever beat it” Hoffman remembered. An excerpt from the film was watched 500,000 times on YouTube in the days after BB King’s death.


BB’s guitar playing is nothing short of sublime. The film also captures small moments of human recognition between the performers and the inmates. Before Joan Baez sings a spine-chilling rendition of Bob Dylan’s I Shall be Released, she kisses her convict compere on the cheek. The prisoners are rapturous in their response. Then BB, needing to fill some time while the band changes over, raps with the audience about the difficulties of getting into the prison. He makes light of the fact that one of his band members “you seem to know very well” implying that he’d done a spell in Sing Sing. A member of the audience asks how that makes him feel? Without missing a beat BB replied “makes me feel good because he works with me”. The crowd cheers loudly in response.

The film also records the edginess of the guards and the volatile joy of the occasion, as The Voices of East Harlem sang “Young gifted and Black” or when Joan Baez calls out for the “prisons to be raised to the ground”. The performance is punctuated repeatedly by the numbers of prisoners being read out and ordered to report themselves on the public address system, as if serving as a reminder of the authority of prison.   At one point BB hands the slip to the compere to read out the number and says in jest “I know I am Joan Baez and I ain’t gonna kiss yer.”

The high point is BB’s performance of How Blue Can You Get, a song that is ostensibly a tale of an unappreciative lover. The blues has always been able to speak to the lonely midnight of human emotion including loss, disenfranchisement, dependency, violence and even death.   We learn that the unappreciative lover minimizes and disparages every attempt by the male protagonist to offer and provide things of value. In this stop time blues, BB sings:

I gave you a brand new Ford, she said I want a Cadillac

I bought you a $10 dinner she said thanks for the snack

I let you live in my penthouse you said it was just a shack

I gave you seven children now you wanna give ‘em back

The affective power of the song is not only to be found in its sexist surface, beneath it too is a cry out against a world that also injures and disparages men like the inmates of Sing Sing. A world in which value cannot be bought like a $10 dinner or even a penthouse and this is what gives the final line such a charge. The fugitive power of the blues touches the feeling that whatever they offer, and whatever they do, it will be returned unwanted.

During the finale of his show BB reached out to the audience as he sang “someone really loves you guess who?” and as he delivered that final line his index fingers point to his own chest. Turning back to the audience, the camera catches a prisoner wiping the tears from his eyes.


“BB King wasn’t exactly pro-inmate he just wanted them to be treated as human beings” remembered David Hoffman.   He said BB King “was not anything but a musician but there was one thing that he loved to do and that was perform in prison. It is pure humanity… its pure humanity. There is a Jewish word for it – it’s called a Mensch. He was that… He always put the people ahead of himself. He was a truly beautiful guy.”

Conclusion: Prison Blues

As we remember BB King we should hear the sound of his guitar’s soaring human tone. It is a sound that carries a promise of a different sense of human experience, that contains, as Paul Gilroy writes, the possibility of “the alienated humanity that was associated with racial divisions could be replaced by a non-racial alternative that suffers, loves, acts, and exercises its will, in reshaping the broken world we have inherited.”[10]

I asked David Hoffman if he felt it was still possible to do the kind of prison work he did. “No, I don’t think it would be possible today. Prisons have become distant from the American people again. We have a much more harsh image of the criminal.” This is why it is important to think again about the place of the prison in society in a time where the US prison population is over 2.2 million.[11]

At Stuart Hall’s memorial Bea Campbell recalled a conversation she had about the blues with the great post-colonial theorist and writer. She said Stuart commented that the “blues takes you there but doesn’t leave you there”. For in this music there is a reckoning with a midnight of the soul and the legacy of exploitation and slavery but equally the blues contains a joy that speaks out against it.

To end, I have argued that remembering BB King’s prison performance puts a different inflection on his legacy and its cultural significance. Music in prison, during the tempestuous decade of the 1970s, could be a way to pacify prisoners and reward them for good behaviour. It also brought into focus the social and historical forces that were unfolding within the wider society. Inside the walls of the prison, the sound of BB King’s guitar chimed against that sense of being devalued or of having no value. That’s how blue you can get. More than this, a sense of humanity was alive in these extraordinary performances, expressed wordlessly in sound and tone that refused the de-basements of racism and that pointed beyond it towards a planetary humanistic sensibility.


[1] Bruce Jackson ‘Attica at 40’, Counterpunch, September 8th, 2011

[2] See Emily Kunstler & Sarah Kunstler William Kunnstler: Disturbing the Universe Arthouse Films, 2009.

[3] Avery Gordon ‘The Prisoner’s Curse’ in Herman Gray and Macarena Gomez-Barris eds. Toward a Sociology of the Trace University of Minnesota, 2010 pp. 17-55.

[4] Quoted in Tom Wicker A Time to Die: The Attica Prison Revolt (Haymarket Books, 2011) p. 319.

[5] After Empire p. xi.

[6] After Empire p. 4.

[7] Mick Taylor ‘The Man Who Would Be King’, Guitarist Magazine, July 2015 p. 64-67.

[8] All quotations in what follows taken from a telephone interview with the author on May 18th, 2015.

[9] David Hoffman BB King and Joan Baez Live in Sing Sing. (Varied Direction, 1973).

[10] Darker than Blue p. 118.

[11] Marie Gottschalk Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics (Princeton University Press, 2015).

Les Back is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London


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