James Brown and B.B. King: Mourning and Migration

Carrie Allen Tipton (Houston, TX)  

A parade of mourners follows B.B. King’s hearse during his funeral procession on May 27, 2015.

When blues guitarist and singer B.B. King (b. 1925) died in May 2015, fans mourned his death and celebrated his life at two large public events. On May 27, the hearse carrying his casket began its two-state journey on Memphis’s Beale Street, one of several symbolic “birthplace-of-the-blues” locales claimed by communities throughout the U.S. South. A parade of mourners—some singing, dancing, or playing instruments—accompanied the hearse, as shown in the video above. Over the next two days, the hearse crept down Highway 61 to Indianola, Mississippi, in the heart of the Delta, where a public viewing was held on May 29 at the B.B. King Museum. The next day, King’s casket finally wound up at a small church in Indianola for the funeral service. The implications were clear: B.B. King may have hailed from the rural Mississippi Delta, but his biography also encompassed a specific urban space: the African American neighborhoods of Memphis, where he first caught national attention in the early 1950s with his WDIA radio broadcasts. 

That King received public memorials in each of his two “homes” reminded me at once of similar celebrations attendant on the death of one of his contemporaries, Black popular music icon James Brown (b. 1933), a few years earlier in December 2006. As with King, Brown’s passing was marked by two large public memorial events—in his case, one in a midsized southern city and one in a massive northern metropolis. A large funeral procession through the historic African-American neighborhood of Harlem, where Brown had become closely linked to the Apollo Theater in the late 1950s and 1960s, was followed a few days later by an enormous funeral service at a civic arena in Brown’s native Augusta, Georgia. The geographical dispersion of these artists’ funerary activities echoed historical parallels in their professional trajectories, which were embedded within the migration patterns of African Americans in the twentieth century, from urban to rural and southern to northern spaces.

The funeral procession for James Brown in Harlem on December 28, 2008.

Both men emerged from the deep poverty that marked African-American communities in the U.S. South prior to World War II. Brown was born in Barnwell, South Carolina (near Augusta, Georgia, which became his de facto hometown), and King in Itta Bena, Mississippi, smack in the middle of the Delta. Deprivation and family difficulties marked their early years, as did the Black Pentecostalism becoming ubiquitous in the rural South in the first few decades of the twentieth century. King grew up in the Church of God in Christ and Brown in the United House of Prayer for All People—denominations whose lively musical traditions and dynamic worship rituals constituted cradles for artistic incubation. The musical styles and stage demeanor of both artists bore the permanent imprint of this southern religious background. The Civil Rights years tested their ties with their home regions; both felt the effects of Jim Crow even when they toured the region as stars in the 1950s and 1960s. Nevertheless, by the end of their lives, both had maintained fairly positive relationships with their hometowns through festivals, charity events, exhibits, and museums. Upon their passing, local fans frequently remarked that King and Brown never forgot the hometown folks. King’s funeral at the Bell Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Indianola, Mississippi and Brown’s funeral at the James Brown Arena in Augusta reflected these bonds with their home communities, with participation by local ministers, choirs, and musicians in addition to the appearance of big-time celebrities.

Brown and King may have sounded “down-home,” but they knew how to function uptown, too. Paradoxically, they capitalized on their gritty rural southern sound only by gravitating to urban spaces. Along with millions of other African Americans in the early and mid-twentieth century, both men traversed migratory paths to cities and/or northwards to find economic success. After leaving his tiny Delta hamlet in the late 1940s, King wound up DJing and performing on Memphis’s fabled WDIA radio, the first station in the country to use exclusively African-American announcers and talent to target a Black audience. James Brown—after cutting his early records in Macon, Georgia—built his career largely in northern cities, recording with Cincinnati’s King Records in the late 1950s and launching his lengthy association with Harlem’s Apollo Theater in 1959. Their respective connections to these historic Black neighborhoods were so strong that a half-century later, Beale Street and Harlem publicly mourned them with street processions and, in Brown’s case, a memorial at the Apollo Theater. The events reflected the men’s status as icons of the vibrant Black metropolitan centers that flourished across the U.S. as a result of African American migration patterns.

The cultural thread that bound together all of Brown’s and King’s memorial activities—northern, southern, rural, urban—were the rhetorical, ritual, and musical legacies of African-American church culture. James Brown’s New York and Augusta funerals included upbeat, cheerful performances by gospel artists. King’s Mississippi funeral featured gospel choirs clapping while they sang, and his funerary procession down Beale Street resembled the second line tradition of New Orleans, wherein a jazz parade honors the deceased through dancing and brass band music. Scholar Richard Brent Turner describes this vigorous tradition as emerging from religious practices of the African diaspora—evidence of how the celebratory modes of African-American religion informed public mourning of King. Ministers spoke at all of the events, often employing the exultant oratory common in the African-American preaching tradition. At times the tiny Missionary Baptist church in Indianola, Harlem’s Apollo Theater, and Augusta’s James Brown Arena rocked with energetic testifying, singing, and eulogizing, punctuated by the vocal and embodied congregational responses common in Black church services.

In addition to both artists’ common roots in southern Black Pentecostalism, the pan-geographical presence of Black Christian rituals in their funerary activities remind us that the power of African-American church culture has certainly not been limited to the U.S. South. While Black Christianity enjoyed a small but robust northern presence (especially in the form of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination) since the late eighteenth century, it grew exponentially stronger during the waves of migration in the early twentieth century. Commercial gospel music, for example, emerged in the 1930s from the crucible of southern African Americans’ migration to and the spread of Pentecostal/Holiness practices in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York. In the case of Black gospel music, powerful elements of southern Black Christianity transformed by urban experiences indelibly altered the landscape of American vernacular music, shaping the performance styles of artists like James Brown who came of age under its influence. These and other aspects of Black church culture helped mid-century Black urban communities, like the ones in which Brown and King flourished artistically and found many loyal fans, to form strong social bonds that equipped them to face a strange new post-migration world.

The deaths of Brown and King at the respective ages of 73 and 89 represented the departure of two elders of Black popular music who personified the exciting and experimental decade following World War II. As African Americans moved northwards and/or to cities in the mid-twentieth century, their exposure to urban economic opportunities gave them income to spend on record players, records, concert tickets, and items advertised on radio stations that marketed to them. Bustling Black urban neighborhoods like Beale Street and Harlem gave rise to important concert venues where African-American musicians performed to large audiences. In turn, the music industry increasingly recognized African Americans as an important target demographic, while also realizing that Black music held multi-ethnic, multi-class appeal far superseding the old “race records” category—industry changes both Brown and King benefited from at various points in their careers. Each artist’s public memorials celebrated his long journey through and many contributions to Black communities and traditions in rural, urban, southern, and northern spaces, reflecting at a micro level the macronarrative of the migrations that so many African Americans undertook in the twentieth century.

For Discussion

  1. Discuss a musician or musical group that draws heavily on geographical ties. This could be as general as “rural” or as specific as “Brooklyn, NY.” Does this artist/group use regional/geographic affiliation to connect with specific audience demographics or project a certain cultural image? How is the artist’s/group’s geographic affiliation expressed in musical choices, lyrics, slang, videos, stage shows, clothing, publicity, etc.? Do other artists in the same genre align themselves with the same geographical space?
  2. Research the public mourning associated with the death of a well-known musician in recent years (funerals; memorial services; digital/virtual memorials; musical tributes by other artists; etc). What themes or cultural issues seemed prominent in the public mourning of these musicians?

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