Soul as Protest

Content/Trigger Warning: Racist language in original sources.

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Soul was a stream of rhythm and blues that engaged overtly with social issues. Where 1950s and early 1960s R&B was primarily dance music, in the mid-60s, certain artists began marrying the R&B musical sensibility to lyrics that dealt with pressing political topics. In the Civil Rights Movement, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (or SNCC, pronounced “snick”), which was formed in 1960 to address voting rights issues in the Deep South, began to reject what they saw as the incrementalist approach of leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and to embrace the “by any means necessary” philosophy of leaders like Malcolm X. New Yorker, Howard graduate, and emerging black nationalist Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture), who had grown up hearing Malcom X preach on street corners in the Bronx, took over the leadership of SNCC in 1966 from John Lewis (the Civil Rights hero who had marched alongside Dr. King in Selma in 1965, been brutally beaten by the police, and before his death in 2020 was a long-serving Congressman from Georgia), and began to steer its mission towards Black Power and separatism. The white members of SNCC were deplatformed and drifted away, and, as Nicholas Lemann notes,

The emergence of an openly anti white strain in the civil rights movement — and, in particular, of an openly anti-Semitic strain in the black power movement — severely curtailed the movement’s ability to exert a moral claim on the nation.

As former SNCC field secretary Julius Lester wryly put it:

If SNCC had said Negro Power or Colored Power, white folks would’ve continued sleeping easy every night. But BLACK POWER! Black! . . . All the whites wanted to know was if Black Power was antiwhite and if it meant killing white folks. The nation was hysterical. [Vice President] Hubert Humphrey screamed, ” . . . We must reject calls for racism . . . whether they come from a throat that is white or one that is black.” He could “reject” all he wanted, but if you reject a woman, that still doesn’t keep the bitch from killing you.

freedomnow

Soul music was a repertoire that combined the rhythms and the dense, tight instrumentals of R&B with the cultural aspirations of the Black Power movement. In 1969, Billboard changed the name of its R&B chart to Soul chart.

As we’ve discussed in class and on this blog, soul takes its musical inspiration from the Black church, using gospel music techniques like call-and-response structure and melismatic singing (stretching one syllable of a word over many notes to give textual emphasis). Soul pioneers like Ray Charles and James Brown at first restricted their songs to the usual topics of love and desire. You can hear Ray Charles’s marriage of gospel-influenced piano phrasing with a boogie-woogie vamp in the left hand.

And you can hear the melismatic vocal style of James Brown (the “Human Package of Dynamite”) set against a staccato horn section and the interjections of a solo electric guitar played in a high register, which would become hallmarks of funk just a few years later in the early 1970s. Notice also that the audience and the backup dancers are integrated.

James Brown soon turned to songwriting that was overtly political.

According to James Brown, “Say It Loud”

scared people . . . Many white people didn’t understand it . . . They thought I was saying kill the honky, and every time I did something else around the idea of black pride another top forty station quit playing my records.

Politics and art make strange bedfellows, however. Brown played at President Nixon’s 1968 inauguration, and endorsed Nixon in his reelection campaign in 1972.

In 1973, Brown’s band, the J.B.’s, recorded a song called “You Can Have Watergate, Just Gimme Some Bucks and I’ll Be Straight,” referring to the scandal that would later topple Nixon’s presidency: a break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s offices at the Watergate Office Building in order to install illegal wiretaps, ordered at the highest levels of government.

Bands like the Temptations and the Chi-Lites joined the vocal harmonies of male R&B groups to socially-engaged lyrical content.

The Temptations, “Ball of Confusion”:

The Chi-Lites, “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People”:

The Staple Singers fused gospel choral style, the fast-paced bass lines and jangling guitars of funk, and passionate pleas for black self-respect and communal love:

The Staple Singers, “This Old Town”:

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Some popular Motown artists, too, began to record “message” songs. Here, the Supremes mash up their trademark soft, breathy vocal style with the driving bass line and polyrhythms of early funk, against a stylized, Sesame Street-like “ghetto” backdrop. Note their bare feet and natural hair, a far cry from their earlier glamorous look.

Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On” (remixed with topical video in 2019):

black soldiers vietnam satire

The Vietnam War also became a flashpoint for soul. It was the first “integrated war” in US history, with Blacks and whites serving together in the same units. In reality, however, Blacks and poor whites bore a disproportionate burden of Vietnam service; college men, mostly white, were able to get deferments, or join the Army Reserves, to avoid being drafted and sent into combat. It was also alleged that Black soldiers got sent on the most dangerous missions.

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In 1965, SNCC issued a statement urging that blacks should not

fight in Vietnam for the white man’s freedom, until all the Negro people are free in Mississippi. 

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The Black Panther Party encouraged and supported protests among American G.I.s. They were supported, in turn, by the radical white group, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), who organized an action in Chicago in 1969 called “Days of Rage.” The Days of Rage, which took place from October 8-11, involved various acts of vandalism, sabotage, and attempts to provoke the police into a confrontation. SDS and its subgroup, Weatherman, hoped to recruit youth from community colleges and high schools to the cause of anti-imperialism, on the basis that students were de facto members of the working class because they did not, in Marxist terms, “own the means of production.” In reality, only a few hundred people showed up; 250 were arrested. The SDS slogan was “Bring the [Vietnam] War Home.”

Poster for the Days of Rage, showing a Viet Cong soldier raising his gun in resistance to U.S. imperialism

Veterans throwing their medals at the Capitol in a protest in 1971:

Edwin Starr, “War”:

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Richie Havens, medley of “Freedom” and the old spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” at Woodstock:

The ethos of struggle found its way into mainstream culture. The 1970s television show “Good Times” took place in the infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago, and one of the show’s child characters was a young activist.

Even shows as white as The Partridge Family joined in. In episode #78, the band’s tour mistakenly takes them to play at a failing Detroit club run by Richard Pryor (they were supposed to play in Tucson). Danny Partridge convinces the local Afro-American Cultural Society (a fictional version of the Black Panthers) to help out with some musicians.

The (sonic) contributions of women to the Black Power women have often been overlooked. Read “They Do Not All Sound Alike: Sampling Kathleen Cleaver, Assata Shakur, and Angela Davis.”

And Elaine Brown (above), the first woman to lead the Black Panther Party, was also an accomplished singer who recorded anthems in the service of the cause.

Not all calls for Black Power, however, endorsed violent means. The Shahid Quintet, in a spoken-word jam against a cool-sounding jazz background, probably recorded in 1968 or 1969 in Chicago, caution revolutionaries that burning and mayhem are “no way to have a Black revolt”:

Burning and looting and cries of Black Power . . .
Brother, try and think like a wise man,
how much Black power can you hold in a can
[i.e., of gasoline to start a fire]?

Instead, Richard Shabazz and Earl Shabazz, about whom little is known, urge revolutionaries to come to God and his messenger — specifically, to the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad.

Earl Shabazz and Richard Shabazz might have envisioned their record finding its way to their local Black Nationalist bookstore, they might have seen it being sold at local poetry readings. Some forty-odd years later, though, they likely wouldn’t have foreseen that their recording had landed mostly in hands of white record collectors, the inevitable home to such cultural ephemera.

Soul and Sacrament

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(Pentecostal church service.)

According to Peter Guralnick:

Southern soul music developed out of a time and a set of social circumstances that are unlikely to be repeated. . . when I speak of soul music, I am not referring to Motown, a phenomenon almost exactly contemporaneous but appealing far more to a pop, white, and industry-slanted kind of audience. (Motown’s achievement, said Jerry Wexler, vice-president of Atlantic Records and chief spokesman for the rival faction, was “something that you would have to say on paper was impossible. They took black music and beamed it directly to the white American teenager.”)

In this regard, soul foreshadows rap.

Guralnick continues:

What I am referring to is the far less controlled, gospel-based, emotion-baring kind of music that grew up in the wake of the success of Ray Charles from about 1954 on and came to its full flowering, along with Motown, in the early 1960s. It was for a considerable length of time limited almost exclusively to a black audience which had grown up on the uninhibited emotionalism of the church and to a secret but growing legion of young white admirers who picked up on rhythm and blues on the radio and took it as the key to a mystery they were pledged never to reveal. In the beginning, like rock ‘n’ roll, it was an expression of rebellion, or at least of discontent, and Ray Charles’s transformation of dignified gospel standards into cries of secular ecstasy came in for a good deal of criticism at first, mostly from the pulpit. Once it emerged from the underground, it accompanied the Civil Rights Movement almost step by step, its success directly reflecting the giant strides that integration was making, its popularity almost a mirror image of the social changes that were taking place. When Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” a pure example of Southern soul emotiveness if ever there was one, made the top of the pop charts in 1966, it seemed almost as if the mountain had been scaled. Here was a song uncompromised, I thought at the time (many thought at the time), by concessions to the marketplace, unbleached and unblemished by the endearing palliatives which Motown always brought to bear, an expression of romantic generosity and black solidarity (I thought again). I didn’t even like the song all that much, but I took it as a harbinger of a new day, when a mass audience could respond to black popular culture on its own terms.

Similarly it seemed no coincidence that when the height of the Movement was past, when the certainty of forward motion and the instinctive commonality of purpose that marked that brief period were called into question by the death of Martin Luther King, the soul movement, too, should have fragmented . . . and the charts should have been virtually resegregated, with funk and disco and then rap music rendering themselves as inaccessible, and ultimately as co-optable in turn, as rhythm and blues once had been. Soul music, then, was the product of a particular time and place that one would not want to see repeated, the bitter fruit of segregation, transformed (as so much else has been by the encompassing generosity of Afro-American culture) into a statement of warmth and affirmation. . . 

“Soul music,” in British writer Clive Anderson’s orthodox and not imperceptive formulation, “is made by black Americans and elevates ‘feeling’ above all else. It began in the late fifties, secularized gospel embracing blues profanity, and dealt exclusively with that most important subject, the vagaries of love. The sound remains in church. More often than not soul is in ballad form and employs certain gospel and blues techniques—call and response patterns, hip argot and inflection, melismatic delivery. It is a completely vocal art…. Soul assumes a shared experience, a relationship with the listener, as in blues, where the singer confirms and works out the feelings of the audience. In this sense it remains sacramental.”

Soul becomes a kind of socially-conscious, secular gospel music, in the way that blues, a few decades earlier, had become a kind of secular spiritual music.

A partial playlist:

Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, “We’re a Winner”:

James Brown, “(Say it Loud) I’m Black and I’m Proud”:

Solomon Burke, “I Wish I Knew (How it Would Feel to Be Free)”:

Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come.” Cooke wrote the song after hearing Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” for the first time. He told his publisher:

I got to write something [about the Civil Rights movement]. Here’s a white boy [Dylan] writing like this.

Cooke also included Dylan’s song in his repertoire:

Garnett Mimms and the Enchanters, “A Quiet Place”:

Wilson Pickett, “In the Midnight Hour”:

Ray Charles, “I Believe to My Soul”:

Jimmy Reed: “Honest I Do”:

Otis Redding, “Love Man”:

Bobby “Blue” Bland, “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City”:

Percy Sledge, “When A Man Loves A Woman”:

Soul Brothers Six, “Some Kind of Wonderful”:

Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, “People Get Ready”:

Aretha Franklin, “Think”:

 

Godfather of Soul vs. Bad Boys of Rock

tami-show-hs

The T.A.M.I. (Teenage Awards Music Intenational) Show was a concert documentary that combined footage from two concerts held in Santa Monica, California in October 1964. The concerts were attended mostly by local high school students, who had been given free tickets to the show, and were headlined by a mix of white pop and rock-and-roll artists and black R&B and soul musicians.

One of the most celebrated performances in the concerts was that of James Brown and his band, the Famous Flames. There had been a backstage conflict just moments earlier between Brown and the Rolling Stones over who would go last. The Stones prevailed, and Brown, before going onstage, supposedly said, “Watch this, y’all.”

Watch it here.

 

James Brown’s performance

in its most thrilling, compressed, erotic, explosive form, just eighteen minutes long, is also arguably the most electrifying performance in the history of postwar American music.

. . . The Stones had come to the States from England determined to play black R. & B. for a mainly white audience that did not know its Son House from its Howlin’ Wolf. They were already stars, and the T.A.M.I. producers had them scheduled to close the show. James Brown did not approve. “Nobody follows James Brown!” he kept telling the show’s director, Steve Binder. Mick Jagger himself was hesitant. He and Keith Richards were boys from Kent [England] with an unusual obsession with American blues. They knew what Brown could do. In Santa Monica, they watched him from the wings, just twenty feet away, and, as they did, they grew sick with anxiety.

Brown, who had played the Chitlin Circuit for years, was genuinely incensed that the producers would put him on before pallid amateurs (in his mind) like the Stones. His performance, he later admitted, was a cutting contest that he refused to lose. As Brown puts it in his memoir, “James Brown: The Godfather of Soul,” “We did a bunch of songs, nonstop, like always. . . . I don’t think I ever danced so hard in my life, and I don’t think they’d ever seen a man move that fast.” . . . 

Brown [said]  that the T.A.M.I. performance was the “highest energy” moment of his career: “I danced so hard my manager cried. But I really had to. What I was up against was pop artists—I was R. & B. I had to show ’em the difference, and believe me, it was hard. . .  It’s a Holiness feeling—like a Baptist thing . . . It’s a spiritual-background thing. You’re involved and you don’t want to quit. That’s the definition of soul, you know. Being involved and they try to stop you and you just don’t want to stop.”

. . . [Keith] Richards would eventually say that the very idea of following James Brown was the biggest mistake of the Stones’ careers.

You can see the results here.

In the 1991 Irish film “The Commitments,” set in the working-class neighborhood of North Dublin in the 1960s, an Irish soul fan tries to put together an American-style soul band. He shows his skeptical bandmembers a clip of James Brown’s T.A.M.I. performance, and tells them that, as the “Blacks of Europe,” they should be able to relate: