Soul as Protest Music

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 R&B was primarily dance music, in the early 1960s 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 1967 from John Lewis (later 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.

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Soul music essentially was R&B music that engaged with the cultural aspirations of of the Black Power movement. In 1969, Billboard changed the name of its R&B chart to the 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 Charles’s marriage of gospel-influenced piano phrasing with a boogie-woogie vamp in the left hand.

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 music a few years later. 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.

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”:

Another Staple Singers song, “The Ghetto,” sung by contemporary blues-folk artist Ruthie Foster:

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Some popular Motown artists, too, began to record “message” songs. Here, the Supremes mash up their trademark 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.

Stevie Wonder, “Living for the City”:

Marlena Shaw, “Woman of the Ghetto”:

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.

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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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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.

(This is funny.)

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.

“Crazy” Blues?

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In the book Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition, Adam Gussow devotes an entire chapter to Mamie Smith’s 1920 blues hit “Crazy Blues.” The song is believed to be the first blues recording ever released, and was entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1994. Gussow’s main concern, however, is not with the song’s history, but with its subversive subject matter — the wild grief of an abandoned woman, which makes her “crazy,” leads to suicidal ideation, and finally reaches its crescendo in her stated plan to kill a police officer.

I can’t sleep at night
        I can’t eat a bite
        ‘Cause the man I love
        He don’t treat me right.

        He makes me feel so blue
        I don’t know what to do
        Sometimes I’m sad inside
        And then begin to cry
        ‘Cause my best friend . . . said his last goodbye.

        There’s a change in the ocean
        Change in the deep blue sea . . . but baby
        I tell you folks there . . . ain’t no change in me
        My love for that man
        Will always be.

        Now I’ve got the crazy blues
        Since my baby went away
        I ain’t got no time to lose
        I must find him today
        Now the doctor’s gonna do all . . . that he can
        But what you gonna need is a undertaker man
        I ain’t had nothin’ but bad news
        Now I’ve got the crazy blues.

        Now I can read his letter
        I sure can’t read his mind
        I thought he’s lovin’ me . . .
        He’s leavin’ all the time
        Now I see . . .
        My poor love was Iyin’.

        I went to the railroad
        Hang my head on the track
        Thought about my daddy
        I gladly snatched it back
        Now my babe’s gone
        And gave me the sack.

        Now I’ve got the crazy blues
        Since my baby went away
        I ain’t had no time to lose
        I must find him today
        I’m gonna do like a Chinaman, go and get some hop
        Get myself a gun, and shoot myself a cop
        I ain’t had nothin’ but bad news
        Now I’ve got the crazy blues.

Gussow notes:

In 1920 these were remarkable words for an African American singer to shout from the rooftops . . . .they supply a partial genealogy for the emergence, decades later, of NWA (“F*ck the Police”), Ice-T (“Cop Killer,” “Squeeze the Trigger”), and other beer-and-blunts-stoked gangsta rappers of the 1980s . . . . the black male lover whose absence [Mamie Smith] bemoans is associated not simply with faithlessness but with death, an inscription of his social fate in a white-policed public sphere where countless forms of “bad news” — lynching, race riots, vagrancy laws, back-alley murder — threaten to take him away for good. 

“Crazy Blues” sold 75,000 copies in its first month alone, and its popularity was spread across the south when black Pullman porters set up a cottage industry of buying dozens of copies of the record for a dollar apiece in Harlem, and selling them for twice that much when their trains went down south.

Do you think “Crazy Blues” would have been so successful if it had been sung by a black man? Did Mamie Smith’s gender allowed her to express sentiments that would have been unacceptable if issued by a male singer?

It’s worth noting, too, that Smith’s threat to “do like a Chinaman . . . go and get some hop” is a drug reference — “hop” being slang for opium — as well as a racialized/racist one.

Anti-Chinese immigration cartoon, depicting an armed Chinese man as the sexual predator of white women, with an opium pipe in one hand.

One critic has said:

Considered purely in terms of the musical outpouring it led to, “Crazy Blues” was one of the most consequential records ever made, the first title in a regal succession of American song. Without Mamie Smith, no Bessie [Smith], no Billie [Holiday], no Ella [Fitzgerald], no Etta [James], no Diana [Ross], no Aretha [Franklin], no Whitney [Houston], no Mariah [Carey], no Janet [Jackson], no Missy [Elliot], no Beyoncé.

In 1924, the blues singer Josie Miles recorded another song about the urge to commit murder and mayhem, not specifically against the police, but perhaps against the violent injustice of society as a whole.

Wanna set the world on fire
That is my one mad desire
I’m a devil in disguise
Got murder in my eyes

Now I could see blood runnin’
Through the streets
Now I could see blood runnin’
Through the streets
Could be everybody
Layin’ dead right at my feet

Now man who invented war
Sure is my friend
The man invented war
Sure is my friend
Don’t believe that I’m sinkin’
Just look what a hole I am in

Give me gunpowder
Give me dynamite
Give me gunpowder
Give me dynamite
Yes I’d wreck the city
Wanna blow it up tonight

I took my big Winchester
Down off the shelf
I took my big Winchester
Down off the shelf
When I get through shootin’
There won’t be nobody left

Josie Miles’s “mad mama” is certainly “mad” in the sense of insanity, but she is also “mad” in the sense of an overwhelming, righteous anger.

Lest it seem like these early musical-homicidal intentions went underground until  gangsta rap, check out Gil Scott Heron’s 1981 cover of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 hit “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” While Gaye’s song is a despairing, if non-specific, cry against social injustice, Heron turns his spoken-word bridge into a tribute to the New Orleans cop-killer Mark Essex.

Heron’s spoken-word bridge:

Did you ever hear about Mark Essex and the things that made him choose to fight the inner city blues
Yeah, Essex took to the rooftops guerilla style and watched while all the crackers went wild
Brought in 600 troops, brand new I hear, to see them crushed with fear
Essex fought back with a thousand rounds and New Orleans was a changing town
Rat a tat tat tat was the only sound, yeah
Bring on the stone rifles to knock down walls
Bring on the elephant guns
Bring on the helicopters to block out the sun
Yeah, made the devil wanna holler cause 8 was dead and a dozen was down
Cries for freedom were a brand new sound
New York, Chicago, Frisco, LA
Justice was served and the unjust were afraid