Blind Blake (1896-1938) recorded “Detroit Bound Blues” for Paramount in 1928. It’s a kind of miniature record of at least some of the impetus behind the Great Migration.
I’m goin’ to Detroit, get myself a good job I’m goin’ to Detroit, get myself a good job Tried to stay around here with the starvation mob
I’m goin’ to get a job, up there in Mr. Ford’s place I’m goin’ to get a job, up there in Mr. Ford’s place Stop these eatless days from starin’ me in the face
When I start to makin’ money, she don’t need to come around When I start to makin’ money, she don’t need to come around ‘Cause I don’t want her now, Lord. I’m Detroit bound
Because they got wild women in Detroit, that’s all I want to see Because they got wild women in Detroit, that’s all I want to see Wild women and bad whisky would make a fool out of me
But working on an assembly line could be soul-crushing. As Joe L. Carter sang, “Please, Mr. Foreman, slow down your assembly line. No, I don’t mind workin’, but I do mind dyin’.”
From 1970 to 1973, Motown, whose mainstream records were mostly apolitical, operated a sub-label called Black Forum, which was dedicated to recording spoken word, poetry, and radical Black thought for posterity. Here are some recordings from its archives.
The last recording released by Black Forum was an album of consciousness-raising songs composed and performed by Black Panther leader Elaine Brown (who was a fantastic singer as well):
In July 1967, Detroit underwent five days of brutal unrest following the police raid of an after-hours club. Sixteen people were killed in the ensuing rioting.
While the unrest was still underway, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, to study the problem. The commission concluded:
Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal. . . .What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.
In 1968, civic leaders initiated a summer program to repair the city’s reputation, called “Detroit is Happening.” Motown artist Smokey Robinson and the Miracles recorded a song for the City of Detroit, “I Care About Detroit”:
And Detroit Tigers left-fielder Willie Horton recorded a spoken-word jam over the Supremes’ song “It’s Happening,” to advertise the summer program.
Marvin Gaye’s great 1971 record What’s Going On took Motown’s first-string in a politically-engaged and socially-conscious direction. The album, influenced by a dark time in Gaye’s own life, was a “concept album” — all the songs were connected into a single overarching narrative, about a Black soldier coming home from Vietnam, based on the experience of Gaye’s brother, Frankie. Berry Gordy at first refused to release it, thinking it too political. Gaye refused to record anything else for Motown unless Gordy changed his mind. Gaye prevailed, and the rest is history.
Content/Trigger Warning: Racist language in original sources.
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,
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 Humphreyscreamed, ” . . . 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.
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.
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”:
Sly and the Family Stone were the first to use the n-word in a song title in 1969:
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.
The Staple Singers were a father-and-daughters group, who moved to Chicago from Mississippi during the Great Migration and started in the Black church:
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.
In 1965, SNCC issued a statement urging that blacks should not
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.”
Veterans throwing their medals at the Capitol in a protest in 1971:
Edwin Starr, “War”:
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” was set in the infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago, and one of the show’s characters was a tween 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.
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.
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.
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.
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