Soul and the City

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, soul began to address the social and economic problems that faced Black Americans in the (mostly Northern) cities. The textual emphasis on this new wave of soul moved away from the genre’s earlier optimism, instead highlighting dystopian urban visions. This iteration of soul was, in a sense, a musical protest against the ambiguous legacy of the Great Migration and the dashed hopes of the Civil Rights era. Solomon Burke’s 1968 “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free)” is a good example.

Isaac Hayes, the producer and songwriter who co-led Stax Records in Memphis, the center of Southern soul, performing his Academy Award-winning theme song from the 1971 blaxploitation film Shaft at the Oscars that year.

John Shaft is a private detective trying to combat the Mafia’s control of the drug trade in Harlem. In a scene in which Shaft is doing a door-to-door search for his nemesis, Isaac Hayes’s song “Soulsville” plays in the background — a tender ballad describing the hardships of Black urban life:

Black man, born free
At least that’s the way it’s supposed to be
Chains that binds him are hard to see
Unless you take this walk with me

Place where he lives is got plenty of names
Slums, ghetto and black belt, they are one and the same
And I call it “Soulsville”

Any kind of job is hard to find
That means an increase in the welfare line
Crime rate is rising too
If you are hungry, what would you do?

Rent is two months past due and the building is falling apart
Little boy needs a pair of shoes and this is only a part
of Soulsville

Some of the brothers got plenty of cash
Tricks on the corner, gonna see to that
Some like to smoke and some like to blow
Some are even strung out on a fifty dollar Jones

Some are trying to ditch reality by getting so high
Only to find out you can never touch the sky
‘Cause your hoods are in Soulsville

Every Sunday morning, I can hear the old sisters say
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, trust in the Lord to make a way, oh yeah
I hope that He hear their prayers ’cause deep in their souls they believe
Someday He’ll put an end to all this misery that we have in Soulsville.

Compare Isaac Hayes’s Oscar performance with H.E.R.’s 2021 Oscar-winning song, “Fight for You,” from Judas and the Black Messiah, about Chicago Black Panther Fred Hampton. In what ways does H.E.R. draw on the music and aesthetics of late 1960s and early 1970s soul?

Contemporary blues-folk singer Ruthie Foster singing the Staple Singers’ song “The Ghetto,” which addresses the same social issues.

Marlena Shaw’s 1969 “Woman of the Ghetto” is a direct appeal to lawmakers to improve the living conditions in the urban core.


How do we get rid of rats in the ghetto?
Do we make one black and one white in the ghetto?
Is that your answer legislator?

Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” is about a migrant from the rural South to the urban North, where he is unjustly arrested and imprisoned. In the last verse, Wonder implores would-be migrants to the city to stay in their home places and make them better. As such, it’s an anti-Great Migration song.

I hope you hear inside my voice of sorrow
And that it motivates you to make a better tomorrow
This place is cruel, nowhere could be much colder
If we don’t change, the world will soon be over
Living just enough, stop giving just enough for the city
.

Soul and Sacrament

Pentecostals_Praising

(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, “People Get Ready,” which explicitly draws on gospel themes but connects them to the Civil Rights struggle:

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”:

Soul Brothers Six, “Some Kind of Wonderful”:

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

The great Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul: “Think”:

Aretha again, singing Otis Redding’s 1965 song “Respect.” When she recorded it in 1967, she made it not only an anthem for respecting Black women, but also a demand for a sexual partner to pay attention to a woman’s pleasure.