Soul and Funk: Some Historical Background

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Kitchenette buildings on Chicago’s South Side, 1950.

The turbulence of the 1960s, as Linda and Dawn discussed yesterday, was as much a response to the domestic situation in the urban United States as it was to Vietnam. One of the effects of the Great Migration was to turn northern cities into unofficially segregated spaces, with black citizens, unable to purchase homes in good neighborhoods, consigned to renting substandard housing in the ghetto.

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The great African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), above, writes about what it was like to hone her poetic voice in a kitchenette apartment on Chicago’s South Side. “Kitchenettes” were apartments chopped up out of older houses. They usually had a tiny kitchen, and a bathroom in the hall shared by multiple families.

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We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”
But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms
Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?
We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

A family’s striving to leave a kitchenette apartment is also the subject of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun. You can read the play here, and watch it here.

With overcrowding came an increase in the poor conditions.  And because Federal Housing Authority policies actually encouraged discriminatory lending policies, very few African American families were able to secure the loans necessary to move out of the neighborhood, even if they were prepared for the uphill battle against racism they might receive in another area . . .

This is what the Younger family in [Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play] A Raisin in the Sun is fighting so hard to get out of – overcrowded spaces both inside and outside of their apartment walls, which are crumbling around them. What happens when a family – or a whole city full of families – is pushed to the brink like this, where even getting up in the morning involves a fight with those around you?

For more about racist housing policies in northern cities, this article, “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, is long but absolutely indispensable.

For a wonderful article about the photographer who captured the glory days of funk, go here.

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, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”) 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 and Stokely Carmichael.

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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”:

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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.)

Godfather of Soul vs. Bad Boys of Rock

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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.