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. It was, in a sense, a musical protest against the ambiguous legacy of the Great Migration.
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.
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.
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”:
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”:
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):
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” 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.
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.