September 4, 2015


When Black Music Was Conservative : Songs from the classic soul era celebrated marriage and upward mobility. (HOWARD HUSOCK, Summer 2015, City Journal)

The 1960s and early 1970s was the era of what music critic Peter Guralnick has called "sweet soul music," the title of his definitive book. Even as "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll" became the rallying cry of an increasingly libertine youth culture, soul music--a popular variant of church-based gospel music--enjoyed a golden age among black audiences, reflecting in many ways more traditional beliefs, including optimism about the future. "Soul music, then, was the product of a particular time and place," Guralnick writes, when "the bitter fruit of segregation transformed . . . into a statement of warmth and affirmation."

A great deal of the power of this music flowed from specific chord structures inherited from black gospel music--the so-called 16-bar blues, which reached a creative peak in the 1950s and 1960s--and which, especially after Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, and hundreds of others married it to nonreligious lyrics, would transform popular music. As Anthony Heilbut wrote in his 1971 book The Gospel Sound: Good News, Bad Times: "From rock symphonies to detergent commercials, from Aretha Franklin's pyrotechnics to the Jacksons' harmonics, gospel has simply reformed all our listening expectations. The very tension between beats, the climax we anticipate almost subliminally, is straight out of the church." The chord changes and vocal glissandi of gospel became the stock-in-trade of pop icons from Whitney Houston to most of the contestants on American Idol.

Gospel-inflected soul music came into its own during a period of notable African-American socioeconomic advances. Between 1940 and 1970, as historians Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom noted in America in Black and White, "African-Americans escaped sharecropping, domestic service and other unskilled jobs that paid dismally low wages, and substantial numbers made their way into middle-class white-collar jobs from which they had always been excluded." Black men went from earning 41 percent of white wages on average in 1940 to 59 percent by 1970; black women increased their wages relative to white women from 36 percent to 73 percent. Even as Jim Crow came under siege from the civil rights movement, black Americans, like whites, enjoyed the fruits of America's postwar economic boom.

It was a powerful combination reflected in African-American music, beginning with gospel, which explored achievement and advance not just in a distant heavenly home but also in the here and now. The music celebrated the falling away of discriminatory barriers, the potential for economic advance, and the individual's capacity to triumph over adversity; it called for strength and determination in the struggle to succeed, while also extolling social propriety. Consider the great Dorothy Love Coates, leader of the Gospel Harmonettes, a popular female gospel quartet. Her brilliant Specialty Records hit "99 and a Half (Percent) Won't Do" is an imprecation for the believing Christian to do what it takes to please God--but also sounds like a Calvinist paean to self-improvement. "Seventy won't make it, 80 God won't take, 90 that's close, 99 and a half is almost, Get your 100." She was even more explicit about the changing world of American blacks at the time (circa 1954) in her signature song, "That's Enough," wherein Jesus is portrayed as a supporter in the earthly effort to survive and prosper. "There's always someone talking 'bout me. Really I don't mind. They're trying to block and stop my progress most of the time. The mean things you say don't make me feel bad. And I can't miss a friend that I never had. I've got Jesus, Jesus and that's enough."

As it evolved over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, gospel music--epitomized by Sam Cooke, its greatest singer and songwriter before he became a soul music pioneer and pop star--grew comfortable expressing less overtly religious themes. Cooke's Specialty Records hit "That's Heaven to Me" offered a vision of paradise that resembled a safe, middle-class suburban neighborhood: "Even the children playing in the street sing a friendly hello to everyone that they meet. Even the leaves blowing out, going out on the tree--that's heaven to me." A traditionalist, gospel-influenced message remained at the core of classic soul music. As songwriter Roosevelt Jamison told Guralnick: "We had our type of blues gospel melody, but we wanted to put some poetic message and philosophy in it. The gutbucket stuff we figured wasn't really good music. We wanted to put some flavor of God in it."

Artists' lyrics respected and often celebrated marriage, for example. (I refer here not to Motown--infectious pop sung by blacks but aimed more at a white audience and billing itself as "The Sound of Young America"--but to music that targeted black listeners, often Southerners or the Southern-born.) In his 1962 single "Meet Me in Church," Joe Tex sang: "I've got the ring and the rice. I've got flowers waiting on ice. So don't hesitate. Don't make me wait. Meet me in church." Stars like Tex and Solomon Burke--who released his own version of "Meet Me in Church" in 1968--weren't necessarily expecting to tie the knot with a bombshell like Rhianna or Beyoncé, either. "Each day I'm getting older and the clock is running too fast," lamented Garland Green in his 1971 hit "Plain and Simple Girl." "Still my search is getting stronger. How much longer can I last? All I want is just a plain and simple girl who can understand me and share my world." Such was the sort of love for which many male soul music singers expressed longing. In "When a Man Loves a Woman," among the deepest and most poignant soul ballads, Percy Sledge sang of heartfelt devotion. "When a man loves a woman, spend his very last dime, tryin' to hold on to what he needs. He'd give up all his comforts, and sleep out in the rain. If she said that's the way it ought to be."

Female soul stars sounded similar themes. In 1971's "I'm a One Man Woman," singer/guitarist Barbara Lynn declared, "I don't want nobody but you. . . . I don't need nobody but you. The day I met you I changed my ways. I gave you my love, too, for all of my days. I gave up wandering and I realized you can change my lonely life to a paradise."

Significantly, marriage in the classic soul era was not just a romantic relationship but also an economic partnership. In Paul Kelly's "We're Gonna Make It (After While)," the singer tells his wife to find a way to put off the bill collector and laments that they'll have to make do eating not much more than hominy grits. "[I] don't like the way I'm living," he sings. "My woman don't either. But we'll rise above it one day. Because we're true believers." Little Milton put it this way: "We may not have a home to call our own. But we're gonna make it. . . . We may have to fight hardships alone, but we're gonna make it. . . . Togetherness brings peace of mind. We can't stay down all the time. . . . Our car may be old, our two rooms cold but we're gonna make it." Not that determination alone was enough to make a marriage successful. Indeed, in 1971's "You've Got to Earn It," the Staples Singers, a onetime family gospel group, made the task of holding a relationship together sound like manual labor: "To get stones from a rock, you've got to break it. To get bread from dough, you've got to bake it. To get water from a faucet, you've got to turn it. And if you wanna be loved, you've got to earn it." The best-known soul hit of all--Aretha Franklin's 1967 cover version of the Otis Redding song "Respect"--makes clear that a healthy relationship is a two-way street.

Soul songs about infidelity were plentiful, but they also paid tribute to marriage as an abiding norm. After all, one cannot "cheat" (a commonly used soul-lyric term) absent the structure of assumed fidelity. Johnnie Taylor, who scored a series of hits on the cheating theme, including 1968's "Who's Making Love," implicitly endorsed the idea of couples staying together when he sang, "Take care of your homework, fellas. If you don't, somebody else will." That message couldn't be more different from "Love the One You're With," the free-love anthem of the Woodstock Nation. Even when sex might occur outside marriage, classic soul raised the possibility that a long-term relationship should follow.

Soul music's confidence in family life was matched by a conviction that past injustice would no longer hold black America back. "It's been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come," sang Sam Cooke in "A Change Is Gonna Come," which became a civil rights anthem after his death in 1964. "There have been times when I thought I couldn't last for long. But now I think I'm able to carry on." Struggles and hardships, real as they remained, wouldn't be accepted as an excuse for not advancing. In "We're a Winner," written for his Chicago-based group, the Impressions, songwriter Curtis Mayfield put it this way: "We're a winner and never let anybody say, boy, you can't make it, 'cause a feeble mind is in your way. No more tears do we cry, and we have finally dried our eyes, and we're movin' on up." James Brown put it more succinctly: "I don't want nobody to give me nothing. Open up the door, I'll get it myself."

The Guralnick book is up there with The Right Stuff, The Power Broker and What it Takes as required American non-fiction, but the recent HBO Special Mr. Dynamite is worth watching on this topic as well. James Brown's gospel of self-improvement is a central theme.

Posted by at September 4, 2015 8:09 AM

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