By ‘spirit’ I refer to what the Ancient Greeks would call pneuma (the breath). For the Ancient Greeks, artistic creation came about by possessing the powers of muses (performance, action, memory) and pneuma (the artistic breath of others past). This project hopes to demonstrate how any cultural object, through time and technology, becomes an artefact of memory. But this very process always remains reliant on what else has come before; the voices, the places, the struggles, the inherent contradictions of other periods.
It is in this respect I will follow the spirit of soul: from swing, bebop jazz, gospel, urban rhythm and blues, and country (what is country if not the rural lament, or the rural blues?), and eventually through rock, psychedelia and hip-hop. Hopefully, I can show somewhat convincingly that soul music had its zenith in an era when its greatest purveyors were heavily involved with African-American cultures, social struggles and politics but were so at a time when racial inequality was entrenched by statutes and social mores.
Many of the institutional statutes (such as Jim Crow laws in southern USA promoting segregation) may have been removed in contemporary times but societal prejudices linger. The Godfather of Soul, James Brown, may well have stopped riots in Boston in 1968 a day after the shooting murder of Martin Luther King but we all remember the racist beatings and struggles of the 1992 Rodney King Uprising in Los Angeles. NWA then rapped 'Fuck tha Police', and how right they were. And what of scenes in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina came and took away the whole town of New Orleans, and the US Government decided it was more important to send Army snipers to kill poor people looking for food and supplies (ie. 'looters') than help the dispossessed urban black population? It took Kanye 'Gold Digger' West of all people to lay down some truth in that maelstrom.
In 2010, though, there would be many who point to widespread change for the better. As of today, the USA has a man of African-American heritage, Barack Obama, as its president. A great claim for political diversity, say flag-wavers. Here's a short brutal fact though. In the entire democratic history of the grand American nation since the unveiling of its constitution in 1788, only three African-American individuals have been popularly voted for roles in the US Senate (in 2004, Obama being one of them), while no African-American from any of the former Confederacy states in almost 250 years has achieved the office. Now, that's equality and progress! That's a post-racial society!
Next, we'll be patting our backs on how well the state of Australia treats its indigenous people because Noel Pearson knows to read how capitalism is great; and Marcia Langton has the ability to write long, technical essays on how it's actually indigenous weakness and welfare dependency which holds her people back; and not the centuries of abuse, torture, economic slavery and cultural segregation heaped upon by 'democratic' governments.
Back to the soul however. It is also important to note there was, and never has been, one unified soul voice. Sadly, divisions based on superficial markers such as accent and place of birth/residence also tend to be found amongst people who, as soul musicians, would appear to have much in common (for a present-day example, look no further than the East Side versus West Side hip-hop production angst, sometimes ending in violence and death).
All too often soul was thought to be the domain of the musically gifted ‘noble savage’, the guttural yearnings of a deep primitivism. Such thinking was even predominant within great American literature of the mid-1900s with Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer and other writers of the Beat generation projecting their own longings for a nostalgic primitivism onto the post-WWII jazz innovators. It was as if ‘this’ music was passed down via the genes of African-Americans (social environments playing little part) and into bebop greats such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and their jazz stylings – art forms which require as much complex practice and discipline as anything the Beat writers came up with. Incidentally, one of Coltrane’s finest album is named Soultrane.
Perhaps this is the fate of any great musician, or artist, who by nature and learning displays complexity, simply. Even classical music elitists such as the Frankfurt School critics and their contemporary mismatched allies of upper-class toffs who decry the simplicity of ‘pop’ music and highlight the complexity of a Schubert or Stravinsky, need to at one level understand the complexity of such musics in a simple manner, otherwise by logic it would be too complex for them to communicate about it at dinner parties and tete-a-tetes.
Nevertheless, with the aid of time, we can see how the liberal, white Western view of the art forms practiced by those in contact with African-American communities is severely inflected (and still is, witnessed by the equal blame and appropriation of ‘hip-hop’ culture) with ethnocentric fantasies. Indeed, until the late 20th century most records performed by African-American artists were tallied on a separate chart as to those performed by more ‘mainstream’, or white Americans, while African-American artists weren’t played on television music video-clip shows until the mid 1980s, and a full year or so after MTV began programming.
Such facts do great harm to claims of a ‘free market society’ within America and elsewhere. Even today, in the day of rap moguls/brands such as P Diddy and Jay Z, true financial clout and power to make broad decisions in the recording industry is possessed by a few large record companies. These organisations have their roots in grand profits made during past eras of segregation and exploitation of the music of African-Americans and other disenfranchised peoples. To be sure, P Diddy and Jay Z’s companies are mere subsidiaries of these larger entities. The dreams of Motown founder Berry Gordy for African-Americans to control the destinies of their musics - even in some kind of perverse replica of traditional capitalism - has not eventuated.
It is true, however, that more and more African-Americans are represented in mainstream music, but could not one argue that all that has really occurred is the presentation of more diverse forms of banality, yet banality nonetheless? Despite the undoubted talents of a certain Mr Snoop Dogg, are the spheres of music and art bettered by the existence of countless replicas? Can this rightfully be described as equality?
A true reading of the spirit of soul music in its highest guise would highlight its positive, affirmative core – indicative of the highest plane of imagination. Not in any way primitive or death seeking, but life-wanting and an attempt at transcendence.
A cultural history of the word, or term, ‘soul’ will help illuminate this point. In the philosophies of the major monotheistic religions, and in the thinking of Plato to Aquinas the ‘soul’ has referred to the part of the human spirit that continues with life, despite the death of the body. In Christianity, the goal is for the soul of a person to ascend to Heaven following earthly life. Jewish and Muslim faiths hold similar views, while eastern religions stress reincarnation of the soul into many bodies over time, thus giving it everlasting life. And in time, unto a whole genre of music is the term ‘soul’ denoted.
Why, when any other term could potentially have been used? Is it because when we mean to say soul music, we mean it expresses the part of the human spirit that many believe (or hope) never dies? The soul – the essence of humanness. It is in a similar manner that I tend to feel about soul music, and the glimpses of soul to be found within music: it expresses something that is oh so human, oh so real! As can be intimated, I will highlight the links of soul, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll to its beginnings in church halls and religious singing.
It is also suggestible that the paradoxes of modern life (integration/assimiliation to the nation-state; increasing urbanization resulting in alienation, or a loss of community) played a defining role in the secularization of soul music. For instance, in his autobiography Take Me to the River (2000), the first-class soul artist Al Green writes,
"Anybody can tell you that all the great soul singers learned their best licks in the choir loft, that the church is the mother of R&B and the grandmother of rock & roll. But no one can tell you the pain of having the choice between lifting up your voice for God or taking a bow for your third encore. That’s something that you have to experience for yourself. Like Sam Cooke. Like Marvin Gaye. Like Al Green"
|Nina Simone: The High Priestess of Soul|
But this in itself does not make art a hopeless pursuit, for if we know ‘bad’ art, it is only in opposition and comparison to something else, and that something else can potentially be ‘good’, and perhaps a little enlightening, exciting, and thrilling. It is with this in mind I hope I have potentially chosen ‘good’ objects and examples for listening pleasure.
The selections of song choices and artists I have made deliberately bar the likes of James Brown, Ray Charles, The Temptations, Billie Halliday (anything sung by her IS soul), Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin for I believe their places are assured within the popular imagination (and rightfully so!). However, I have made an effort to mix some very popular choices of artists such as Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Ike and Tina Turner with artists who are not, or never were, as commercially successful.
In passing let me note that commerciality does not kill creativity, however it does standardize, thus making creativity difficult. And with that, it’s now time to get up off your seat, and give me some of that old soul clapping...
The soul within Swing and Bebop to Rhythm and Blues
1. Kickin' The Gong Around – Cab Calloway
2. I Left my Baby – Count Basie
3. The Reefer Song - Fats Waller
4. Let the Good times Roll – Louis Jordan
5. What’s That? – Sun Ra
6. Smokestack Lightning – Howlin’ Wolf
7. Wallflower (Roll with me Henry) – Etta James
This first section will gaze upon the links between streetwise, jive-talking swingsters like Cab Calloway, Fats Waller and Count Basie and to later rock and soul music. In his autobiography, The Godfather of Soul (1986), James Brown notes that it was Louis Jordan and his group the Tympany Five who first inspired him into becoming a singer: “They played a kind of jumping R&B and jazz at the same time, and they were something else”.
Jordan, himself was hugely inspired by the energetic vocal stylings of Calloway. Calloway was also famous for singing about opium addiction, gambling, alcoholism and other delectable sides of inner-city urban life – themes that would pop up again during soul music’s heyday.
I’ve also included a track by the Space-Age, Ancient Egypt mythologising Sun Ra, whose work treads a path between big-band jazz, bebop, and psychedelic jazz fusion. Sun Ra would use his music to imagine a society beyond racism, which could only be perhaps possible in intergalactic space. Sun Ra’s philosophy would later find a new home with George Clinton and his Funkadelic/Parliament outfit in the 1970s. A track from Howlin’ Wolf, whose “gravel-voiced ferocity, as well as his histrionic stage antics, were widely admired and often emulated in rhythm-and-blues circles – not to mention rock n’ roll”, demonstrates the how rock had to get soul. A live version of Etta James’s raw blues classic rounds out the early soul feeling.
The Gospel of Soul
8. By and By – The Soul Stirrers
9. Move on up a little Higher – Mahalia Jackson
10. Were you There – Sam Cooke
11. Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song) – Otis Redding
12. I'm in Love – Wilson Pickett
13. Testify - The Parliaments
14. Cry to Me - Solomon Burke
15. A Fool in Love – Ike and Tina Turner
Here, let us tease out the nexus and interplay of secularism and religiosity within the public sphere of African-American life in the 20th century. Interestingly, what we now know as gospel music was as much derived from realities of commercialism as much as religiosity, with entrepreneurs such as Thomas Dorsey in the 1920-30s noticing the “power of the blues industry and created in gospel an economic vehicle that unlike urban blues, could be contained within the black community”. His contemporary, Reverend William Brewster would in 1946 write Mahalia Jackson’s signature song ‘Move on Up a little Higher’ – an attempt by Brewster to inspire African-Americans to “move in the field of education. Move into the professions and move into politics”.
Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett all got their starts singing in Baptist churches and choirs. You hear the rhythmic church sounds pretty much in every Sam & Dave song. Sixties star Redding was greatly inspired by the animated and vivacious Little Richard, a man for whom flamboyant homosexuality and the fundamental scriptures of the Baptist Church seemed to hold equal sway over a turbulent personality. Before becoming a soul star, Solomon Burke was a preacher in Philadelphia who had even met Martin Luther King Jr several times. Also included in this section is the brassy church influenced gospel-soul of Ike and Tina Turner, and the glossy, reverbed vocals and harmonizing of The Parliaments. As with earlier gospel productions, many soul songs were produced by companies such as Stax (pioneers of the deep and southern soul sounds with their call-and-response patterns), and Philadelphia International Records that espoused a view of upward mobilisation via capitalistic enterprise.
Soul Gets the Message
16. Mississippi Goddam – Nina Simone
17. Home is Where the Hatred Is – Gil Scott-Heron
18. I Can’t Write Left-Handed – Bill Withers
19. Don’t Call me Nigger, Whitey (medley) – Sly & the Family Stone
The message song gets a hearing now. The intelligent cultural critique that can be found within soul music was inspired by a backdrop of the 1960s counter-cultural struggle, the Vietnam War, growing female consciousness as well as the continuing battle for Civil Rights. In the mid-1960s, Nina Simone – who in many circles is looked up to as the High Priestess of Soul (with Aretha Franklin the Queen) – would be one of the first prolific African-American entertainers to write overtly political songs for a secular audience, decrying the lack of humanity shown to non-whites in America.
Gil Scott-Heron was another jazz influenced soul performer, who in the early 1970s, would not only critique the oppressive racist rule of the white liberal bourgeois but also provide reflexive commentary on the seemingly unquestioning attitude many had towards capitalism within the black community itself. Scott-Heron is also credited as heavily influencing hip-hop, with his proto-rapping on now classic tracks such as ‘The Revolution will not be Televised’.
With the Vietnam War also in full swing until the mid-1970s, some musicians were moved to record anti-war anthems with Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Goin’ On’ the most well-known. In a similar vein, Bill Withers would write socially conscious music which while providing no easy answers forced the listener to reflect on situations at a deeper level.
And finally, Sly and the Family Stone would not only begin to mesh genres (psychedelic rock, soul, jazz) but help create news ones, such as funk, to which almost anyone found it difficult not to dance. In between extending the palettes of genres, Sly would also write droll, witty lyrics suggesting that his interracial, and gender-mixed group could provide a template for a new America. It was a little naïve, but it was a fine and high goal nonetheless.
Things Begin to ‘Psychedelecize’ and get Funked
20. Maybe the People Would Be the Times… – Love
21. Tin Soldier – The Small Faces with PP Arnold
22. Love, Peace and Happiness – The Chambers Brothers
23. It's Your Thing - Isley Brothers
24. Right Place, Wrong Time – Dr John
25. Who says a Funk band can’t play Rock? – Funkadelic
With the wild, and racially harmonised shenanigans of Sly and his Family Stone proving very popular, other racially integrated bands such as Arthur Lee’s Love from Los Angeles began garnering not only critical acclaim but also a wide audience by the late 1960s. Love would mix garage, and psychedelic rock with a soul underbelly and often a mariachi flavour. Ironically, their lyrics would point to a future that was not as rosy as the one Los Angeles flower power children were fantasising about.
Across the shores in ‘sunny’ England, The Small Faces led by mod hero Steve Marriott would begin speeding the tempo of RnB classics from the late 1950s while retaining a certain British charm. As he grew as a songwriter, Marriott would eventually release ‘Tin Soldier’ – as fine as any soul shouter from America. Ironically, such activities led to an exponential acceleration of the appropriation of African-American musical styles (see the Rolling Stones for an example), whilst forgoing the relevance of RnB and soul to forms of spirituality, or transcendence.
The Chambers Brothers, another interracial American group, however would continue to preach meaning with their spiritual rock, which was as wild as any Keith Richards solo. And with the success, and eventual untimely death of Jimi Hendrix, many musicians within the soul tradition began to produce harder-edged sounds, which eventually culminated in the funky grooves one can find in New Orleans legend Dr John and the George Clinton led Funkadelic.
Another set of brothers (and sons, nephews and more!) - The Isley Brothers - could perhaps lay claim to being the group that pushed soul, rock and funk together with their 1969 hit single 'It's Your Thing'. Incidentally, the great Hendrix would crash out at the home of the Isleys in the 1950s when he was just another up-and-coming guitar sideman on the blues circuit.
One of the elder statesmen of soul music still grinding along, Dr John explains that his music is a tribute and an interpretation of the sounds he “had grown up with in New Orleans in the 1940s and 1950s. I tried to keep a lot of the little changes that were characteristic of New Orleans, while working my own funknology on piano and guitar”. A man with a huge social conscience (growing up as a white man in New Orleans with a great interest in African-American and Creole cultures), Dr John was even at the forefront of efforts to have New Orleans rebuilt following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, whilst not neglecting to condemn governmental authorities for their racist-tinged behaviour during the crisis.
Finally, the last track by the great Funkadelic – the undisputed masters of funk in the mid to late 1970s – asks the listener to forgo simple genre boundaries so as to open themselves up to new ways of enjoyment and being.
And into today with…
26. Up to the Mountain (MLK Song) – Patty Griffin
27. I Need a Dollar - Aloe Blacc
28. Mama Don't Like my Man - Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
29. Fuck You - Cee-Lo Green
30. Star – The Roots
31. On Fire – Spiritualized
Where to for soul now? It’s still there if one looks hard enough. In this section, Patty Griffin brings a little bit of country-soul, via French chanteuse, and a little history to fire up her performance of a song dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. A number of years ago, Griffin spoke about why she wrote the song:
"And Martin Luther King Jr’s whole gig was, to me…he wasn’t just about the movement, he was about compassion and how to really, really bring people together. And when I wrote that song especially there was so much going on that was about dividing people, even in this country, which is frightening.
Transcendent idealism is fine for dreaming but almost 50 years following King's murder, African-Americans continue to be the first to pay for the excesses of capitalism. In a post 'Global Financial Crisis' world, it's still the poor and the disenfranchised who suffer for the sins of the power-hungry and greedy. With that in mind, Los Angeles soul man Aloe Blacc's hit single of 2010, 'I Need a Dollar' triggers memories of Bill Withers with its gently delivered, but nevertheless biting tale of an individual's powerlessness against abstract and vast economic processes."So I kind of really latched on to that last speech I heard—I saw a documentary on him and that last speech the day before he died in Memphis, the ‘Up to the Mountian’ speech. The courage that it took to go to Memphis again, knowing that was probably it, he knew his life was in danger. And he sort of got up there and made that speech and found his courage right there, and it’s something to behold and something to look at and be inspired by."
Sometimes it's love that we're looking for though, and in the voice of Sharon Jones - the Queen of Funk - you get all the pain, the ache and exhiliration. Its the kind of spirited meaning you used to be able to hear in Tina Turner during the admittedly turbulent (and violence-ridden) years with Ike. It's painful, but man! Cee-Lo Green is a man who knows about pain too much; the pain of depression, the pain of never selling enough albums, the pain of selling out (he wrote The Pussycat Dolls ubiquitous 2005 hit 'Don't Cha'). In late 2010, Cee-Lo hit back with a decidedly pop album which nevertheless contains one of his greatest compositions in 'Fuck You'.
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia - the city of Brotherly Love that brought us Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and their sweet, syrupy soul in the 1970s - a new burgeoning scene exploded in the mid 1990s with hip-hop soulsters The Roots at the epicentre. This loose collective also includes the hot talents of Jill Scott and Erykah Badu. With their witty and adroit MCing, mastery of instruments, jazz backgrounds and one of the world's greatest drummers in ?uestlove, The Roots have proven to be one of the most influential combos in in the past few decades. The particular track chosen includes samples of the classic Sly and the Family Stone song 'Everybody is a Star'.
To end things off (by blasting into stoner space), Spiritualized bring us postmodern psychedelic gospel as conceptualised and written by an English atheist who first began his career in the 1980s drone-rock band Spacemen 3.
Image courtesy: Heinrich Klaffs (Creative Commons License). Photo of James Brown live in Hamburg, Germany 1973.
Image courtesy: Dmitry Valberg (Creative Commons License)
Image courtesy: ThatMakesThree (Creative Commons License)
M. Bayles, Hole in our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music, The Free Press: New York, 1994, pp. 181-183.
 Bayles, op. cit., p. 330.
 R. Garofalo, ‘Popular Music and the Civil Rights Movement’ in Rockin’ the Boat: Mass Music and Mass Movements, ed. R. Garofalo, South End Press: Boston, 1992, p. 234.
 Plato, The Republic, Penguin Books: Middlesex, 1975, pp. 444-445.
 C. A. Oulter, ‘Selfhood in a Christian Perspective’ in The Book of Self, eds. P. Young-Eisendrath and J. A. Hall, New York University Press: New York, 1987, pp. 412-413.
 Cited in M. A. Neal, Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic, Routledge: New York, 2002, pp. 15-16.
 See A. Huxley, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, Chatto & Windus: London, 1972.
 J. Brown, J with B. Tucker, ‘The Godfather of Soul’ in The Pop, Rock and Soul Reader, ed. D. Brackett, Oxford University Press: New York, 2005, p.153
 G. P. Ramsey Jr, Race Music, University of California Press: Berkeley, 2004, p. 62.
 Bayles, op. cit., p. 114.
 J. F. Szwed, Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, Da Capo Press: New York, 1998.
 W. A. Bowser, ‘George Clinton: Ultimate Liberator of Constipated Notions’ in The Pop, Rock and Soul Reader, ed. D. Brackett, Oxford University Press: New York, 2005, pp. 260-265.
W. Barlow, W & C. Finley, From Swing to Soul: An Illustrated History of African American Popular Music from 1930 to 1960. Elliott & Clark Publishing: Washington D.C., 1994, p. 97.
 M. A. Neal, What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Popular Culture, Routledge: New York, 1999, p 38.
 Cited in Ramsey Jr, op. cit., p. 52.
 J. Dickerson, Goin’ Back to Memphis, Schirmer Books: New York, 1996, p. 142-143.
 J. A. Jackson, A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2004, p. 260.
 Bayles, op. cit,. p. 159.
 Neal, What the Music Said, op. cit., pp. 47-48.
 Neal, What the Music Said, op. cit., pp. 106-112.
 Bayles, op. cit., p. 229.
 Jackson, op. cit., p. 77.
 Bayles, op. cit., pp. 192-193.