Racial harmony and discord

Just My Soul Responding
February 19, 1999

Just My Soul Responding - the title is taken from Smokey Robinson's 1970s recording, which linked white America's wars of genocide against Native Americans with its oppressive treatment of contemporary minorities - offers new perspectives on the symbiotic connections between African-American popular music and evolving patterns of race relations from the 1950s to the 1970s.

During the 1950s, rhythm and blues music was produced and retailed on radio and record by black performers to predominantly black consumers. By the end of the decade, white singers were encouraged by the major recording companies to adapt and copy the genre, often with surreal results. As Brian Ward recounts, the unimpeachably Caucasian Pat Boone produced a "hilariously clinical cover version" of that "androgynous Georgia peach" Little Richard's Tutti Frutti , and one "which threatened to deafen listeners with the whip-crack of perfectly articulated consonants".

Many southern whites, already organising to protest against the implications of the Supreme Court's 1954 landmark Brown decision, which had ruled segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional, mobilised to attack rhythm and blues, with its interracial appeal, suggestive lyrics and connotations of black male sexuality. Ward breaks new ground in his demonstration that many blacks (including a young Julian Bond) were fans of such white rock and rollers as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. But it was African-American performers who bore the brunt of reactionary disapproval. In 1956, singer and pianist Nat King Cole was assaulted by a faction of the local white citizens' council during a performance in Birmingham, Alabama.

Campaigns against rock and roll were to prove as ineffectual as the "massive resistance" of white southerners to the emerging civil rights movement. Yet escalating white enthusiasm for African-American musical forms did not necessarily negate prevailing racial assumptions, and may have reinforced them. Some black performers took a real delight in satirising racial stereotypes. Rock superstar Jimi Hendrix, "the prince of bad-nigger minstrelsy", appeared on stage "with a perpetually dishevelled, just-out-of-bed afro, flamboyant sub-Regency garb, conspicuously cunnilingual tongue, and a penchant for dry-humping and immolating his guitar with lighter fluid".

By the mid 1960s, America's youth began to embrace the sweeter sounds and liberal sentiments of soul music. Yet apart from Nina Simone (who recorded her blistering protest song Mississippi Goddam ), Ray Charles (who refused to perform at segregated venues in the mid-1950s) and Al Hibbler, the blind singer who led protest marches in Alabama, the majority of soul performers were, like their managers and sponsors, afraid of alienating politically conservative audiences, and remained aloof from the movement. For their part, the major elements within the civil rights coalition signally "failed to produce a coherent strategy for deploying rhythm and blues and its artists as fundraisers, morale-boosters, or publicists until the late 1960s, by which time the movement was rapidly deteriorating".

Black power ideologues, suspicious of the interracial appeal of soul music, stridently endorsed "New Wave" jazz performers like Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy and Archie Shepp. Yet the black public "remained supremely indifferent" to these innovators - not, Ward notes perceptively, because their music was "too difficult", but because it was "not as redolent of their experience as soul, nor, ultimately, as responsive to changes in black consciousness."

A detailed analysis of "celebrity politics and the civil rights movement" acknowledges and recounts the efforts of singer and actor Harry Belafonte on behalf of Martin Luther King Jr and his family, and subsequent involvement with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in its grass-roots campaigns against southern racism. Sammy Davis Jr, Dick Gregory, Diahann Carroll and Lena Horne also receive their deserved and respective dues as movement supporters.

The advent of Black Power saw an increasing commitment to the racial struggle from such stellar soul performers as James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes, while Aretha Franklin - "a self-professed natural woman" - simply demanded Respect. Reflecting a less attractive side of Black Power rhetoric, the homophobic and sexist sentiments traditionally identified with the blues, began to appear in the lyrics of male soul singers. At the other end of the ideological spectrum, Berry Gordy, presiding genius of the Motown Corporation and "the most successful black entrepreneur of his generation", gave financial support to Jesse Jackson's capitalist-oriented and integrationist-inspired Project PUSH (People United To Save Humanity).

Ward also offers sensitive readings of the imagery, language and subtexts of rhythm and blues lyrics and performances, the structure and operation of a white-dominated recording and broadcasting industry, the increasing secularisation of African-American culture, and the careers of such luminaries as Chuck Berry, Solomon Burke and Sam Cooke. He rejects any Afrocentric/ politically correct definitions of the generic term rhythm and blues, and is more impressed by the "dazzling complexity and syncretic brilliance which have characterised black American musical forms".

Much the same can be claimed for Just My Soul Responding . It is a luminous exposition and subtle reinterpretation of the civil rights decades and their successive black musical styles. Its central contention, that this dynamic music "reflected, encoded and I helped to nationalise the new black pride and consciousness which was inevitably linked I to the emergence of a viable mass campaign for black civil and voting rights" is original and convincing.

John White is reader in American history, University of Hull.

Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness and Race Relations

Author - Brian Ward
ISBN - 1 85728 138 1 and 85738 139 X
Publisher - UCL Press
Price - £50.00 and £14.95
Pages - 600

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