Soul America: a political review

By David Osland

Black American popular music in the mid-1960s somehow evolved from Baby Love to Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud in just four years, and the bass line reverberated even in LBJ’s White House.

This was a revolution Emma Goldman could certainly have danced to. For those around at the time – and those who weren’t – the three-part BBC Four documentary Soul America is currently up on iPlayer, providing retrospective insight on the soundtrack of the civil rights struggle.

That struggle remains incomplete, of course. And more than half a century later, the revolution really is being televised. The children and grandchildren of the original activists are back on the streets, still searching for a brighter day. In any serious historical light, the Black Lives Matter movement has roots far deeper than that of ‘a moment’.

The television series brings home the singular degree to which politics saturated the vinyl output of soul’s golden era.

Even a formulaic Motown song like Jimmy Mack, on first listen a superficial pop ditty about missing a boyfriend, drew emotional poignancy from the unspoken premise that the boyfriend in question had been conscripted to fight America’s war in Indo-China.

But where Soul America should have been sharper was in its analysis of what those politics were. The focus is strongly on the liberalism of Martin Luther King, with the influence of black power not given the right weighting.

Thus we are clearly told that James Brown endorsed Richard Nixon in 1968. What we don’t get to see is Sam Cooke hanging out with Malcolm X and a promising young boxer who still went by the name of Cassius Clay.

No mention, either, of the worldwide repercussions. Black music contributed to the radicalisation of white kids too, and not just in the US. The dancing in the streets wasn’t limited to cities namechecked by Martha and the Vandellas.

I have no idea what it did for the political consciousness of youthful northern soul fan Paul Mason, but I can testify to the electrifying effect when an older cousin dropped the needle on the Band of Gypsies album.

Hendrix mumbled ‘and this is for all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam’ into the mike, before launching into Machine Gun, backed by the black rhythm section for which he’d just consciously canned two white Brits. Even the 10-year-old me somehow understood what that was about.

George Galloway must also have been listening. Respect – whatever one’s opinion of that episode in British leftwing history – must be the only party named after an Otis Redding hit ever to secure representation in the House of Commons.

The story of soul unfolds through the decades that follow, demonstrating how closely music can mirror what’s happening in society.

Marx postulated a correlation between feudalism and hand mills, and between capitalism and windmills. Hopefully it isn’t trivialising the point to suggest a correlation between Aretha Franklin recording at Stax the year a white supremacist gunned down MLK, or the rise of Luther Vandross and Barry White during the Reagan presidency.

However, the series’ insistence that soul wasn’t about what it calls ‘the bedroom’ until the 1970s comes over as plain curious. Sex always was certainly in the mix. What else does narrator Carleen Anderson, sometime vocalist in British acid jazz outfit Young Disciples, think Sam and Dave were singing about on Hold On, I’m Coming?

This is just where the lack of feminist perspective becomes glaring. Millie Jackson’s Hurts So Good is undeniably one of the apex performances of the entire soul genre. But the song’s very title hints at domestic violence and its lyrics centre on a woman lapping up male mistreatment, and that should have been explored.

Indeed, the contribution of women in general is underplayed.  No justification should ever constitute a necessary precondition to celebrate Al Green, but why leave out Ann Peebles, on the same label at the same time, and whose vocals were capable of still greater sublimity?

Watch Soul America for the music, then. For the deeper social and political context, I’d strongly advise getting stuck into Stuart Cosgrove’s justly-celebrated book trilogy Detroit ‘67, Memphis ‘68 and Harlem ‘69.

In fact, even if you don’t watch the programmes, read the books anyway. His is some of the most intelligent and politicised music writing I have ever come across.

Image: Stax Museum of American Soul Music — exterior marquee. Source: FlickrExterior Stax Museum of American Soul Music; Author: Avalon Frost; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.