Books: Redemption Songs
Reviewed by Allen Tullos
Vol.21, No. 4, Winter 1999 pp. 14-16
Craig Werner, A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America (New York: Plume, 1999)
Brian Ward, Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness, and Race Relations (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998)
“Every time you change the news,” Chicago’s Willie Dixon said more than once, “you got to change the blues.” In complementary books, Craig Werner and Brian Ward extend Dixon’s insight, running down the call-and-response between American race relations and forms of African-American music. With clarity sharpened by passion, they consider whether, and how, shifts in musical styles affect and are affected by the movement for social justice.
“Rapper Chuck D’s claim,” writes Werner, “that ‘rap music is black America’s CNN'” applies equally well to the gospel music that powered the freedom movement, the soul music that carried the message of love through the sixties, the funk, reggae, and disco that testify to the confused crosscurrents of the seventies.” Applying more analytical torque along the way (as well as a smaller font and six-hundred pages to Werner’s four-hundred), Ward ultimately agrees that “the most popular black musical styles and artists of the past forty years have achieved their popularity precisely because they have dramatized and expressed, but also helped to shape and define, a succession of black consciousnesses.”
The work of remembering that underpins A Change is Gonna Come and Just My Soul Responding urges us to move our feet and current consciousness out of our own reactionary moment. As does the fact that these books appear alongside the airing on Public Radio International and subsequent release on compact disc and audio tape of the Southern Regional Council’s grassroots history of the Civil Rights Movement–Will the Circle Be Unbroken? –with its selective use of popular songs of the ’50s and 60s. As the recent past and many of its actors recede into memory, nothing so widely evokes the shades and nuances of feeling, the playing-out of public tragedies and travesties, the instances of breakthrough and getting over, as music.
Taken together, Ward and Werner cover a lot of ground-muddy, bloody, and higher-from Robert Johnson to Tupac, the Staple Singers to Public Enemy, Blind Boys to Aretha, Hitsville to Soulsville, Philly International to Death Row. It’s the dialectic, endlessly rocking. By sampling, revisiting, and revising such “ancestors” as Louis Jordan, Etta James, Ruth Brown, Dorothy Love Coates, and James Brown, contemporary artists hammer out a necessary give and take, suggests Werner, that pays respect, acknowledges limitations, and opens new paths. Thus, Cassandra Wilson sings legendary Delta bluesman Son House’s “Death Letter” as a “eulogy for the brothers lost to violence” in the central cities of the 1980s and 90s. In African-Americans’ ongoing “struggle for survival and power,” comments Ward, “black popular music has continued to express the complexities and paradoxes, as well as the essences and certainties of the diverse black experience in America.”
Throughout A Change is Gonna Come (the title taken from Sam Cooke’s haunting ballad of tenacity and persistence), Craig Werner a “white boy from the Rocky Mountains” deploys a lively style that shows he’s been listening closely not only to singers and musicians from the 1950s through the 90s, but to the students in his classes on black music at the University of Wisconsin. Attuned to how gospel, blues, and jazz “impulses” (an idea derived from Ralph Ellison) reveal the black-white dialogue in America, Werner writes “to renew a process of racial healing that at times seems to have stopped dead.”
The blues–Delta, Chicago, Texas, or British Invasion style-force an encounter with uncomfortable truths, with realism, with the “evil in your world and the evil in your head.” Gospel, summarizes Werner, “gives us the courage to keep on pushing for a redemption that is at once spiritual and political.” It “challenges us to bring our actions into line with our values,” to commit to a collective purpose larger than ourselves, and to refuse “to confuse individual success, especially success measured by money, with redemption.” As for jazz (the music, Louis Armstrong observed, that’s never played the same way once), Werner reads it as questioning the cultural foundations while opening up the moment we are in to multiple possibilities. Each of these “impulses,” along with their variants and offspring, presents ways of thinking and feeling about the dilemmas that “keep America from realizing its own democratic ide-
With his “Top 40” lists (fodder for spirited argument), pithy chapters, and coverage of funk, reggae, rap, and rock, A Change is Gonna Come is the more broadly ranging and popularly-conceived book. In addition to his jazz excursions, Werner acknowledges politically-conscious white artists such as Bruce Springsteen, P. J. Harvey, and Lou Reed who have reached out “mostly without success, to black audiences” with a non-syncopated sound grounded in rock and roll tradition. They too are dealing with “blues realities” that mainstream leaders encourage Americans to ignore.
Brian Ward’s Just My Soul Responding, is the labor of a British scholar who set himself an enormous errand of research in the course of producing this Cambridge dissertation-turned-book. While Werner moves quickly and infectiously, following the impulses, Ward is at his best when challenging comfortable over-simplifications about the complex production and consumption of African American music. His book is “guided by the belief that the popular cultures of oppressed groups usually contain within them . . . a critique of the system by which those groups are oppressed.”
Focused upon Rhythm and Blues (defined as post-World War II black popular music outside the sacred and jazz traditions) Ward works “to illuminate changes in mass black consciousness during the peak years of civil rights and black power activities.” In complex, elusive, and often paradoxical ways, individual listeners and collective audiences of R and B frequently “defied the initial intentions of the artists involved and transcended the economic priorities and racial conventions of the industry.” For instance, although Ward shows that there was a fairly strong black consumer market of teens and young adults by the mid-1950s, major record companies-as well as independents-never imagined “they could consistently sell anything resembling R and B to more than a tiny, fleeting, and economically inconsequential audience of whites.”
Similarly, Ward questions the convenient forgetfulness of faulty witnesses who project back into the late 50s and early 1960s a black cultural nationalism that did not fully emerge until years later. Here, as elsewhere, Julian Bond proves himself a priceless narrator, recalling a Morehouse event where he and three student friends sang Elvis’ “Teddy Bear.” Bond says he had no thought at that time that it might not be all right to like white pop music. Just My Soul Responding also offers keen correctives concerning white audiences for R and B, the power and the contradicitons of white-owned but black-oriented radio stations, and the emergence of black music industry capitalists who become celebrities in the post-Brown era. Ward peers into the complexities of situations like that of the 1956 on-stage attack of the politically indifferent Nat “King” Cole at the hands of an Asa Carter-led group of white supremacists in Birmingham’s Municipal Auditorium.
Illuminations also come in Ward’s discussions of the ways that African-American male and female singers of different eras enacted gender relationships. How, for example, the romantic idealism of street-corner doo-wop groups of the 50s often provided relief from an older, more macho, R and B ethos. He doesn’t evade the misogyny of the blues attitude, but places it within a larger patriarchal history while weighing the extreme economic and social pressures bearing down upon African-American men and women in the march out of Jim Crow.
What were the roles of musical artists in the freedom struggle? When and at what costs to their commercial careers did singers visibly march and protest? Why was it, asks Ward, that “in certain respects Joan Baez was more important and conspicuously committed to the early Movement than James Brown, while Harry Belafonte did more to assist the struggle for black freedom in practical terms than all the soul icons of the 1960s combined”?
In approaching similar territory, Craig Werner points out that the increasing cross-over successes of Diana Ross and the Supremes led to Ross’s safer approach to Holland-Dozier-Holland compositions. One result was that “millions of white teenagers loved the Supremes without feeling any need to change the way they dealt with the world.” Ward presses further, foregrounding the “the basic disparity between white responses to black music, which could be extremely deep and passionate, and white understanding, sympathy and respect for the diverse realities of black culture and experience, which were rarely more than superficial. Black music was . . . enthusiastically admired when it fulfilled romanticized white expectations about
black grace and ease with leisure, pleasure, sex and style. But this . . . required no real consideration of, or empathy with, the frequently unromantic circumstances from whence those qualities in black culture emerged.” Ward takes this revelation and turns it upon such paternalistic social scenes as southern university all-white frat parties which featured black RB bands.
While Just My Soul Responding ends in the 1970s, Werner extends A Change Is Gonna Come through the heartless Reagan-Bush years and the emergence of rap’s realistic reportage, and the shameless 90s in which Bill Clinton (not George) “abandoned all but rhetorical support for any sort of progressive agenda.” If we’ve yet to arrive in funkatopia, the last decade has heard strong, new, women’s voices-rappers, rockers, jazz singers, and transformers of the gospel impulse. Missy Elliott, Mary J. Blige, and Lauryn Hill take up the conversations with the ancestors. “It was never more important,” concludes Werner, “to keep the conversation going than at the moments when it seemed to be going nowhere.”
As the Millennium turns, the long revolution, long haul, freedom highway-whatever you want to call it-awaits the next move. “You got to get behind the mule, every morning and plow,” rasps Tom Waits, having learned a thing or two by way of Blind Willie Johnson, Rufus Thomas, Lightning Hopkins, John Coltrane, Elvis, Nina Simone, Mahalia, . . . .
Allen Tullos is editor of Southern Changes.