James Brown

some musical notes (2005/2008)

(taken from the now defunct “Endangered Phoenix” site, this was co-authored by me and Red Marriott, though he wrote the vast majority of it; written between 2004 and 2005, with an update on Muzak in May 2008) piano-music-notes-6 (1)
Miles Davis in the parking lots . . .
Sidney Bechet’s “Petite Fleur” as a background telephone while-you-wait . . .
The thump thump bass of the open air car’s sound system . . .

Everywhere music as part of playful communication has been transformed into an anaesthetic for alienation….

“Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought.”
E.Y. Harburg – songwriter.

Featuring sections on:

Roots (brief history of the blues)
Commercialisation, Soul, James Brown etc.
Music & Social Struggles
Resonance FM Radio
Muzak To My Ears

For technological reasons music is an art that does not have a recorded “classical” history from ancient times. We can look at cave paintings and the architecture of Stonehenge, the Acropolis and the Coliseum but the oldest decipherable music recorded in manuscript form is much younger, and we are not exactly sure how this old music sounded(#). Music, even more so than drama, has always relied on the immediacy of performance for its existence and its social function has always been that of an activity that interacts with and unites other social activities (dancing, drinking, working etc.) far more – at least until recently – than the visual decorative arts.
Music is inherently social, for those hearing and those being heard, and has accompanied work and leisure activities since our earliest days. The journey from tribal drumming and chanting to the work songs synchronising the labours of the pyramid builders, galley slaves and field hands, children’s play songs, the songs of many religions, military marching bands and clan bagpipes, through BBC Radio’s Workers Playtime/Music While You Work to today’s Walkman-wearing commuter illustrates some of the changes in the social function of music as a means of both unifying and dominating people. Miles Davis in the parking lots, Sidney Betchet’s Petite Fleur as a background telephone music-while-you-wait, the thump thump bass of the open air car’s sound system – everywhere music’s original social function, often as a real playful communication, has been transformed beyond recognition – most music has become a background to anaesthetise the lack of communication.

Music today still represents the work rhythms of society – increased automation and its technology is reflected in both the production and recreational and commercial use of techno music. Computerised production of dance music creates the appropriate soundtrack to a life lived in sync with the rhythms of modern technology – repetitive, infinitely reproducible, all encompassing in its volume and hypnotic character – yet, emotionally, expressing nothing more than its obvious function.

For the most part, rap does much the same in a verbal form. Those who shout the loudest don’t usually have the most to say. Leaving aside the psychotic anti-social pose of gangsta rap, even the rather obvious ‘concerned’ liberal/left views of the ‘socially conscious’ rappers is usually the concern of the filthy rich celebrity to show they still care about those beneath them.

None of this is to judge people by their consumer tastes in music (or even anywhere else). Ken Clarke, the former Tory Chancelor and Minister of Health, likes Charlie Parker. Does that make him any better a person than the fact that Adolf Hitler liked vegetables made him a better person? Though we think there are significant radical differences in the history and social use of jazz as compared to techno music, we know that there are lots of people who like techno who oppose hierarchy more than people who have tastes similar to ours’.

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(Note; The following comments assume some familiarity with the styles of music being discussed – and their reading will obviously be considerably enhanced by it. 0therwise the reader may feel as we have sometimes when trying to write about music – as if trying to describe painting to the blind.)


Today’s (western) popular music has its roots mainly in the folk musics of Europe and Africa. The slave trade and migration from Europe made the USA the great melting pot for the collision of cultures that produced blues, jazz, country and rock. The key ingredient in all of them is really the blues – a basic musical form that appeared around 1900 with its own African-derived tonality mixed with western harmonies – in (very over simplified) western terms, singing minor against major – and a distinctly new and sensual sense of syncopated rhythm with different beats accented. Originally a rural folk music of poor Southern blacks, it rapidly became integrated into other styles. It was the dominant popular music of most black Americans, both rural and urban, until the emergence of soul music/ rhythm’n’blues in the fifties.

According to passing references from southern plantation-dwelling whites and also testimonies of black musicians the blues appeared around the turn of the century; its new, haunting quality caught the ear and was remembered. Blues was the first 20th century music, and the first of its time to transform established musical conventions, both in terms of lyrical expression and harmony. § The nightmarish dislocation imposed by slavery and the apartheid race relations of the U.S. created an unprecedented culture clash; so extreme that something as unprecedented as the blues was born. Existing folk musics tended to use inherited lyrical and melodic forms that were relatively static and increasingly limited, rooted in the slow rhythms and traditions of rural communites. The Afro-American blues took these influences from both the African and European traditions and welded them into an emotional language appropriate to its location and social function 1.piano-music-notes-6 (1)

“… That music, it was like where you lived. It was like waking up in the morning and eating, it was that regular in your life. It was natural to the way you lived and the way you died…

No matter where it’s played, you gotta hear it starting way behind you. There’s the drum beating from Congo Square and there’s the song starting in a field just over the trees. The good musicianer, he’s playing with it, and he’s playing after it. He’s finishing something. No matter what he’s playing, it’s the long song that started back there in the South.
It’s the remembering song. There’s so much to remember. There’s so much wanting, and there’s so much sorrow, and there’s so much waiting for the sorrow to end…

The song, it takes a lot out of a man, he can get mean when he’s troubled…what I mean is that when a musicianer made a bad end, it was never a surprise. Sometimes you got the feeling that a musicianer was looking for a bad end like it was something he had to have. So many of them had something inside them and it wouldn’t let them rest. It was like there was something in that song deeper than a man could bear, something he could hear calling from the bottom of his dreams so that he’d wake up all in a terrible hurry to get up and go there, but then not knowing where to go. It was that stirring, all that nightsound there was at the bottom of the song all that long way back making itself heard.

…Inspiration, that’s another thing. The world has to give you that, the way you live in it, what you find in your living. The world gives it to you if you’re ready. But it’s not just given…it has to be put inside you and you have to be ready to have it put there. All that happens to you makes a feeling out of your life and you play that feeling. But there’s more than that. There’s the feeling inside the music too. And the final thing – it’s the way those two feelings come together. I don’t care where that life-feeling comes from in you…even if you start playing a number from a love-feeling, it has to become something else before you’re through. That love-feeling has to find the music-feeling. And then the music can learn how to get along with itself.”
Sidney Bechet, “Treat It Gentle”, published 1960.

It is the very economy of form of the blues that gives it its powerful directness and emotional depth. The strength of expression in language that is common to predominantly oral cultures is obvious in the blues. But it is striking to read descriptions of the songs of an earlier oral culture, one that itself influenced the blues; A. L. Morton describes the border ballads of medieval Britain in terms just as applicable to the blues –“Pity and terror, joy and horror and pride are found everywhere in full measure in the ballads… The ballads accept life with all its misery and man with all his frailty, but they accept them heroically with a pride and a clear eyed materialism which refuses to be satisfied with comfortable pretences and evasions.”

“… in the… tradition of restraint and simple direct statement… the ballads are always concerned with the direct account of action, with brief and vivid pictures, with dialogue pared down to the bone. It is a hard way, deliberately eschewing ornament and imagery and many obvious effects, but followed to the end it has its own reward. What is lost in breadth is gained in intensity. In saying less than it appears to say the ballad succeeds in saying more. Words are used with such simplicity that they acquire unexpected subtleties… because nothing is wasted everything counts for more than itself.” (“On the Nature of the Ballad”, 1942.)

The blues cannot be reduced ‘to a literal world of description. Blues is more subtle than that, more layered with meaning and implication. “The sun’s gonna shine in my back door some day” is not a weather forecast. The blues comes from a culture in which men and women chose their words carefully, always bearing in mind whom they were talking to and who might be listening. We should expect blues language, rooted as it is in everyday patterns and rituals of speech, to be equally guarded.’ (Tony Russell, The Blues, Aurum Press, 1997.) So much that was implied in black language remained silent to the ears of white authority; at the same time it was explicitly loud and clear to black ears tuned to the subtleties and coded slang of the blues. Until the blues emerged, there was no public expression of everyday black language in a cultural form. The few early examples of black literature and poetry conformed to received white rules of language. The minstrel shows were an insulting parody catering to white stereotypes of how blacks behaved; and the preacher and his congregation, in their sermons and folk-spirituals songs, used biblical imagery to express their own interpretations of what was meant by deliverance and the Promised Land. With the appearance of the blues, black America talked back to itself (and, eventually, to the rest of society). It was a form of emerging self-consciousness: “It is true that before the first country blues recordings there had been a period of recording by urban blues artists and by black jazz groups – but the songs were still filtered through the sieve of the white music industry. The texts were generally ridden with the same cliches that had dominated black writing for the musical stage since the days of the minstrel show. It was only with the country bluesmen that the language became authentic – that it had the inflection and the richness of the spoken language. It was the way people talked to each other on the street, the way men and women talked to each other. Of all the things that are the legacy of the blues it’s probably this that is the most important – that with the blues the black American, for the first time, was able to speak with his own voice.” (The Legacy of the Blues – Sam Charters, 1977.)

Crumb blues.B

The blues is part autobiography and part collective history – and makes explicit the inseparable nature of the two. It describes a landscape, what happens there and the state of mind of those who inhabit it, their emotional landscape. Blues can be humorous and uplifting. But in terms of form and function, the blues is typically a means of airing and sharing common individual problems by facing up to them – exorcism by expression. Universal themes of love, betrayal, loneliness, work, hard times, endurance and hope were worked, improvised and reworked endlessly in the greatest movement of lived folk poetry as an integrated aspect of daily life.

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The blues strikes the receptive listener with its emotional intensity and honesty of expression – even when sung in a language foreign to the ears of the listener. “The tune always gives the words a more positive stamp than they would bear alone. The tune is always a part of the resolution.” (A.L. Morton,“Promise of Victory: A Note on the Negro Spiritual”, 1941.) In this respect the particular becomes universal – and the emergence of the blues coincided with the development of the new medium of recorded sound, which changed forever the process of how folk musics developed.2 Regional styles that had probably never previously travelled beyond their remote rural corner were now made portable on 78s and could spread far and wide to influence other local styles. To some degree, this also created a certain standardisation of style, as well as graftings and hybrids. By the 1920’s blues records were selling in their hundreds of thousands – mainly to poor blacks, for whom they were marketed, but also eventually to a few white collectors and folklorists.

Nevertheless, the development of recording was initially an addition to the folk process of creation and a by-product of it rather than something that replaced it. Playing a similar role to the ballad sheets sold by street-hawkers in London and elsewhere, records first spread previously local material to a wider audience. But the music was still being made to fulfil an original social function while its being recorded was an unintended consequence – it was only later that much music began to be made only for the purpose of being recorded as a commercial product.

‘ Folk music’ is a category/label applied by outsiders often irrelevant to others; Louis Armstrong, when asked if jazz was folk music, replied “Well I never heard no horse play it!”. It came into play when the Victorian middle classes became aware of a popular culture that was disappearing as the development of industrial capitalism destroyed the social arrangements that it depended on. Folklorists began to intensively harvest this material from the 19 th century onwards. Their interpretation and presentation of ‘folk culture’ often said as much about the collectors’ own relationship to the present as any realities of the past. There was often a censorship of expressions likely to offend Victorian morality, and a romanticising of the past in terms that provided a comforting image for those who had begun to feel uneasy about the destructive effects of rampant capitalism. It also provided material for romanticised images of national identity. ‘Traditional’ Irish dance is in fact a sanitised de-sexualised version created in the late 19th century by a puritanical alliance of the Catholic priesthood and bourgeois nationalists. This is why the solo style is so stiff backed with a rigid torso – there is intended to be no movement above the knee, carefully avoiding any exciting of forbidden passions.3

This political sanitising is an ongoing process – Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” is taught in American schools and there have been many calls for it to be made the new US National Anthem. But the commonly sung version omits two of Guthrie’s little known but crucial verses that would not sit well in the Song of State –

Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me

A sign was painted said: Private Property

But on the back side it didn’t say nothing –

This land was made for you and me.”


One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple

By the Relief Office I saw my people

As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if

This land was made for you and me.”

Some American pacifists, just after the Iraqi war, sang this song with an ironic twist, in which they make out that US soldiers are singing in Iraq “This land is our land…” (5)

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The various changes in musical styles have reflected changes in the relationship of blacks to a wider American society that has kept them at the bottom of the heap. The blues emerged at a time when a predominantly rural population was living in smaller communities, divided by a social apartheid yet in intimate daily contact with whites as their neighbours, farm bosses, landlords, police, with the Klu Klux Klan ever ready to enforce lynch “justice”. In such an atmosphere expression of resistance and criticism of the status quo had to be discreet and coded. Black churches used the Biblical parables of the deliverance of the Jews from oppression as song topics and sermon texts to refer to the situation of their own people. This could sometimes lead to absurd misunderstandings; Blind Willie Johnson, the great street singer, preacher, slide guitarist and recording artist of bluesy spirituals, was once busking on a street corner in New Orleans. He was singing his composition “If I Had My Way I’d Tear The Building Down”, based on the Bible’s ‘Samson and Delilah’ tale. A passing white cop promptly arrested him for being disrespectful to the official City building Blind Willie had innocently chosen as a backdrop for his busking pitch!

 willie johnson

There was also a ‘protest’ element in some blues songs, probably more so than the recorded evidence suggests, as the record companies would tend to censor such material and refuse to release it. (In the 1950’s J.B. Lenoir, the most explicitly political of Chicago blues singers, drew the heat of the FBI with songs against the Korean war.)

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The country bluesmen were often travelling buskers, playing the streets and bars, country picnics and ‘juke joints’ (shacks providing music, dancing, booze and often, violence), making an easier living than other options such as farm work or lumberjacking. Allied to the whole history of a people stolen away as slaves, the bluesman’s rambling lifestyle also contributed to the recurring theme in blues lyrics of leaving and returning; a strong theme in Celtic music too, for similar historical reasons. This lifestyle provided one of the few options for escaping the rural isolation of plantation life or the economic straitjacket of tenant share-cropping. One could join the many others hopping freight trains and hitchhiking and leave those troubles behind you. ‘The Key to the Highway’, as one song put it… It was also a viable lifestyle for those with disabilities who were excluded from physical work. (The blind Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, who carried a limp from childhood polio, met while both playing the streets and ended up playing together for decades; they described their relationship as “You see for me and I’ll walk for you”.)

But for every ramblin’ bluesman of legend there were more who stayed at home, kept a day job and played in their leisure time for themselves and at social gatherings. Few women lived the rambling life, unless with a male companion. Female blues singers tended to perform in travelling tent shows or in black vaudeville theaters, often with a more ragtime and jazz-influenced style. They were the first blues singers to be recorded and to become stars; some, like the greatest of them, Bessie Smith, selling many thousands of records and gaining a celebrity lifestyle. But blues and jazz musicians were condemned by polite church-going black society – for playing ‘the devil’s music’, encouraging an ‘immoral’ lifestyle. Despite black gospel music being just about as sensual and unleashing of pent-up frustration as religious music gets, this church prejudice against black secular music continues to the present day. Gospel singers who ‘crossed over’ to sing blues and soul were (and still are) considered fallen angels led astray by temptation.

Black southern workers moving north in search of better living conditions became a flood by the 1940’s when the munitions and related industries needed them to feed the 2nd World War effort. After the experience of WWII, where blacks were routinely segregated in the US Army while supposedly fighting a war against the racist nature of Nazism, soldiers returning to the same old discrimination at home contributed to a growing militancy amongst northern blacks. Many joined the multi-racial workforce in the factories and the industrial struggles of the time. Leisure time for these black workers often meant hanging out in the neighbourhood bars, listening to the blues. John Lee Hooker’s records would have first been bought mainly by the families of car and steel workers in Detroit – the ‘motor city’. Like them, the musicians had also migrated from the south; the major development in the music was its electrification. Rather than a stylistic choice, this was a practical necessity, as acoustic instruments couldn’t compete with the noise levels of crowded bars. But electrification brought new dynamics to the music and opened up technical possibilities – greater sustain of notes, more sophisticated band arrangements etc. In Chicago a group of musicians centred around Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf, by electrifying Mississippi blues, took what was perhaps the most influential single step in the whole process that was to lead to the birth of rock’n’roll. (Similar experiments were also being made in the American South.)


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The Gospel Truth

– from “I’m Gonna Tell God How You Treat Me” to “A Change is Gonna Come”

For Thomas A. Dorsey “…whatever it is, blues, jazz, or gospel,” all have a similar effect because each is a “vehicle for your feeling… If a woman has lost a man, a man has lost a woman, his feeling reacts to the blues; he feels like expressing it. The same thing acts for a gospel song. Now you’re not singing blues; you’re singing gospel, good news song, singing about the Creator; but it’s the same feeling, a grasping of the heart. If it’s in your public, they holler out “Hallelujah” or “Amen” in church. In the theater they holler “sing it again” or “do it again” or something like that.”

“I seen women in the audience jump up, so touched – guess a good man had left them, left them cold or something like that – jump up like you shouting in church. I’ve seen that right in the theater. Whatever it is that touches them, they jump up and wring and shout just like we would in church. It gets low-down. Now what we call low-down in blues doesn’t mean that it’s dirty or bad or something like that. It gets down into the individual to set him on fire, dig him up or dig her up way down there ‘til they come out with an expression verbally. If they’re in the church, they say, “Amen.” If they’re in the blues, they say, “Sing it now.” (Quoted in The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church – Michael W. Harris, Oxford University Press, USA, 1994.)

The stylistic changes that led to the emergence of gospel music are linked to the southern black migration to the northern cities. In the southern churches there was an ongoing call-and-response between the preacher and congregation, and – using the sermon and spirituals as a starting point – individuals improvised words and spontaneous harmonies that were responded to individually and collectively by the rest of the congregation in shouts and song. This older collective style of worship – product of a less stratified, more intimate community – was considered crude and frowned upon by the more sophisticated and ambitious hierarchy of the northern black church. The black church leaders wanted to eradicate the specifically black mannerisms from worship, so as to court acceptance from the white churches they were affiliated to, whose supposed refinement they aspired to and whose approval they sought. (As proof of the growing civilising, more cultured developments going on under their instruction etc). Gradual assimilation into white society was the goal.

Something of this developement is described in Alan Lomax’s book “The Land Where the Blues Began”, in which he recounts a conversation between himself and a Reverend Martin:
“Martin was eager to explain – “In the modern Baptist church we are trying to move on past the wonderful old cornbread spirituals and sermons…We want to bring our people forward with a new and more progressive type of music, created especially for modern worship by our leading composers. The old sister leading songs from the back row is being replaced by an educated musical director. His job is to spread our new, more intelligently composed songs”.
“But what is more progressive about a musical director, when your old sisters could already harmonise beautifully without any direction?”,” I asked.
“That’s not the modern educated way. They need direction to learn the more modern songs we want them to have. This is a new day and we must adapt to it…The old must give way to the new.”
“But what about ‘Go Down Moses’ and ‘Steal Away’ and all the wonderful spirituals – you know that they are considered great music by everyone in the world. Are you going to throw that all away?”
“Absolutely not”, said the Reverend, offering me a songbook. “A lot of them are right here in this gospel songbook, in spanking-new arrangements by our best gospel writers…”
I looked at the book…There were some of the great old songs, alright, but they were set like conventional 19th century hymns, with no intimation of the fabulous head arrangements that their ‘unprogressive’ country congregations always gave them…an original African-American way of handling harmony…The new gospel songs were handled well, with rather jazzy arrangeùments, but still essentially within the frame of conventional European tradition…”

This attitude had a long history amongst the black clergy and the rest of the black middle class who emerged after the Emancipation from slavery. The clergy were educated mainly in white-financed and dominated schools and were schooled in white bourgeois values and culture. After Emancipation the spirituals – religious folk songs of the black churches that had been sung since slavery times – became looked down upon and rejected by many, particularly middle class, blacks; spirituals declined in many places “ …except [for those churches] in the rural sections where the Spiritual clung to life and survived because of the sheer desire to sing on the part of the men and women in the congregation.” (C.W. Hyne.)

“Since almost immediately after Emancipation, when ex-slaves seemed to want to discard them as unpleasant reminders of their bondage, spirituals were pawns in one of the many battles over black cultural identity. At the heart of the controversy was the question of the proper context for their use among freed persons. One side seemed to want to make the spiritual an art song, to have it appreciated with minimal reference to the experience and feelings out of which it had originated.” (The Rise of Gospel Blues, op. cit.) They wished to sanitise the spiritual, to arrange it so it conformed to the rules of western classical musical harmony, and could be therefore “elevated’ so as to “gain… artistic recognition…”. According to them, to keep it in its original form “… would doom it to stagnation and to the contempt of highly musical people.” (J.W. Work. Work practised what he preached; he toured as the director of the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, performing sanitised, “artistic” musical arrangements of spirituals. He was later to accompany Alan Lomax on field trips recording folk music for the Library of Congress and it has recently been claimed that his research was plagiarised without credit by Lomax, though this is strongly disputed by others. See footnote.) This attitude shows how much the black middle class had internalised the values of white bourgeois society and sought to use their borrowed cultural values to justify their class position in relation to poor blacks. Ironically, the whole history of black American culture shows this approach to have produced little more than pale grey imitations of white cultural forms. None of the greatest black musical innovations went down that road.

From the opposite view “C.W. Hyne noted that the qualities of folk musicianship, namely “quarter-tones, slurrings, and unusual harmonies” are lost and “sacrificed to conventional orthodoxy when the folksongs are reproduced… [and when there is] the attempt to ‘dress them up’ unduly.”

“The other side argued that the spiritual belonged within the context of the traditional black religious experience – especially since emotional performance and equally emotional response were intrinsic to black worship.” This was undoubtedly true, as long as it had a living presence within black worship. But this was an argument between factions of educated black society, over who were to be the custodians of black cultural history, and how it should be collected and preserved. It was a political dispute between folklorists. “Both sides agreed on the issue most critical to the spirituals: spirituals should be collected and transcribed. The treatment of the spiritual after its gathering and notation was the issue under debate. The arguments Work and Hyne represented, therefore, were created by and apparently of interest only to transcribers and arrangers. For, having been frozen by notation, the spiritual over which they argued was no longer a dynamic expression of Afro-American thought.” That expression and thought only survived within those, mainly rural and southern, congregations that retained “the sheer desire to sing”. “ It was an artifact whose discoverers offered widely differing opinions as to how to exhibit it. Given the cultural awareness and the musical skill required to perform it, Work’s spiritual could be none other than the song of the exalted Negro. With the inherent limitations of western music notation, Hyne’s spiritual had been denatured long before he thought of criticizing its lack of slurs and quarter-tones.” (The Rise of Gospel Blues, op. cit.)

The black church authorities suppressed the old style spiritual-type collective worship the congregations had brought up north from the southern churches with them; and replaced it with Classical-style choirs arranged by professional musical directors. This was resented by the congregations, but the authority of the preacher held sway and these changes were reluctantly accepted. Lomax quotes a friend of his saying, “The church is pushing those songs right across the country. My guess is that there’s a tie-in between the big preachers and the publishers somehow. One thing for sure, there’s a lot of money being made out of the whole thing.”

At this point Thomas A. Dorsey entered the story. Formerly “Georgia Tom” – a blues singer of such raunchy hits as “It’s Tight Like That” he had jumped from blues to church music and back. He lost his young wife to illness in 1932, and entered a deep emotional crisis; turning away from his blues career, he deepened his commitment to religion and began attending a local church. (But, unlike many religious people, he never dismissed or criticised the blues, always seeing it as a form having a valid function. His experience in both fields made him more aware than most of the common emotional ground they shared.) Dissatisfied with the musical content of services and sensing what was lacking, he had already in the 1920’s started writing gospel songs.He eventually produced such classics as “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”, “Peace in the Valley”, his two most famous songs. His aim was to reintroduce the more bluesy, southern stylistic musical elements that the church establishment had suppressed in the northern churches. (He was not the originator of gospel, but more than anyone, developed and popularised the style.) He tried to market the songs by getting them sung in churches and at church music conventions but met strong opposition from the black church establishment. He also sold them as sheet music (at that time commonly used by many ordinary people with pianos at home or in the locality). His songs struck an instant chord with the congregations, recognising in them the elements of expression they had been missing. Gradually the first churches conceded to the popularity of this new style, seeing that it gave them an edge over their many competitors, and soon gospel was established in most churches as the dominant style. At the same time Dorsey established several singing groups in churches – not really ‘choirs’ as untrained and inexperienced singers were welcome – their emotional commitment being the important criteria. In contrast to the Classical-style choirs’ repertoire, Dorsey’s songs were musically uncomplicated and accessible in their structures.

Dorsey became a wealthy man from his enterprise, establishing a profitable gospel music publishing business. Many gospel singing groups emerged, amateur and professional, to tour the churches – and a gospel recording industry was born. The changes of the type Dorsey began were inevitable, linked as they were to class and cultural tensions in the black church. He exploited them commercially, but by fulfilling a felt need, by returning, partially, something that was missed. Gospel was part of the professionalising of church music – but it also returned to the congregation collective stylings and forms of expression that had been suppressed by the church establishment. And by no means all services today are dominated by a gospel performance. Collective ‘testifying’ still goes on, to varying degrees in different areas, and depending on the traditions of the various sects.

Just as there is a commercial aspect to the blues, yet there are still people who play the blues simply because they have the blues. And alongside the commercial aspects of gospel, there are those for whom it is nothing more nor less than an important emotional release and expression. To use Marx’s overquoted phrase – while religion remains “the heart of a heartless world” that need will continue to be sung about.

Gospel, at its best, is great music, with some of the greatest of singers. Its mode of expression and powerful intensity – how it says what it wants to say – can be appreciated by those with no religious belief. The soul music emerging from the late 1950’s and exploding in the 60’s was gospel secularised. The message lyrically was now what religious music could not or would not say – erotic sensuality and passion, and a growing political awareness reflecting the struggles of the times. From gospel came Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, Otis Redding etc (who, like most soul singers, all first sang in church).

The social function of gospel music and its artistic development became more specialised and separate to a degree – the element of performance was elevated. But in contrast to soul music, gospel never became so estranged by stardom from its constituency – the church remained its natural venue. (Though a few gospel singers did undertake commercial tours in concert halls.) Gospel and black traditions of collective singing were still connected enough to daily black life that they became largely the music of the civil rights movement and the later South African anti-apartheid/class struggle movement – albeit with altered words, usually. After over a century of using bible stories as coded references to a future deliverance from persecution for their race, singing of reaching the promised land etc; now, using gospel musical forms, implied meanings became explicit. (In a different way from the Wobblies earlier, this was another form of detournement of religious song.) For example, one civil rights song sung by marchers reminded the demonstrators to not let – nobody, not the politicians or policemen “… turn you round, turn you round, turn you round… you got to keep on walking, keep on talking, marching to the freedom land.”

* * *

The Soul Of Money

“Maybe there’s another thing why so many of these musicianers ended up so bad. Maybe they didn’t know how to keep up with all this commercialising that was happening to ragtime. If it could have stayed where it started and not had to take acount of the business it was becoming – all that making contracts and signing options and buying and selling rights – maybe without that it might have been different. If you start taking what’s pure in a man and you start putting it on a bill of sale, somehow you can’t help destroying it. In a way, all that business makes it so a man don’t have anything left to give. I got a feeling inside me, a kind of memory that wants to sing itself…I can give you that. I can send it out to where it can be taken, maybe, if you want it. I can try to give it to you. But if all I’ve got is a contract, I’ve got nothing to give. How’m I going to give you a contract?…
The men who are doing the business part of the presenting, they won’t let the music be. They give the public what they want them to hear. They don’t care about the music; just so long as they can get that, they don’t care about nothing else.
Some band leader gets himself a reputation for being a personality, and that’s it. From there on out it has to be his personality first and then the music. He’s busy doing every kind of thing but the music. “Here’s an extra saxophone”, he says. Maybe you don’t need that extra sax, it doesn’t belong, but that’s no matter to him…And before you know it, you’ve got a whole lot of something that hasn’t got any spirit. All you’ve got, it’s something like running a ball through a pinball machine and watching all the lights come on. You’ve got a hell of a lot of lights showing themselves off.
These personality boys don’t ask a musicianer what he thinks is best: they arrange it for him….They’ve got themselves a great big band. They’ve got themselves a kind of machine. And so to make sense out of whatever it is the machine is doing, they get a whole lot of composers and arrangers to write it all down, just the way the machine is supposed to run – every note of it.
And all that freedom, all that feeling a man’s got when he’s playing next to you – they take that away. They give you his part to play and they give him your part, and that’s how it’s to be…every man doing any damn’ thing but the one thing he should be doing if he’s really to find the music. All that closeness of speaking to another instrument, to another man – it’s gone. All that waiting to get in for your own chance, feeling yourself, all that holding back, not rushing the next man, not bucking him, holding back for the right time to come out, all that pride and spirit – it’s gone. They take away your dignity and they take away your heart and after they’ve done that there’s nothing left…”

Sidney Bechet (op cit).

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blues cartoon2

Whereas the blues players tended to retain their social function and connection within the urban black community, soul singers tended to become distanced far more by celebrity as their music soon crossed over in a big way to a white audience. They began a more representational role, akin to politicians representing a constituency or preachers a congregation. The role of James Brown would reveal much in this respect, as shown below…

By the late 50’s James Brown and Ray Charles were mixing up blues and gospel influences to develop what became known as soul music. If the blues is a means of dealing with problems of everyday life – facing down troubles by facing up to them, thereby building strength to deal with them as they recurred – then soul was more assertive, expressing a historical awareness by placing one’s actions in a new historical context. ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud’ implied that one’s actions could have positive consequences – as Sam Cooke said, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’. (Cooke is said to have been influenced to write that song after hearing Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind”, which he also recorded a version of.) In this way 60’s soul reflected the emerging struggles of black America, as the largest riots in American history tore through the black ghettos and Black Power was proclaimed. But this brought out the tensions between the music and social reality; it’s worth looking at James Brown’s role as the strongest musical symbol of black assertiveness in the 1960’s. Following Martin Luther King’s assassination ‘Soul Brother No.1’ James Brown went on TV to perform a show in Boston as an explicit tactic to keep angry blacks indoors and so prevent rioting. He joined with politicians to make an appeal for calm. As a true American patriot, Brown supported the US role in the Vietnam War, flying out to play for the troops and campaigned for Presidential candidate Hubert Humphreys. He also played benefits for liberal groups such as the NAACP, SCLC and the more leftist SNCC. Brown was now a very rich man with his own private jet and he “publicly endorsed the sort of black capitalism he practised”. His political beliefs were that blacks should be able to compete economically on equal terms with the rest of American society. That’s why he once sacked half his band because they wanted a small wage rise. So his message was really that it’s fine to ‘Say It Loud’ – just so long as you don’t do anything to challenge the hierarchical power of a system that will always need to ensure there are far more black losers than winners in its economic structure. The pop star as cop star.

Don’t diss my rap, punk…

Rap shares with punk a one–dimensional emotional expression – predominantly youthful male anger and aggression at full volume defining the style within a narrow emotional spectrum.

The biggest selling rap artists and record labels organise periodic conferences for their industry – which is the dominant force in popular music. They discuss the fact that ‘product and brand placement’ is more commercially effective in their industry than others. What they wear and consume, their many fans will follow. This of course encourages various enticing gifts and offers to rappers for ‘endorsement’ from manufacturers of clothing, jewellery etc. This fits well with the rappers’ image of themselves as suitable ‘role-models’ for their fans.

“The black politicians, middle class social workers and made-it-out-of-the-ghetto rap and graffiti artists generally see themselves, as examples that young blacks should aspire to. Some rappers, while flaunting some of the biggest gold chains on the block (ghetto status symbols made from gold mined by South African blacks) advocate a specifically Black Capitalism – but obviously they will jealously defend their privileged position within it, because (contrary to the illusions they sell to youth) there ain’t much room at the top or too many routes out of the ghetto. They need a permanent captive ghetto audience as a basis for their privilege and black capitalist wealth – those who market rebellion need the obedient exploited consumer to buy.

The black role in the American cultural spectacle is one of individual achievement: sport, music and to some extent film and literature, have been the traditional “ladders to success” for blacks. This individual achievement is often seen as a source of collective pride; role models to aspire to and identify with (encouraging advancement through individual, as opposed to group, dedication) and an integration into the dominant values of society – both in pure economic terms, as consumers, and by directing energies towards upward mobility in either the black or mainstream white world. Nevertheless, because only limited numbers can move upwards regardless of individual effort, the spectacle masks a lie that is exposed on the level of collective daily experience.
Rap emerged from the U.S. ghetto much the same as reggae toasting did in Jamaica. The emphasis on words over music is part of a reduction of music to its basic components (the Punk ethic is similar). With a record deck and a microphone anyone could be a rapper, and techniques like scratching and sampling were dismantling pop music, stripping it down to its component parts and making them interchangeable, like some mass market atonality. This was logical, seeing as pop recording studios had long since become conveyor belt corporation production lines. It was admitting that the social function of one pop record was equivalent to any other; also that the cult of individual originality (i.e. guitar heroes, specialised musical skills etc.) could largely be replaced by technology. Yet what the form implied was denied by the content