Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Can I Get a Witness?

By Matt Hanks

NOVEMBER 9, 1998:  You don’t have to be an academic to know that the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s is one of the most deeply complicated chapters in American history. Likewise, you need only a passing knowledge of this chapter to know that black popular music provided a crucial role in it. But to take on the daunting task of definitively contextualizing the relationship between these two movements, you’d likely have to be an academic and sadist.

Dr. Brian Ward, a professor of American history at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, has done just that. His new book Just My Soul Responding (University of California Press) is a work of profound depth that treads the axis of this all-but-overlooked paradigm to yield some startling results. Ignoring (or better yet, bridging) the gap between the popular culture and historical theory, Just My Soul Responding examines the politics of celebrity and the politics of race on equal terms. And ultimately that’s what makes it unique, for through Ward’s eyes the catalog of Nina Simone is just as telling of the black struggle in America as the rhetoric of Stokely Carmichael. And the stories they tell will surprise you.

Of course, the relationship between these two movements has always existed – the challenge lies in looking through the haze of retrospect and revisionism to understand what actually happened. Ward recalls taking “what seemed like a lifetime” to achieve this. He combed through the archives of every major civil-rights organization, listened to a ton of records (literally), and conducted extensive oral history interviews.

Of this latter method, Ward recalls one particularly eerie anecdote.

“I interviewed one ex-deejay in a mortuary in Birmingham, surrounded by waxed corpses,” he says. “[I] half expected Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to emerge from one of the coffins.”

Haunting episodes notwithstanding, Ward avoided conventional wisdom at all cost.

“I guess I didn’t just want to re-tell the story of what the musicians themselves thought they had contributed to the movement or to rely on the sort of myths star-struck journalists have frequently peddled.” Ward recalls. “I didn’t want to undervalue the importance of the music in expressing black hopes and frustrations, or in cementing the bonds of community, but I also wanted to look from the movement’s side and see what sort of concrete help it thought it had really got from men and women who often traded in their bold calls for black pride and solidarity. And as the book suggests, while people like Clyde McPhatter, Nina Simone, and Curtis Mayfield were involved early on, the contribution of most rhythm-and-blues artists was minimal until the late 1960s, by which time it was more than they could afford in terms of sales or credibility not to be aligned with the black cause.”

Ward’s contradiction of the classic chicken-egg logic that usually surrounds most discussions of how black music and black consciousness kept pace with one another in evolving from early-’50s complacency to late-’60s empowerment ends up being one of Just My Soul Responding ’s major revelations. And his explanation why is one of the book’s most compellingly crystalline arguments.

“Rhythm and Blues artists undoubtedly wanted to see [the movement] succeed before the later 1960s,” he says. “But this was the first generation of artists for whom major crossover success with a white audience was a viable proposition, and they – and their managers and labels – simply didn’t want to blow their chances by being too outspoken on racial issues. And at a time when the dominant ethos of the movement was towards integration, this pursuit of mainstream opportunity was hardly heretical. When Berry Gordy went after white Americans with Motown, he didn’t alienate black Americans. Rather he articulated their hopes that one day they too would be able to compete equitably and successfully in the mainstream. The transition to more political involvement and commentary in soul stemmed from a number of sources, but I think, ultimately, the changing times shaped the changing lyrics.”

Of course, Berry Gordy wasn’t the only one with an eye toward integration. Southern soul music – much of it recorded in and around Memphis – didn’t just aspire to integration, it practiced it. On any given day in the ’60s you could walk through the doors of Stax, American, or Fame studios and find blacks and whites in creative consortium. Furthermore, Southern soul, as a genre, was primarily a product of the collision between two racially disparate musics – country and R&B.

“I suspect that the reason why inter-racialism was more pronounced in the South was because there was such a long and fruitful tradition of musical friendships across the racial divide, even in defiance of Jim Crow,” Ward says. “I don’t want to romanticize this. There’s little doubt that economic power remained largely in white hands, and the connections between musical fraternization and racial enlightenment are not always simple. Yet the fact is that Southern music has steadfastly refused to obey the color line for centuries.”

But what of those who didn’t have tradition on their side? Ward sees them as taking the bravest stance of all.

“I think it is important to acknowledge the bravery of those black and white entertainers who did put themselves and their careers on the line for the Movement before the mid-1960s, and before it became fashionable to do so,” he says. “The folk crew, some jazz artists, Simone, but also the likes of Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, and, above all, Harry Belafonte. He stands head and shoulders above everyone else from the showbiz world in terms of his contribution to the struggle. I may have gone into the project wanting to find that Berry Gordy or Sam Cooke or James Brown secretly funded the movement, but the fact is that it was the likes of Belafonte who acted as angels to the struggle.”

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