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A Change Is Gonna Come

Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness, and Race Relations
By Brian Ward
University of California Press

The true subject of Just My Soul Responding is not soul music or even rhythm and blues--unless that post-World War II catchall category is retrofitted to encompass soul and a little funk and disco but not hip-hop or recent black pop. Rather, Brian Ward sets himself to tracing the evolution of black pop from the dawn of rock-and-roll (a misty moment here signaled by the Chords' "Sh-Boom" in 1954) until his material peters out in the mid-1970's. Even though he would have been better off plodding on for another 250 pages, into the 90's, the book deserves a place alongside Charles Keil's Urban Blues, Arnold Shaw's Honkers and Shouters, Peter Guralnick's Sweet Soul Music and Nelson George's Death of Rhythm and Blues and Where Did Our Love Go?

By no means does Just My Soul Responding rank above them, however. Ward, who teaches American history at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in England, blusters a great deal about superseding the competition. "Ultimately," he claims, "the story of rhythm and blues reveals the inadequacy of both excessive romanticizations of the counterhegemonic power of black popular culture, and of Frankfurt School-style critiques of mass culture." Yet none of the books cited above indulge in either fallacy. When he gets down to cases, Ward either attacks commentators of little standing or snipes at the decontextualized ideas of more skillful writers whose discoveries, as the footnotes establish, he is not above appropriating.

Especially since Ward is no theoretical innovator himself--his brightest insight is the cultural-studies commonplace identifying black pop as an arena where entertainers are "dramatizing and celebrating the black community's refusal to succumb to the mental and spiritual ravages of racism and poverty"--this academic chest beating is a counterproductive distraction. Instead, Ward should rely more confidently on his strength: the rare combination he achieves of diligent professional historian (he is one of the editors of The Making of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement) and passionate fan. With scant firsthand experience of the music in situ, he has scoured liner notes, collector magazines, newspaper archives, academic journals and documents of the civil rights movement and has produced an account that is evenhanded and common-sensical but also committed and felt.

Ward's method is to argue his thesis by linking rhythm and blues to "mass black consciousness." An ardent integrationist at heart, he posits a plausible connection between the racial openness and relative gentility of black pop in the 50's and the middle-class ambitions many poor black Americans nurtured during the postwar economic boom, especially after the Supreme Court's school desegregation decision in 1954. As he explains it--mechanistically, but reasonably--the more race-conscious soul and funk genres reflect the increasing militancy that produced the black power movement. This Ward sees as an understandable but unfortunate reaction that ensued when racial progress slowed to a crawl (or went into reverse) because whites had realized that "to open up the American dream to everyone" would require "the wholesale restructuring of American society, government and economy." Ward is enthusiastic about the cultural heat of black consciousness--he knows soul's elaborated call-and-response and funk's improvisational rhythmic complexity would never have developed among artists who were courting whites. But in the end he seems to regret it anyway. Politically, he doubts separatism can work in a predominantly white nation. And musically, he is put off by the machismo of these styles--far more so, it must be said, than most black women seem to be.

Ward overplays an unrepresentative smattering of personal interviews and commits other gaffes--ascribing too much significance to a racist attack on Nat (King) Cole in 1956 and, comically, identifying a white Polygram executive as the bass singer of the Platters. But he offers much that is fresh. There is sharp critical writing about the Clovers at the beginning of his story and Parliament-Funkadelic at its end, and a surprisingly persuasive reading of Chuck Berry's "Promised Land" as a shadow history of the first Freedom Rides. And although others have made the point, he is properly emphatic about the refusal of black fans and entrepreneurs to go along with the taste makers who feel slickness and sophistication are not "black." In a paradigmatic instance that cannot be cited too often, the Southern funk of Memphis and Muscle Shoals was the product of white-owned companies and white-dominated house bands, while the supposed sellout pop of Motown was created and marketed by blacks.

Best of all, Ward provides some eye-opening revelations about the civil rights movement. A young Martin Luther King Jr. warns against the evils of rock-and-roll. A young Julian Bond sends up the notion of natural rhythm. The Black Panther Party lays out the revolutionary limitations of song. Most memorably, having reminded us that the crucial musical supporters of the civil rights movement were non-R&B artists like Lena Horne, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joan Baez, Ward establishes Harry Belafonte--who was a left-wing activist well before he became a folk-pop superstar--as the angel of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

So until we get a survey that combines Ward's exhaustive research with Guralnick's literary sweep, Keil's social vision and George's easy authority, Just My Soul Responding will remain an uncommonly comprehensive introduction to the formative decades of black rock-and-roll, which Ward situates more single-mindedly than most in black history. Ultimately, his quirks and personal preferences only add flavor, and to his credit, he does not let them hogtie him. If his theorizing about "mass black consciousness" is tendentious by definition, it remains credible, not least because he never forgets how varied the individuals, interest groups and casual social associations that underlie such intellectual conceits always turn out to be when you look them in the eye.

New York Times Book Review, Aug. 23, 1998