Chris Robinson @crmusicwriter

mostly music, sometimes books


Brian Ward’s Just My Soul Responding Reviewed Here

Brian Ward’s mammoth book, Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm And Blues, Black Consciousness, and Race Relations, argues that examining “changes in black musical style [in this case R&B, Soul, and Funk] and mass consumer preferences offer us a useful insight into the changing sense of self, community and destiny among those blacks who” rarely leave evidence of their existence to historians (4).  Ward bases his book on three premises: first, that the social and political meanings of pop music intersect with race, class, gender, etc.; second, that black consumers have never been passive; and third, that “there exists a conventionally recognized spectrum of musical techniques and devices which ranges from nominally ‘black’ to nominally ‘white’ poles” (4-5).  Related to his pole of racial styles, he argues that locating where black audiences placed what’s popular at any given time on the black/white musical scale “offers a glimpse into the state of black consciousness and the struggle for freedom and equality at that moment” (6).

Ward argues that the relative “blackness” or “whiteness” of black popular music was based on the black community’s views and outlooks on gaining equality.  In the “Black Pop Era” from 1957-1964, the dominant black social goal was integration.  Therefore, black pop was the “cultural expression” of faith in the achievement of an integrated America (127).  As an example, Ward argues that during this time black listeners strongly supported white pop, even when played on black oriented radio, and that the predominant view, which he challenges, that white rockabilly artists stole black music, is too simple.  The black community often felt that the success of black performers in white music charts was a sign of coming opportunity for African Americans (58-59).  During the “Black Pop Era” Ward notes that many black stereotypes were absent from black popular music as were the overt sexual overtones that laced earlier R&B, changes he argues that symbolized that greater changes in society were possible (146-159).

In the mid 1960s black consciousness underwent a drastic change, and with it the music.  Despite the passage of major civil rights legislation in 1964 great inequities between blacks and whites continued.  Soul music evolved out of a growing disillusionment in the black community and an increase in black nationalist thought.  During this time “many blacks sought an antidote to white assumptions of cultural superiority by self-consciously valorizing their own culture and celebrating peculiarly African-American experiences and practices as the critical repositories of identity and worth” (182).  Soul music embraced a “blacker” style and drew on earlier African American musical styles such as gospel and rejected white musical influences.  In this way soul served as “cultural cement” for black Americans (202).  Ward argues that the “claiming, naming and evaluating distinctive elements of a shared black world according to black standards” in a black form was psychologically empowering to the black community (211).  The “blacker” sounds of soul however, did not signify a complete rejection of the assimilationist goals of many blacks, as a large body of southern soul, produced by labels such as Stax and Atlantic and which was created by black and white musicians, stood as a testament to the integrationist goals of some members of the black community (218).

For Ward, the main vehicle that helped promote community and a shared consciousness in the African American community was black oriented radio and the recording industry.  The ongoing debates about the relative merits of assimilation and integration versus nationalism were played out in the R&B industry.  In the mid 1960s many black owned record labels emerged, many of which were small and short lived.  Others like Motown however proved to be major players.  Ward points out that just like white owned labels, black owners like Motown’s Berry Gordy were driven by making money, and thus did not always place social progress at the top of their priority list.  Eventually the industry realized that contributing to social progress was not financial suicide, thus the industry became more active.  In general it was believed that more black involvement in the upper management and black ownership of the black oriented radio and recording industry would lead to more black control of the dissemination of black popular music (442, 448).  Ward argues that the real strength of black radio and black popular music lied in its “ability to dramatize and celebrate shared aspects of the black experience and . . . to give shape and form to barely apprehended hopes, dreams and aspirations” (449).

Throughout the book Ward discusses the relationship between black popular music and the civil rights movement.  Although music played a part in the movement, Ward argues that the level of political activism of black music and musicians has been largely overstated by several historians (290, 335).  He discusses several artists, such as Curtis Mayfield and Nina Simone, who were active in the civil rights movement, but points out that relative to other musical genres or elements of the entertainment industry black popular music had a lower level of involvement in the movement.  Towards the later 1960s when problems in the African American community continued, or even got worse in the inner cities, black popular music became more politically involved in its further embrace of “blacker” styles such as funk as well as its more socially conscious lyrical content.  Ultimately, black popular music “promoted and sustained the black pride, identity and self respect upon which the movement and its leaders were ultimately dependent” (336).

There are only two major problems with Ward’s book.  First, it is too long and contains material that goes into too much depth which would have been better suited for a tangential footnote.  While this superfluous material is relevant to his argument it is not necessary.  The second flaw has to do with Ward’s third premise: the black/white musical pole.  He admits that it is flawed, primarily because there is not an a priori musical style that is racially determined, but finds it useful because black and white audiences have accepted the existence of separate black and white musical aesthetics.  While this notion of racial aesthetics exists in the minds of the book’s subjects, relying on a black/white binary potentially prevents him from adding even more nuance to his argument and evidence.

Aside from these two criticisms Just My Soul Responding is an exhaustive examination of the social history of black popular music from the 1950s through to the early 1980s.  It shows the music’s relationship to its primary audience and what the music signifies about black consciousness and the state of American race relations between the black and white communities.

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