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New Steps in Pop Music's Continuing Dance Along the Racial Fault Line

People gravitate to good music, and the right music plus the right people at the right time add up to an official scene. But sometimes, there’s no telling what kind of people that music scene will then attract, or what will happen when they all get together.


Especially when race gets thrown race into the mix.


Take jazz, for example. Throughout the early 1900s, it took shape in mostly all-black milieus: tent shows, rent parties, juke joints, and nightclubs (not to mention a bordello here or a speakeasy there). As its popularity grew during the ‘20s, it piqued the interest of thrill-seeking whites, who flocked to establishments like the Cotton Club in Harlem to hear the music in its allegedly natural habitat (that being the community of Harlem, not the venue created solely with white audiences in mind). A decade later, musicians both white and black advanced jazz into its swing era, when it enjoyed its peak period as America’s pre-eminent pop music – which wouldn’t have happened, most likely, had not white audiences started kicking up their heels to it.


Much the same thing happened with R&B in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. The difference this time was the indignation of white grown-ups over their children seeking out those rockin’, unabashedly black beats. But try as they did, everything from promoting sanitized versions of R&B songs to trying to ban it outright, they couldn’t stop white kids from finding their way to the big new sound – especially when they saw a white guy not much older than them, one Elvis Aaron Presley, carrying on with his version of R&B (plus country, schmaltz and a hint of gospel) on national TV.


On the other side of the fault line lies country music, which used to be somewhat integrated before the marketers got a hold of it. In their respective formative years, country and blues musicians routinely borrowed from each other, and black country performers even got some occasional love from major venues like the Grand Old Opry. But as far back as the ‘20s, record companies started referring to the music white country musicians made as “old-time”, and drew clear categorical distinctions between it and the blues music the black folks were making, the better to help keep white record buyers from unwittingly giving their hard-earned coin to a black performer. Those distinctions stuck, to the point where even an A-list country star like Charley Pride seemed like the world’s biggest outlier because he was a black guy.


cover art

David Nowell

The Story of Northern Soul: A Definitive History of the Dance Scene that Refuses to Die

(Portico; US: Aug 2011)

cover art

Stephen Duncombe, Maxwell Tremblay, editors

White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race

(Verso; US: Sep 2011)

These are simply the most obvious examples of how race can complicate a sub-culture that gravitates to a particular form of music. Two recent books show how knotty the whole thing has become, even though the only thing the worlds they explore share in common is that in both cases, the audiences are almost all white.


*


Consider, for starters, the curious case of northern soul. That name does not represent, as is often assumed, an actual musical genre. It refers to a scene, or even a state of mind, more than a distinct category. Northern soul is the moniker that arose to brand the phenomenon of white British youths dancing their weekends away to American R&B records of a mid-to-late ‘60s vintage. Those records weren’t made in the UK, nor designed for a UK audience. They were American-made, hoping to hit the American charts (not all of them did, or climbed very high if they did, but hold on for more on that). Yes, these records happened during R&B’s soul era, but the only thing “northern” is that this scene sprung from urban areas in the northern UK.


If the scene were just a matter of kids in one part of the world grooving to hits from elsewhere, that would be one thing. But northern soul takes the global pop crossover notion one crucial step further: the R&B these kids craved never exactly crossed over. Outside of Motown and its packaged tours to England during the ‘60s, American record labels hadn’t made an effort to market themselves abroad (getting proper distribution and radio airplay at home was work enough, thank you). Instead, it was the audience itself that crossed over to find the music – literally.


A handful of northern soulsters, possessed by the thrills of both the music and the hunt, made pilgrimages to America, found their way to record distributors and other depositories, and brought back records they’d only read about in British music trade magazines. As those records become the life of the dance parties, they also became commodities for collectors and aspiring deejays. The larger collectors, in fact, would set up shop in the clubs while the dancers were getting busy, with prize catches on display for sale or trade.


But while those records were prize catches in England, they were on their way to obscurity back home. We’re not talking about the biggest R&B hits of the time – not the Motown classics, or even the numerous R&B chart-toppers that never became across-the-board pop smashes. No, the northern soul scene craved authenticity, which became defined as “something the squares outside our cocoon have no idea even exists.”


Thus, a scan of a northern soul playlist from the ‘60s will reveal titles like “I’ll Be Loving You” by the Soul Brothers Six and “Long after Tonight Is All Over’ by Jimmy Radcliffe. I’m sure there were tons of great songs in the mix, but I’ll be doggone if I’ve heard of 90 percent of them – and I grew up listening to this era’s black pop, right here in the U.S. of A. I actually thought I knew my stuff when it comes to ‘60s R&B, but clearly, the sharpest northern soul buffs would leave me in the dust with their encyclopedic knowledge of labels and acts long ago forgotten in their native land.


In time, some labels realized there was a buck to be made overseas, and R&B records could be found in stores that stocked imports. The bigger black acts of the day picked up on the Motown model, touring the UK to enthusiastic crowds. But when the soul sounds of the mid-‘60s morphed into the funk and jazz-funk of the late ’60s, the northern soul scene faced a choice – stay faithful to a sound that was on the wane in its birthplace, or embrace the evolving new grooves.


Here’s where that racial fault line begins to come into view. Black America made a political, social and cultural transformation in the ‘60s; by the end of the decade the R&B of even a few years earlier was already far out of step with the new reality.  The old hits were still beloved, but the bulk of the attention was bestowed upon music that spoke to and of the moment’s urgency. Meanwhile, the northern soul scene – people from another country, and virtually all white – had no connection to the milieu from which the music sprang. All they knew (and this isn’t a knock against them) was that it had a great beat and you could dance to it. Their emotional investment was with the music, not its relationship to the broader black American society.


Mark Reynolds has written extensively about African-American culture and celebrity since the late '80s. He began his print journalism career with the weekly Cleveland Edition, and was a longtime contributor to its successor, Cleveland Free Times. He has also written for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and various publications in Cleveland and Philadelphia. His national credits include reviews and features for the college-distributed entertainment magazine Hear/Say, and reporting on the travel industry for the trade magazine Black Meetings & Tourism. His media criticism was honored in 2004 by the Society of Professional Journalists, Ohio chapter.


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