In an era when the conscience of pop, hip-hop, and rock ’n’ roll music is often off-shored to fundraising events and galas where million of dollars are shared in the limelight, this close scrutiny and survey of a more radicalized music period — especially the ’60s and ’70s — reveals how songs themselves used to be the vehicle for concerns. Narratives of empowerment, and refrains of social critiques, no longer invade FM radio in the same style or manner.
Sure, Green Day’s screed against American idiocy was provocative, barbed, and pointed, but will future kids spin those iTunes with the same gusto that still reverberate with “Fortunate Son” and “War (What is it Good For!)”? Will Green Day go gentle into the not-so-good digital night?
Tellingly, Sullivan paints with condensed strokes, documenting in succinct sections how the music segued with powerful protest movements to smash disfranchisement and rouse sometimes fleeting victories, daring “to question the new freedoms and the quality of life ‘freedom’ brought in the face of liberty’s inconsistencies and … costs.” Sure, some of the music was tranquil, but beneath the surface was a piercing passion knotted to the concerns of the women’s movement, Black Power struggles, the American Indian Movement, Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committees, and the National Farm Workers Association.
On the other side, and there is always another side, rested the concerns of hegemony; the military-industrial apparatus, the forces of American apartheid, FBI plots and local policing, and repressive schools, shifting under foot in the times, much to the dismay of old-timey teachers and administrators.
She focuses on the whole diaspora of black music en masse, from Calypso’s insurgent narratives to the ‘courage’ of jazz, from gospel and slave songs to roiling R&B and rebellious rock ’n’ roll, which loosened the shackles of youth culture. The women of the broader civil rights and black nationalist movements, like Odetta and Nina Simone, hold sway and never surrender; even Billie Holiday, often associated with a bygone generation, provides her “Strange Fruit” as a kind of template, a way to ignore simple plaintive sentiment and jazz-spiel in favor of concerns for justice and a probe of history, with all the pain intact. Sure, Richie Havens fused the bright light of folk music with percussive, dynamic playing, but the women, to me, carried the burdens even deeper.
Simone sung in French, borrowed songs from the hills of Appalachia, delved into Duke Ellington, and yelled god damn at the state of Mississippi; meanwhile, her children still wrestle with a world where black men are more likely to head to prison than college classrooms, women still make substantially less than male counterparts on the same job sites, and war is rampant from the drug-prone American borderlands to the insurgent-swept Middle East. One step forward, two steps back, I suppose. Still, Simone’s succor and vision, her sentiment and slyness, do not retreat, even today. The songs endure.
Sullivan makes readers aware of Simone’s context, the tumult that became the daily bread of her songs, the strains and passions that netted up inside her and Buffy Sainte-Marie, Phranc, and Penelope Houston from the Avengers as well. High priestess of soul, Cree Indian song crafter, buzz-haired lesbian counterculture icon, and punk poet provocateur all merge into the story of how the trauma of the times rippled and shaped works of critical and creative depth, urgency and unction.
Sullivan certainly does not shortchange men, either. Though she may bypass long looks at Public Enemy and Bad Brains in favor of sketching the breadth of Spearhead/Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, the point is not to offer an all-inclusive, push-button reference book, but to examine the oft-overlooked underdogs whose work is powerful and challenging. On the way, she relays the affairs of Solomon Burke, the soul man who challenged the powers-that-be to consider different business strategies, like bolstering a sense of community rather than simply staking profits.
Furthermore, she aptly documents the concerns of Little Richard and James Brown to make popular music with bite, and use profits to steer hope and change; the efforts of Archie Schepp, Albert Ayler, and John Coltrane to explore outside the box of comfy commercial jazz, to place inchoate art in the center of the revolution; the woozy many-colored hybrid otherness of Funkadelic; and the sincere visions of Stevie Wonder, who retained a sense of the wondrous. Even blaxploitation soundtracks and the blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins find a meeting ground with John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Phil Och’s sonorous lefty sentiments.
Sullivan’s book, fortunately, is wily, not winded. She does extend her reach and utilize an umbrella approach, but she never forces juxtapositions. She melds the time of assassinations and Weatherman anarchy with the time of Motown and Otis Redding with aplomb.
This was a time rife with ricocheting revolt, unmatched even in the days of punk, when CBGB’s hardcore matinees commingled with beatbox rap and funk-punk Clash ran headlong into Sandinista agitprop, the revolution in Iran, and the blistering years of President Reagan. I may not be nostalgic for hippies, whom I was trained never to trust in the folklore of punk, but I do admire, and sentimentalize, a time when music existed not as mere commodity but an authentic and popular soundtrack to the streets.