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Textbook Oppositions and Alternatives: Re-Thinking the Role of Race in '60s Rock and Soul Music

Photo: Nigel Dickson (Legacy Recordings)

Black rock musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, and Arthur Lee (Love), as well as white soul musicians in the racially integrated bands playing on recordings of singers like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, existed during the '60s. So why is rock and soul so black and white?

When we characterize music constructed as white and black, what do these supposedly objective descriptions reveal about value? Examining several examples of how the academy teaches '60s rock and soul--genres largely associated with whites and blacks, respectively, in terms of both their performers and audiences--in teaching popular music history to students can give us some answers. More numerous than even general African-American music history textbooks (see Eileen Southern's The Music of Black Americans: A History, Mellonee V. Burnim and Portia K. Maultsby's African American Music: An Introduction, and Burton W. Peretti's Lift Every Voice: The History of African American Music) and more useful for analyzing the role of race in the construction of music history than most general American popular music history textbooks (see David Lee Joyner's American Popular Music and Larry Starr and Christopher Waterman's American Popular Music: From Minstrelsy to MP3, for example), rock music history textbooks mark '60s rock as white and soul as black in language that sometimes unintentionally values rock over soul in racist ways. However, in some textbooks examples of anti-racist oppositions exist as well, ones acknowledging differences between rock and soul without valuing rock over soul. An accurate, anti-racist method of teaching the history of '60s popular music can acknowledge the role of race in shaping the development of both rock and soul without reproducing racist ideologies regarding complexity, mind and body dualities, and "race-transcending" in music seen as predominantly white or black. Alternative methods to teach rock history are suggested.

The popular music of the '60s is ostensibly among the most acclaimed collective bodies of music of the 20th century. Although often depicted as a counter-cultural force for social change, the music has still become formally and informally institutionalized as among the greatest popular music ever recorded. Though authors and critics like John Strausbaugh and Jim DeRogatis legitimately question the validity of such institutions as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Rolling Stone magazine, I maintain that such organizations--though more involved in criticism than history--can nonetheless shape perceptions of what music holds up over time as part of a popular music canon. These institutions heavily feature artists and recordings from the '60s. So little can dispute that in mainstream venues of popular music criticism, the music of the '60s looms large in its perceived quality and significance. And likewise, rock history textbooks devote significant space to the decade.

However, historically the popular music particularly in the decade’s second half is additionally significant because it illuminates largely unexplored terrain of race in music. During this era both rock, as opposed to earlier rock ‘n’ roll, and soul, as opposed to earlier rhythm & blues, gained significant prominence commercially and culturally. In the '50s, rock ‘n’ roll had been a hybrid form popularized by both black and white artists, albeit unevenly: while white artists and producers received a disproportionate share of money and chart success due to "cover tunes" and other forms of exploitation (as Reebee Garofalo explains in his article Crossing Over: From Black Rhythm & Blues to White Rock 'N' Roll), many whites still saw the music as threatening for its multiracial audiences and hybridized content, as well as its significant roots in African-American popular music. Simultaneously, rhythm & blues flourished, albeit with less commercial success among mainstream white audiences, with the rise of a host of independent record labels. The sound of rhythm & blues contained more "blues, jazz, and pop elements" than the heavy gospel influences that went on to mark soul music.

But during the '60s these overlapping genres separated over more defined racial lines. The hybrid rock ‘n’ roll became rock, known for several new features, as author Maureen Mahon explains in her essay, "African Americans and Rock ‘n’ Roll":

Performers began to write their own material, and the subject matter expanded as references to cars and love were complemented by poetic commentaries on politics and everyday life. Musicians began focusing on producing albums intended to make conceptual and artistic statements, and rock became a site of authentic self-expression. […] White artists and fans dominated the scene, and the majority of young African Americans focused on soul music.

Alongside these developments, and with the rise of the Black Power Movement, soul music became known as an extension of concepts of black pride and self-determination. So soul, too, was racialized, not only for its artists' ideologies but also because of the genre’s stylistic features derived from black gospel music.

To be sure, black rock musicians--including Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, and Arthur Lee of the group Love--as well as white soul musicians--including instrumentalists in the racially integrated bands playing on recordings of singers like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett--existed during the '60s. Further complicating matters, in the late '60s and early '70s, soul musicians like Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield recorded the kinds of concept albums associated with white rock artists. These contradictions could potentially render meaningless the categories of white and black music, especially given that the history of American music is interracial, as authors like Ronald Radano have argued.

However, the two genres were largely viewed and marketed as produced by and for separate races. As Mahon writes, "By the end of the 1960s, rock was in place as a white youth-oriented form distinct from its parent rock ‘n’ roll. With few exceptions, black men and women were confined to the clearly demarcated field of black music". This perception of rock as white and soul as black continues today in music historiography, including in rock history textbooks’ descriptions of some artists. In particular, descriptions of the Beatles and Bob Dylan, exemplify how various texts construct whites as helping turn rock ‘n’ roll music into "art". For soul, James Brown and Aretha Franklin are routinely listed as the most important figures of the era’s music, not only in these textbooks but also in works by critics and historians like Nelson George, Craig Werner, and Cornel West.

Five rock history textbooks were found that contain language opposing rock and soul artists as white and black. They arguably exist on a spectrum from the most problematic and racist (Joe Stuessy and Scott Lipscomb’s Rock and Roll: Its History and Stylistic Development and Paul Friedlander and Peter Miller’s Rock & Roll: A Social History) to the most progressive and anti-racist texts (John Covach’s What’s That Sound? An Introduction to Rock and Its History) with two sources mixing both problematic and progressive descriptions (Michael Campbell with James Brody's Rock & Roll: An Introduction and Katherine Charlton's Rock Music Styles: A History)

Stuessy and Lipscomb’s text contains at least one arguably racist and incorrect construction opposing rock and soul, especially supported in descriptions of the Beatles and James Brown: rock is more complex, while soul is simpler. Words the authors use to highlight the Beatles’ impact include "revolutionary”, "innovative", "authentic" and "experimentation", and though the authors give Bob Dylan a much shorter section within one chapter, "Folk Music and Folk Rock", they sometimes describe Dylan in similar terms, including "revolutionary".

To be fair, many critics and historians have made such claims, which seem benign on the surface. But contrasting the language here to that ascribed to soul music illuminates the opposition between complexity and simplicity. In the chapter, "Soul and Motown", some descriptions are fair, including saying Aretha Franklin "has a remarkable range", but others, specifically for James Brown, are just plain wrong. For example, a statement like "Brown’s songs are among the simplest and most basic in all of popular music" may hold true for Brown’s melodies, but it ignores the complex interlocking rhythms present in much of Brown’s most acclaimed work. While Stuessy and Lipscomb go on to call Brown’s style "percussively rhythmic", in the same sentence they characterize it once again as "simplified [and] repetitive". So despite its undeniable significance for many African-Americans, at least Brown’s music does not earn the language of value that the authors ascribe to the Beatles' and Dylan's music, when one could reasonably claim that Brown's music was revolutionary, innovative, and so forth, but for its rhythmic, not melodic, content.

While Ronald Radano, unlike other ethnomusicologists like Portia K. Maultsby, legitimately questions the idea that rhythmic complexity is an inherent feature of African-American music, the authors' construction of Brown's music is arguably still racist because it reads Brown's music as less complex than, and therefore inferior to, that of the Beatles and Dylan. An alternative construction could highlight both genres as complex, but with rock as more complex melodically and soul as more complex rhythmically. Such an alternative would not set up a binary of value, with one genre valued over, while still acknowledging the undeniable differences between rock and soul artists.

In Rock & Roll: A Social History, Paul Friedlander (with Peter Miller writing the chapters on music after the '80s) sets up an opposition that might not seem a racist construction of value, but is one nonetheless: specifically, rock is intellectual and of the mind, while soul is emotional and of the body. While based on some correct ideas--after all, the music of Franklin and Brown undeniably contains strong emotions--this construction subtly mirrors racist ideas of whites' superiority over blacks, as extended into music constructed as white and black.

Although Friedlander's text does not contain such overtly racist language as philosopher George Wilmelm Friedrich Hegel's infamous writings arguing that blacks are "dominated by passion" and by irrational "savagery and lawlessness", Friedlander constructs soul music as more physical and less rational than rock. In the lengthy chapter on the Beatles Friedlander, like Stuessy and Lipscomb, highlights the group’s originality and innovative experimentation. The construction that "[t]he Beatles enabled the discussion of rock and roll as art" is in play. In the chapter on Dylan, Friedlander stresses Dylan’s original and influential lyrics: "His fusion of the folk/protest heritage with abstract lyrical style had an extraordinary impact on the form and content of 1960s folk and rock music".

And again, this language seems benign, but contrast these ideas with the language characterizing soul music artists: Brown’s "flamboyant and acrobatic physical moves" and "the raw emotionality of his vocal style, focus on rhythm, and physicality in performing" emphasize soul as of the body more than the mind while not acknowledging the innovative experimentation--to name one characteristic for which Friedlander praises the Beatles--Brown incorporated into this "focus on rhythm". So once again, Brown’s music is not given the constructions of value that the Beatles and Dylan are given. Additionally, Friedlander, however accurately, notes the "explosive, soaring, passionate vocals" in Franklin’s music but without constructing it as possessing the same level of value as the Beatles’ and Dylan’s music.

So while soul does contain emotion and physicality, the lack of value assigned to soul in relation to such traits is why I object to these descriptions. An alternative would be to posit that rock is of the mind, while soul is of the mind and body: soul artists did make emotional music but also were involved in processes seen as of the mind, including rhythmic experimentation in Brown's work. This alternative does not value either genre more than the other and seems accurate when applied to the Beatles and Dylan and to Brown and Franklin.

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