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

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.

Rock: White / Soul: Black

Campbell and Brody’s Rock & Roll: An Introduction and Charlton’s Rock Music Styles: A History can be located in between the most racist and the most anti-racist because of their mix between problematic and progressive ideas. In the former, Campbell and Brody admirably avoid traps into which other textbooks fall: for example, the authors acknowledge the racialized musical differences between ’60s rock and soul, while giving artists like Bob Dylan and James Brown similar constructions of value. However, the text engages in problematic language of “race-transcending”, setting up a racialized problematic opposition between rock and soul: rock rarely needed to transcend race, while soul often needed to transcend race.

The text easily separates itself from others by acknowledging the role of race in the emerging differences between rock and soul in the ’60s. In the chapter, “Black Music in the Sixties: Motown and Soul”, the authors write,

Black music charted musical paths that were different from (mostly) white rock…. [primarily because of] the strong gospel tradition… the increasing distinction between rock and roll and rhythm and blues… not only because of the gospel influence in the singing, but also because of differences in rhythm, instrumentation… and texture. … [and] the artistic control of a few key producers.

Passages like this present a far more insightful reading of differences between rock and soul than, for example, Stuessy and Lipscomb’s text, where not only do the authors barely discuss race, but also, as noted, James Brown’s recordings are mischaracterized as less complex than those of various rock artists. In fact, Campbell and Brody gratifyingly assign similar constructions of value for the Beatles and Dylan as those for Brown and Franklin. In the chapter on the Beatles and Dylan, subtitled “Making Rock Matter”, the authors use words like “original” and “originality”; “extraordinarily diverse”; “innovation”; “influential”; exhibiting a wide “range” of styles; “invested [rock] with the kind of significance associated with high art” and with “artistic stature”; and “culturally significant”. In the abovementioned chapter on “Black Music in the Sixties”, the authors use language for Brown and Franklin like “one of the great artists in the history of popular music”; “expressive range”; “original” and “originality”; and “individuality” and “profoundly influential”, while noting essential differences in rhythm and texture in contrast to other popular music.

However, the authors use problematic language of “race-transcending” in particular for soul: although Campbell and Brody assert, “Rock blurred the musical, social, racial, geographical boundaries that it inherited from earlier generations”, the authors apply the far majority of the text’s language regarding transcending barrier of race and racism to soul. Just a few examples do not approximate how often this language appears: “[B]lack popular music had just about shed the racial stigma that it had carried for generations”; “[Soul music often] dealt with the subjects that so often transcended race: love, won and lost, and the good and bad times that resulted”; and “At least while [young people of all races] listened to it, race no longer mattered, except in a good way”.

The problem with these passages is chiefly the simplistic, though perhaps common, assumptions on which the language is based. However, while other false assumptions appear in the text, two are especially worth analyzing: (a) white responses to soul music did not involve racism; and (b) transcending race was a worthwhile goal for black artists.

The former ignores the racism that white audiences sometimes employed in enjoying soul music. Not only was white appropriation of soul music rampant, but as scholar Brian Ward argues, “the racial stigma” to which Campbell and Brody refer remained, although it had shifted: instead of demonizing black music for reflecting blacks’ supposed hyper-sexuality, white fans romanticized black music, admiring what they viewed as connoting “sexual freedom, sensual pleasures, and a sheer expressiveness which was apparently unmediated by mental process or moral conscience”, once again reducing black music to problematic caricatures.

Also, with the latter, Campbell and Brody clearly are not referring to the kind of “race-transcending” that a black intellectual like Cornel West praises when he argues that this transcendence involves acknowledging race while not letting it limit visions for change. Instead, this textbook sees the “colorblind” effacing of race as an ideal to which black artists strove. This idea again acknowledges neither the impossibility of ignoring racial barriers–even as the US government enacted civil rights legislation–nor the problems integration created, such as greater community fragmentation.

Regarding these examples, an alternative, less problematic method to talk about race in popular music of the ’60s would be to explore how neither rock nor soul transcended race and how the rise of rock related to white identities and contexts, as well as soul for blacks. Another textbook–although a general American popular music history survey, rather than one of specifically rock history–that explores how race related to white as well as to black music models this approach: Reebee Garofalo’s Rockin’ Out: Popular Music in the USA writes of how white British artists, including the Beatles, related to developments in African American civil rights and popular music and how the psychedelic rock counterculture related to whites’ desire for “alternatives to middle-class life”. This analysis avoids the problematic assumptions Campbell and Brody use while acknowledging the role of race in the popular music of the’60s.

Another text that engages in a mix of both problematic and progressive descriptions is Katherine Charlton’s Rock Music Styles: A History. Charlton uses the following oppositions: rock focuses on studio recordings, while soul focuses on live concerts; and rock is of the mind, while soul is of the body, already seen in Friedlander’s text. The former construction is arguably more progressive because it acknowledges racialized musical differences without valuing either genre over the other. Regarding rock’s focus on studio recording, Charlton writes of the Beatles’ use of “experimental musique concrète techniques” in producing their 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Brown’s concerts are described as a focal point for understanding Brown’s career, albeit problematically: relating to the latter opposition, Charlton mirrors Friedlander’s text by characterizing soul as of the body by emphasizing Brown’s “wild stage act, which involved rhythmic dance steps, leg splits, and drops to his knees”. Still, the former opposition acknowledges differences between rock and soul and their artists’ foci on different creative venues (studio or live) without valuing either genre in particular. Elsewhere in the text, Charlton uses language like “creativity” and “entirely new” for the Beatles and Dylan to signal the intellectual aspects of rock while not acknowledging the creative elements of soul, including Brown’s rhythmic innovations. Therefore, the text arguably engages in a mix of problematic and progressive constructions of value in its text, and I again recommend as an alternative focusing on the blended dichotomy of mind and body in soul music.

Finally, in the most progressive textbook–John Covach’s What’s That Sound? An Introduction to Rock and Its History–Covach gives rock and soul similar constructions of value while using one previously seen opposition–rock focuses on studio recordings, while soul focuses on live concerts–that does not value rock over soul. The best indication that Covach values rock and soul equally is a passage where he both acknowledges James Brown’s unique place in soul and compare Brown to rock icons of the ’60s, rare in most other rock history textbooks:

“Unlike most of the artists discussed in this chapter [“Motown Pop and Southern Soul”], James Brown exerted almost total control over his music from early on. […] In his artistic and music independence, he parallels Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles, who also won significant control over their music and careers during the 1960s.”

Though the author points out that Brown is different than other soul artists of the time, Covach makes a powerful analogy from which other textbook authors and historians could learn plenty. While describing Brown’s overall career, rather than particular recordings (which Covach does in other passages), the author highlights a point of similarity between a soul giant and ’60s rock artists while elsewhere acknowledging differences between the artists: for example, Brown’s “tight rhythmic grooves” or the Beatles’ focus on “the album as opposed to the single” are not explicitly tied to only rock or soul, but these examples still position these artists’ uniqueness without valuing either genre in particular.

In addition, the opposition of rock artists focusing on studio recordings and soul artists focusing on live concerts values neither genre more than the other. Covach writes that the Beatles’ experimentation in the studio “established a model for the rock musician as recording artist”, while Brown’s physicality–his live performances “featured his athletic dancing and the famous closing routine in which he is led off stage exhausted, only to vault back into the spotlight with fresh energy” –is noted without discounting his musical complexity. This arguably blends the dichotomy of mind and body that both Friedlander and Charlton could strive to achieve.

These findings can apply to areas outside of rock history textbooks: for example, texts of music criticism and interpretive history, while more obviously coded with value judgments, can also reproduce racist ideologies while supposedly praising both rock and soul. In one example, Time magazine’s list of The All-TIME 100 Albums praises albums from the Beatles and Dylan noting their respective stylistic ranges, while writing of Franklin’s album Lady Soul: “The singing here isn’t technically perfect–the roots of what would become Franklin’s unwavering campaign of melody obliteration are evident–unless we’re speaking emotionally, in which case there’s not a wrong note”. Language like this perpetuates ideas seen in rock history textbooks, including that rock is intellectual and of the mind while soul is emotional and of the body.

At the same time, recent historical accounts like Elijah Wald’s How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music propose fantastic alternatives to the canon-reflecting work of some rock history textbooks by focusing on what mass audiences actually listened to, rather than what a few critics and historians find most important. Similarly, Garofalo’s aforementioned textbook, Rockin’ Out: Popular Music in the USA, offers a more inclusive, anti-racist version of popular music history before and after the ’60s. So the possibilities extend far beyond those offered here.

However, more drastic alternative methods, found outside of conventional textbooks, exist to teach how constructions of race affected music of the ’60s. For example, in critical book and journal articles authors like American Studies specialist Barry Shank and ethnomusicologist Ronald Radano explore the roles of whites in constructing what is considered white or black music.

Shank’s article on Dylan’s relation to strategies of blackface minstrelsy, in the early folk years of his career, implies significant questions for music historians to unpack: coud Shank’s argument extend into the rock of the Beatles and Dylan as well, with the role of minstrelsy similarly important for rock’s construction as white, separate from earlier rock ‘n’ roll? And Radano’s essay, on how white colonial writers constructed rhythm as a key characteristic of black music, implies equally significant questions: were Brown’s rhythmic innovations seen as part of a distinctly black musical tradition that actually was constructed largely by whites? Both essays call into question how race as a construction separately labeled rock as white and soul as black without a biological or essential basis. That in itself posits more radical alternatives than anything most textbooks have imagined.

Joshua Friedberg is a passionate music historian, fan, singer, songwriter, and sometime radio DJ. He graduated in 2016 with a Master’s in English Literature and Culture from Northeastern Illinois University. You can follow him on Facebook here.