It’s Been Beautiful: ‘Soul!’ and Black Power Television

Iconic chair-smashings helped shape the identity of the Soul! television program, while also alluding to the civil disobedience of the late '60s and early '70s.

Excerpted from Chapter Three of It’s Been Beautiful: Soul! and Black Power Television by Gayle Wald, © 2015, and reprinted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.

“More Meaningful Than a Three-Hour Lecture”

The producer of Soul!, Ellis Haizlip, began the episode with a brief montage of some of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s more visually fantastic musical feats, followed by a ten-minute interview to establish the basic outlines of Kirk’s biography and his approach to playing. In this way, viewers learned of the musician’s disability, the accommodations he was forced to make for sighted people who misunderstood his “not seeing too well” (the phrase Kirk preferred to “blind”), and his related interest in novel ways of producing sound, including ones that used unconventional body parts like the nose.

At one point during their interview, Haizlip prompted Kirk to discuss the importance of the audience to musical performance, eliciting an answer that effectively validated the show’s own investments in representing music as a collective practice that blurred the boundary between musicians and auditors. When Haizlip asked Kirk whether he thought it possible “for an audience to create anything that in turn forces you to create as you’re performing,” Kirk affirmed that the audience indeed played “a big part” in his work, and he went on to compare his best concerts to “beautiful revival meetings at churches,” at which the people “get so wound up in the music they speak in other tongues.” Defending a religious practice (glossolalia) often disparaged as merely for show — a bit like his own unconventional approach to playing, which some musicians accused of being gimmicky and self-promoting — Kirk challenged black audiences to allow themselves to be moved by music. “Black people have been so psyched out from our music that we don’t want to let ourselves go anywhere,” he told Haizlip.

3.6. Rahsaan Roland Kirk blowing several horns and once on the
Soul! episode devoted to his music, October 1972.
Copyright ©Chester A. Higgins Jr. All rights reserved.

The concert that followed the interview bore out Kirk’s ideal, echoing and amplifying Amiri Baraka’s notion of music as a transport to places outside the reach of racism and capitalism. This becomes evident about ten minutes into the concert, following the band’s rollicking instrumental version of the popular gospel song “Old Rugged Cross.” As the band segues into an extended vamp, Kirk — attired in maroon slacks and shirt, gold-rimmed sunglasses, and a black head wrap — suddenly stops playing and grabs a metal folding chair on which one of his horns has been resting. While blowing a whistle and occasionally banging a gong, he proceeds to pound the chair against the side of the tiny, carpeted stage, eliciting loud whoops, applause, and cheers of encouragement from the audience. When this pounding proves insufficient to destroy the chair, Kirk reaches for the satchel he wears to hold his instruments and opens a zippered front pocket to grab an object — perhaps a laminated badge — with which he attacks the red velvet seat cushion.

TV viewers see this spectacle unfolding from multiple points of view. One camera alternates between medium shots of Kirk with his band behind him and close-ups of the musician working feverishly to remove and destroy the cushion; another pans the audience from the back of the room to reveal Club Soul guests absorbed in the drama of the moment, including one young woman who seems to levitate, as if pulled by an invisible string, from her own folding chair. When Kirk finally manages to detach the cushion, there is an eruption of applause and cheers, and as he thrashes it against the stage and crushes it under his shoes, the audience rises to its feet. A jib-arm shot (from overhead) shows people leaning in to the stage, as Kirk — not yet finished with the chair and still whistling — disassembles the frame. When he has finished, he bangs the gong and then, turning to another pocket in his satchel, pulls out a conch shell, which he blows in triumph as the audience cheers again.

The power of Kirk’s chair act is enriched by its allusions to spectacles of rioting and rebellion familiar from the evening news. Accompanied by shrill whistle sounds that evoke the police, Kirk’s destruction of the folding chair is thus visually as well as sonically linked to contemporary black political protest and might indeed have registered with some viewers as a critique of civil rights strategies such as sit-ins. So effective was the chair act on television that Frank London, the Klezmatics trumpeter, recalled being a “twelve-year-old white kid from the suburbs” watching Kirk on Soul! and feeling “totally freaked out! I thought the suburbs would be burnin’ any day” — a description that nicely captures the ability of television to make its viewers forgetful of its mediation. Telling, too, in this context is London’s association of the destruction of the chair with burning and a specific fear that the white suburbs, not the black ghettos, are about to be set aflame. The faces of the studio audience members that the TV cameras briefly make visible on screen reveal a range of affective states, although fear is not apparent among them. Rather, there is amazement that Kirk is doing something so extreme, wonder that he is getting away with it (on national television!), intense absorption in the spectacle of the musician as he lets himself “go somewhere,” pleasurable identification with the enactment of powerful emotion and the spectacle of physical aggression, apprehension at what is happening and whether Kirk will finally triumph over the chair, and (as echoed in the faces of some of the band members, who clearly have witnessed such behavior before and know the score) amusement at the musician’s crazy behavior.

Putting aside the passage of time between the event and London’s recollection, it is interesting that he links Kirk’s destruction of the folding chair with the song “Blacknuss,” which followed it. London’s conflation of the two moments associates, quite correctly, I would argue, the destruction of the chair with the emergence of a new black identity — one that Kirk spells blacknuss. On the other hand, it forgets Kirk’s blowing of the conch shell, a makeshift instrument associated with the history of black marronage memoralized in Mingus’s “Haitian Fight Song” and in the famous 1968 bronze of the Haitian artist and architect Albert Mangonès, Le Nègre Marron, installed before the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince. In that sculpture, which survived the 2010 earthquake that struck the Haitian capital, a male figure can be seen breaking free of his shackles and, head tilted upward, blowing a conch shell.

In the context in which Kirk plays it, then, the conch is not merely another exotic instrument that the uncannily versatile performer can play, but a potent symbol and sounding of New World black rebellion and the musician’s role as a leader of social rebirth. The sound of the conch shell, announcing the completion of Kirk’s destructive task, is the call to assembly that makes the declaration of blacknuss possible. Like the ram’s horn blown on the Jewish Day of Atonement, it sonically symbolizes the people’s resolve to act as a collective. In the Soul! episode, it precedes a rousing singing of the lyrics to “Blacknuss,” in which the audience follows Kirk’s lead in spelling out, again and again, the new word that also symbolizes the world to come.

It is worth noting here that compared with home audio systems, most television sets in the 1960s and 1970s had rather poor sound quality. “Squeezed through a midrange mono speaker the size of an ashtray” is how Scott-Heron describes sound on tv in his memoir, The Last Holiday. The Kirk episode of Soul! addresses this problem through camerawork and direction that strive to create the feeling of being there, despite obvious sonic limitations. Indeed, the mediation of the television camera arguably renders the affective power of Kirk’s performance more immediate and more suspenseful than it might have been in a nightclub setting. Through close-ups that reveal beads of sweat on the musician’s forehead, the camera allows tv viewers to observe (or perhaps fetishize) the labor of Kirk’s task, picturing his body as engaged in a frenzy of pulling and tearing. Kirk and his band contribute to the illusion of liveness by not returning the camera’s gaze, and moments when the camera breaks away from the performer to look at the audience, or when its privileged sightline is blocked by a spectator rising from her chair, paradoxically reinforce this effect of realness. The suspense of the spectacle is amplified, moreover, by viewers’ knowledge that Kirk cannot see the chair, and by cultural stereotypes that render the visually impaired person feeble and ineffectual rather than physically powerful and aggressive. Kirk’s blindness also invites a reading of his extraordinary act as a bitter but perhaps triumphant commentary on the shameful rituals (such as those famously depicted in the “battle royal” scene early in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man) that set blindfolded black male contestants against each other for the pleasure of white spectators.

Simon Frith, a scholar of popular music, understands such strategies of visual representation, which are also hallmarks of documentary film, as particularly relevant to televised performances of rock — a genre characterized by its ideological and aesthetic investment in authenticity. A commercial medium that depends on absolute control over the image, often to the point of scripting liveness down to the quarter-minute, television would seem to pose challenges for rock that it does not pose for pop, with its unabashed celebration of surface. Rock “performers must seem authoritative, even as their impact is being created,” Frith writes. On television programs that convey the feeling of live concerts, “we must believe that the performers are presenting themselves, even as their presence is determined by technology, by lighting, amplification, sound balance, editing, etc.”

The Kirk episode of Soul! — in both the musician’s rock star antics and its visual strategies — productively complicate Frith’s account, putting a different spin on his argument about tv’s representation of popular music that, in terms of its own mythologies of realness, would seem to be opposed to tv’s artifice. (Here, jazz as a genre seems ideologically closer to rock than to pop.) For Frith, the best rock performances on television are those that paradoxically stage rock’s resistance to television. The chair act certainly qualifies as one such staging of resistance, yet there is an additional layer to Kirk’s performance, linked to the artist’s own activism around TV as an exclusionary tool of white European cultural hegemony. On Soul!, Kirk — denied access on account of race both to the mantle of rock and to the publicity of television — appropriates the cultural power of TV to render more broadly accessible the intimate spaces of black counterpublic performance, spaces where black genius, as well as black rage and black triumph, are abundantly on display. Whereas rock musicians in Frith’s account must perform their indifference to being on television in order to retain their authenticity as rockers, Kirk and his musical kin are burdened by the need to perform a critique of television’s indifference to their existence as musicians. As political theater, Kirk’s smashing of the chair thus stages not only generalized contempt for an oppressive society, like Pete Townshend’s destruction of his guitar on a famous 1967 Smothers Brothers episode that also saw Keith Moon’s botched detonation of his drum kit, but also very specific contempt for the structures that render black musicians selectively visible as entertainers but invisible as artists.

Moreover, Kirk’s chair act differs from Jimi Hendrix’s famous burning of his guitar at Monterey in 1967 or the Who’s theatrics in that it does not shore up normative masculinity — or, rather, it shores up masculinity, but in a manner that is related to blindness as a trope of feminized dependency. When male rock musicians torched, smashed, or otherwise attacked their guitars or drum kits in the 1960s and 1970s, they shattered norms of respectability while retaining, or even expanding, their claim to masculine authority as rock gods or guitar heroes. Through the destruction of an instrument, the male rock performer asserted his contempt for the laws governing property and value; in this sense, his act was also consistent with rock culture’s rejection of commodity culture, with its worship of dollars. In contrast, in attacking the chair on which his instruments rest rather than the instruments themselves, Kirk channels a disruptive energy more linked to the everyday and to acts of civil disobedience, including those associated with urban riots. Furthermore, in wrestling with the chair over the course of four long television minutes — the time it would have taken him and his band to play “My Cherie Amour” on Ed Sullivan — Kirk enacts a protracted and suspenseful ritual of destruction. Will he vanquish the metal folding chair? Or will it resist his efforts? When Kirk ultimately dismantles the chair, the audience’s standing ovation registers pleasure in the spectacle of his symbolic destruction of the old order, but also relief that his considerable mental and physical labors have paid off.

Splash image from the cover of It’s Been Beautiful, photograph by Chester Higgins.

Gayle Wald is Professor of English and American Studies at George Washington University. She is the author of Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in U.S. Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture.