Addressing a gathering of black DJs in Atlanta in 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: "In a real sense you have paved the way for social and political change by creating a powerful, cultural bridge between black and white.... You introduced youth to that music and created a language of soul and promoted the dances which now sweep across race, class and nation." "That music" was rhythm and blues, and Brian Ward uses King's quote to further the premise of his fascinating book, Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness, and Race Relations: that the music moved not only the feet of listeners, but their hearts and minds as well.
But as with nearly anything associated with race relations in the U.S., there is a flip side to this record, and Ward offers ample evidence that suggests R&B also served to reinforce white stereotypes of blacks and promoted continued segregation. As he points out, many of the same white fans who packed venues to see Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin never supported the notion of equal rights or integration. In other words, entertainment was fine as long as it didn't challenge the status quo. It is precisely this lack of acceptance--combined with the snail's pace of civil rights legislation--that led to the emergence of the Black Power movement and the concurrent rise of funk and soul, the self-consciously inclusive offspring of R&B originally geared specifically for black audiences. Of course, the fact that James Brown's "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" or Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" carried undeniably political messages for blacks didn't mean the average white music fan couldn't "get up, get into it and get involved." Ward's insistence on this point clearly suggests, despite his attempt at objectivity, that he believes the music made a difference.
Ward's coverage of R&B stretches from the release of the Chords' single "Sh-Boom" in 1954 through the mid-1970s, so it is far from a complete history of the genre, but his work is to be applauded for both its ambition and enthusiasm. Though his theorizing may wear thin at times, Just My Soul Responding is exhaustively researched (the notes and sources stretch nearly 100 pages) and packed with the kind of anecdotes that music lovers will savor. Particularly adept coverage of Chuck Berry, James Brown, Parliament-Funkadelic, Motown founder Berry Gordy, and the roles of many other prominent artists who either supported and avoided the civil rights cause stand out as some of the book's highlights. In all, a rousing hybrid of history, social commentary, and the literate liner notes of an ardent fan. --Shawn Carkonen [via]