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Souled American: The White Obsession with Black Music

Souled American: The White Obsession with Black Music

by Kevin Phinney

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From the first white performers who blackened their faces with burnt cork to contemporary rapper Eminem, whites have been fascinated with performing in the guise and style of African Americans. White America's obsession with black music spans centuries. That fixation is more than skin deep - it's a primordial itch of the psyche to dance like nobody's watching and sing


From the first white performers who blackened their faces with burnt cork to contemporary rapper Eminem, whites have been fascinated with performing in the guise and style of African Americans. White America's obsession with black music spans centuries. That fixation is more than skin deep - it's a primordial itch of the psyche to dance like nobody's watching and sing like no one else can hear. White Americans have long believed that no one sings or dances like the African Americans who were brought to this country at gunpoint. To envy the creative freedom of a race brought to America enslaved sets up a fascinating irony, and Souled American: How Black Music Transformed White Culture is an ambitious and comprehensive look at race relations in the United States as seen through the prism of music from slavery to the present.

Equal parts social history and pop culture, this book argues that no form of American music can be described accurately as ethnically pure, and fleshes out the tug-of-war between blacks and whites as they create, recreate, and claim each innovation in popular music.

Taking a thoughtful and thought-provoking look at how genres such as rock 'n' roll, rhythm 'n blues, jazz, blues, soul, country, and hip-hop emerged through changing times and the dynamic personalities that shaped them, author Kevin Phinney chronicles the history of American music through its succession of black and white composers, performers, and entrepreneurs who have stepped into the limelight with one set of rules in place and departed having transformed not only the music, but the structure of society as well. By using each era's greatest commercial successes as a roadmap, he connects the signposts of America's musical evolution and societal shifts into a panoramic whole.

Tracing a direct line from plantation field hollers to gangsta rap, Phinney explains how jazz sprang up in New Orleans when military band instruments were abandoned after the Civil War, how spirituals matured into gospel, and even how the teen idols of yesteryear forecast the paths of New Kids on the Block and Boyz II Men, who in turn ensured that bands like the Backstreet Boys would be million-selling superstars waiting to happen. In doing so, he carefully recreates each era to help readers understand how these cultural milestones occurred, what the participants felt about them at the time, and the ways they recombined to create the music of today-including work songs, spirituals, bebop, rock, soul, and rap.

Anecdoies are rich and plentiful as the focus shifts from slavery and blackface to jazz, the British Invasion, and the MTV generation. White and black artists speak candidly about sharing the limelight, with jazz great Art Blakey complaining that the only way a white musician can swing "is from a rope." Show business insider stories include Donny Osmond's recollection that he was ushered into the Osmond Brothers barbershop group in order to transform them into a white Jackson 5, and Stevie Ray Vaughan's belief that on the best nights, his band sounded "like niggas." Also contained are appreciations of unsung music icons, among them James Reese Europe, the black man behind the Fox Trot, the organizer of the first black musician's union in New York City, and the man credited with bringing jazz to the European continent as the leader of a World War I military band of combat heroes.

Meticulously researched, this book includes dozens of exclusive celebrity interviews, culminating in revealing perspectives and statements from such music luminaries as Artie Shaw, Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Little Richard, B.B. King, Sly Stone, Steve Cropper, Joe Cocker, Buddy Guy, Donny Osmond, Bill Withers, Eric Burdon, Donna Summer, Lyle Lovett, Chaka Khan, Jerry Wexler, George Clinton, David Byrne, Bonnie Raitt, Nile Rodgers, Beck, and members of groups ranging from Fats Walle's band, The Rhythm, to Motown's Supremes, Temptations, Four Tops, and Jackson 5, up through the Bee Gees, the Time, and beyond. Filmmakers John Landis (The Blues Brothers) and Ken Burns (JAZZ) join scholars, critics, deejays, veejays, and record executives to add their pieces to the 400-year-old puzzle. The emphasis throughout is not on sex and drugs, but on the inspirations for such memorable compositions as "Oh, Susannah," "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "Rhapsody in Blue," "My Funny Valentine," "Rock Around the Clock," "The Thrill Is Gone," and "The Real Slim Shady."

In the connections it makes and the conclusions it draws, Souled American stands well apart from most music books. Its goal is a search for significance rather than another chronology of names, dates, and chart positions. Illuminating rather than regurgitating, revealing rather than rehashing, the book keeps an eye on the present as even today, music and race continue to cast a shadow play over what we mean to each other and who we are as black and white Americans.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Texas journalist Phinney's first book traces the history of race relations as seen through commingling musical crossovers and a parade of personalities: from Al Jolson to Louis Jordan, Billie Holiday to Bonnie Raitt, Zip Coon to Pat Boone. This comprehensive coverage spans all genres, including blues, country, gospel, jazz, R&B, ragtime, rock and rap. With blackface minstrelsy, "whites opened a portal to their own hidden creative impulses," and Phinney explores this theme as he covers "white men in transparent blackface" (Eminem), "multi-culti chanteuses" (Mariah Carey) and "sepia Sinatras" (Johnny Mathis). Anecdotes abound, and many music history milestones punctuate Phinney's probing critical commentary. Analyzing Nat King Cole's singing style and how it made him "one of the first modern artists to `cross over' from black to white popularity," Phinney recounts how Cole, only months before the premiere of his 1956-1957 NBC television show, was assaulted onstage in Birmingham, Ala., by five white men. Phinney writes with verve and vitality, articulately charting hundreds of black and white intersections in this definitive roadmap to racial rhythms. 45 b&w photos. (Sept.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A near-encyclopedic study of black influence on American music. Musicians have always borrowed from their forebears, and white musicians have borrowed a hell of a lot from blacks. Not surprisingly, journalist Phinney suggests that this practice reflects institutionalized racism: "more often than not, blacks innovate/create and whites popularize/exploit until, finally, the trend breaks through to mass acceptance." Well, purists may note, blacks borrowed scales from Gypsy and Jewish music for the blues; true, says Phinney, each generation builds upon others, just as Cream invested Skip James's "I'm So Glad" with its own nuance. Yet no one would deny that blacks have been left wanting-in terms of both credit and remuneration-in their contribution to the evolution of music. The author convincingly writes that it was the introduction of rhythm into a once melody-dominated discipline that rests as one of the most significant contributions of blacks to the field. Beginning with ragtime, "rhythm has been gaining ground against melody in popular music until even the most vapid music reaches for a percussive flourish to make it danceable, convey urgency, or create drama." Phinney sharply chronicles a number of musical awakenings: from Billie Holiday to Frank Sinatra to Nat King Cole; Elvis amplifying the blackness, Pat Boone bleaching Little Richard white. A breathtaking amount of material is covered here: the ramifications of ragtime's unusual syncopation, the simple elasticity of the blues, Benny Goodman leaning on Fletcher Henderson, the female trailblazers of rap. And there are plenty of delicious anecdotes, such as the time Stevie Ray Vaughan asked musical idol Albert King to repay the moneyVaughan had loaned him. King responded: "Money? Money? Come on now, son. You know you owe me, don't you?" Rip-off artists abound, but others testified to their indebtedness, including the Beatles, the Stones and, for sure, Stevie Ray Vaughan, who never got his money and agreed that that was just fine. Not always pretty, but stirring nonetheless. (45 b&w photos)

Product Details

Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

Meet the Author

Kevin Phinney, an entertainment journalist based in Austin, has written for the Austin American-
Premiere magazine,
and the Hollywood Reporter. Currently, he is cohost of KGSRFM’s morning drive-time program, Kevin & Kevin.

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