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This powerful book covers the vast and various terrain of African American music, from bebop to hip-hop. Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr., begins with an absorbing account of his own musical experiences with family and friends on the South Side of Chicago, evoking Sunday-morning worship services, family gatherings with food and dancing, and jam sessions at local nightclubs. This lays the foundation for a brilliant discussion of how musical meaning emerges in the private and communal realms of lived experience and how African American music has shaped and reflected identities in the black community. Deeply informed by Ramsey's experience as an accomplished musician, a sophisticated cultural theorist, and an enthusiast brought up in the community he discusses, Race Music explores the global influence and popularity of African American music, its social relevance, and key questions regarding its interpretation and criticism.
Beginning with jazz, rhythm and blues, and gospel, this book demonstrates that while each genre of music is distinct—possessing its own conventions, performance practices, and formal qualities—each is also grounded in similar techniques and conceptual frameworks identified with African American musical traditions. Ramsey provides vivid glimpses of the careers of Dinah Washington, Louis Jordan, Dizzy Gillespie, Cootie Williams, and Mahalia Jackson, among others, to show how the social changes of the 1940s elicited an Afro-modernism that inspired much of the music and culture that followed.
Race Music illustrates how, by transcending the boundaries between genres, black communities bridged generational divides and passed down knowledge of musical forms and styles. It also considers how the discourse of soul music contributed to the vibrant social climate of the Black Power Era. Multilayered and masterfully written, Race Music provides a dynamic framework for rethinking the many facets of African American music and the ethnocentric energy that infused its creation.
Toward a Cultural Poetics of Race Music
History, because it is an intellectual and secular production, calls for analysis and criticism. Memory installs remembrance within the sacred; history, always prosaic, releases it again. Memory is blind to all but the group it binds.... There are as many memories as there are groups.... Memory is by nature multiple and yet specific; collective, plural, and yet individual. History, on the other hand, belongs to everyone and to no one, whence its claim to universal authority. Pierre Nora, "Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire"
Cultural memory, obviously a subjective concept, seems to be connected with cultural forms-in the present case, music, where the "memory" drives the music and the music drives memory. Samuel A. Floyd, Jr., The Power of Black Music
In the summer of 1999, Stevie Wonder's hit recording "I Wish" from two decades earlier provided the rhythm track to a rap recording by the ubiquitous entertainer Will "the Fresh Prince" Smith. The recording, a single from the soundtrack of the film Wild, Wild West (based on a 1960s television show), features Smith rapping and the soulful vocals of Sisqo, formerly the lead singer of the hip-hop/R&B group Drew Hill. While the film Wild, Wild West drew mixed reviews and proved only moderately successful, the single itself was a smash hit, without doubt bolstering interest in the movie. Smith's gesture to revive "I Wish" in this setting speaks to more than the tune's enduring appeal. History and memory are embedded in the original song-in both its musical and its lyrical qualities and in its connection to a film about a television show from the past, which was, in turn, about a key moment in America's past.
Wonder's "I Wish" first appeared in a special double-album project titled Songs in the Key of Life (1976). Contemporaneous audiences, historians, and critics have viewed Songs in the Key of Life as groundbreaking on a number of levels. Recorded on the conservative and historically important Motown label, Wonder's project (and his other early- to mid-1970s work) has been heralded for helping to expand the company's formal and formulaic approach to hit making. Moreover, Wonder's explicitly expressed cultural nationalism represented a thematic departure from his earlier body of love songs. Along with Donny Hathaway, Gil Scott Heron, and Marvin Gaye, among others, Wonder has been credited with introducing a political element into 1970s black popular music that had not been seen before. What is more, Wonder's music "crossed over" into the pop market, won critical acclaim and numerous Grammys during this period, and at the same time earned him a "progressive" artistic reputation.
For all of the reputed progressive orientation of Songs in the Key of Life, it produced hit singles, among them "I Wish." Wonder cast the musical language of "I Wish" in a remarkably "nonprogressive" mold. Most of the recording features a heavy funk backbeat under a nonlinear chord progression (E-flat minor to A-flat 7). Despite the repetitious quality of this harmonic setup, "I Wish" propels itself forward on the foundation of a symmetrical, "straight eighths" walking bass pattern. The chords and bass movement "take it back home," sounding very much as though they were straight out of a black Sanctified Church shout-the time in the worship service reserved for ecstatic religious dancing and the visitation of the Holy Ghost. Wonder's ever-towering tenor vocals add another layer of gospel-infused excitement to the performance. The theme of the song does not convey political sentiments in the traditional sense. It expresses, rather, a nostalgic (though not saccharine) reflection on a poor and presumably black childhood: the "joy" of unanswered Christmas wish lists, boyhood pranks, spending Sunday school money on candy, playing "doctor with that girl," and schooldays discipline.
Wonder's new "political" profile, as evidenced by Songs in the Key of Life (and his other projects from this period), was clearly of its historical moment. He wanted his work to be relevant to his Black Power movement era audience, stating as early as 1973 that "we as a people are not interested in 'baby, baby' songs any more." Wonder wrote from his vantage point as an adult composer, choosing the modes of history, memory, and his meditations on the contemporary moment to make profound musical statements that, despite their specificity, spoke to the hearts and musical sensibilities of a very diverse audience base.
My brief discussion of this piece shows how it participated within a historically specific, socially grounded dialogue between a film and a recording, an artist and his audience, three decades, several musical genres, commercial and political interests, "folk," mass, and art discourses, sacred and secular sensibilities, and history and memory. All of these dialogues (and undoubtedly others that I have not mentioned) help audiences to generate and perceive meaning in this music. This book is my attempt to identify and explore some of the ways in which meaning is achieved in various styles of African American music.
Boiled down to its essence, the central question addressed here is, How does the music under consideration work as discourses and signifying practices at specific historical moments? I discuss several post-World War II musical genres, including jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues, and their stylistic progeny. As my title suggests, I call these musical styles race music. I have grouped these various styles under this rubric because, while each is certainly distinct, possessing its own conventions, performance practices, and formal qualities, they are yet grounded in similar techniques and conceptual frameworks identified with African American musical traditions. Most of the genres were historically marketed and mass mediated in the culture industry as "race records."
My use of the term race music intentionally seeks to recapture some of the historical ethnocentric energy that circulated in these styles, even as they appealed to many listeners throughout America and abroad. The concept "race" is recognized in most academic circles as a "fiction" and social construction and has become almost reviled in today's cultural criticism. But the word at one time represented a kind of positive self-identification among African Americans. The black press routinely used "the Race," for example, as a generic term for African Americans during the first half of the twentieth century. Furthermore, calling oneself or being referred to as a race man or race woman became a way to display pride in being an African American and in having efficacy in the affairs of one's immediate community. I use the word race in these senses, not to embrace a naive position of racial essentialism, but as an attempt to convey the worldviews of cultural actors from a specific historical moment.
I weave through a number of theoretical, methodological, and intellectual concerns in this study: ethnographic perspectives, historicism, cultural memory, practice theory, and self-reflexivity, among other tools that I use to engage musical analysis, interpretation, and criticism. Taken together, they cluster into three broad modes of investigation: history, memory, and theory. Before elaborating on these various investigative modes, I want to proceed by recounting some of my own experiences with black music.
I have several reasons for including the following information in this context. The musical autobiography sketched below brings into high relief some of the theoretical and intellectual points that I will explore throughout the book. As an African American scholar and musician, I believe there is value in exploring the historical grounding of my own musical profile and revealing this to readers. The family narrative and the other cultural spaces that I discuss highlight a cultural sensibility that has undoubtedly shaped my critical approach as much as, if not more than, any academic theory has. Moreover, they provide a window of interpretation that allows me to enter into some important ideas about the cultural work performed by music in the processes of African American identity making.
I call these kinds of spaces community theaters. These community theaters or, perhaps better, sites of cultural memory include but are not limited to cinema, family narratives and histories, the church, the social dance, the nightclub, the skating rink, and even literature, or the "theater of the literary." The communal rituals in the church and the underdocumented house party culture, the intergenerational exchange of musical habits and appreciation, the importance of dance and the centrality of the celebratory black body, the always-already oral declamation in each tableau, the irreverent attitude toward the boundaries set by musical marketing categories, the same intensive, inventive, and joyful engagement with both mass-mediated texts and live music making, the private performances of class-status and gender, the fusion of northern and southern performance codes, the memories of food, sights, smells, and the ritualized spaces of what the old folks called drylongso, or everyday blackness. All these combine to form living photographs, rich pools of experiences, and a cultural poetics upon which theoretical and analytical principles can be based. By recounting these experiences in detail, I hope to give some idea about how I learned that music possesses a power, in particular, the power to mean something important about the world around me.
My earliest recollections of African American music stem from childhood. My father's immediate family was raised during the 1920s and 1930s in the "black belt" of Chicago's South Side. The neighborhood was home to many important cultural institutions such as the Regal Theater and Chicago's Savoy Ballroom. My relatives were music lovers, and jazz held an important place in their collective musical tastes. As I recall, a variety of music-jump blues, rhythm and blues, soul, and jazz-accompanied virtually every family gathering. Soul food and, most important, dance were central to these events and charged each with an air of communal celebration in which everyone-the young and the not-so-young-eagerly participated. The musical foreground of these celebrations (and of our everyday lives) comprised a broad selection of black vernacular music. We paid equal attention to contemporary and "dusty" artists: Louis Jordan, Sarah Vaughan, Cannonball Adderley, Count Basie, the Supremes, Charlie Parker, Aretha Franklin, Dizzy Gillespie, Otis Redding, Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington, James Brown, Oscar Peterson, the Four Tops, Dakota Staton, Dexter Gordon, Archie Bell and the Drells, and Joe Williams, among many others. Suave jazz aficionados, Motown-minded teenagers, blues stompers, and weekend gospel rockers partied cheek to jowl to these various styles.
And we did party. I've used this word as a verb twice, and it deserves some explanation. Everyone understands what a party is, but "to party" in this particular context means something quite specific. On a designated weekend, my father's brothers and sisters, together with their numerous offspring, would crowd into our house. His sisters, Ethel, Doris, and Inez, all small women under five feet tall, commanded the most attention. The word jazzy comes to mind when describing them: strong, shapely women, each adorned with hair colored somewhere from reddish-brown to downright what-you-looking-at red. "Hey, ba-a-a-a-a-by," they'd croon in that informal but hip Chi-town drawl, planting polite kisses on every familiar mouth present. The brothers, Earl, W.J., and Russell, and their families completed the picture. These men were not as demonstrative as the women, at least not until the drinking and the music stepped up a notch or two. The Ramsey brothers played the spoons, and they played them better when the party had hit its stride. Spooning consisted of holding two spoons on either side of the index finger of both hands so that the bowls could click together, back-to-back, in a polyrhythmic flurry. Flexibility, timing, and stylized facial contortions separated "wannabes" from the real article. My father, Guthrie Sr., was the resident spoon virtuoso. Once the flow of recorded music had hit a sufficiently upbeat groove, somebody would rush from the kitchen with the necessary supplies. And then the show would begin. He-e-e-e-e-y now! Hand clapping, foot patting, finger snapping, neck popping, shoulder shrugging, hip-rolling, pah-tee-in'!
Not that the Ramseys necessarily needed anybody else's help in the entertainment department, but on occasion, we would pay our neighbor, little Vernon Glenn, to come "do the James Brown" for the guests. Coffee tables and throw rugs were tossed aside, and "Stinky," as we called him, would go to work. Slipping and sliding across the floor on both feet, lifting one foot up and having the other dash energetically from side to side like a washing machine agitator, and then putting an exclamation point on his routine with a fake split on the downbeat. A kitchen full of food and drink, rise-n-fly bid whist, poker, loud music, jivin' and signifyin', laughing, and dancing completed the agenda. Whenever this scene and its beloved cast of familiar characters shuttled through our front door, my chest would fill with a breath-gripping anticipation. We knew we were going to have a ball.
Some of my earliest musical memories also include those from the Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, which my immediate family attended in the mid-1960s. No matter what the temperature happened to be outside, it was always hotter within the confines of its tiny, shoebox-shaped sanctuary. The volcanic baritone voice and percussive piano accompaniments of Arbry, the church's musician, were the conduits for the spark of Holy Ghost fire each week. His gale-force rendition of the hymn "We've Come This Far by Faith" would electrify our swaying congregation, whose hand clapping, foot stomping, and other kinetic stirrings offered sacrifices of praise to God, efficiently burning the fuel of the Sunday morning breakfast of grits, gravy, spicy Mississippi sausage, bright yellow scrambled eggs, and biscuits soaked with butter and thick Alaga syrup.
Excerpted from Race Music by Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr. Copyright © 2003 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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List of Illustrations
1. Daddy’s Second Line: Toward a Cultural Poetics of Race Music
2. Disciplining Black Music: On History, Memory, and Contemporary Theories
3. "It’s Just the Blues": Race, Entertainment, and the Blues Muse
4. "It Just Stays with Me All of the Time": Collective Memory, Community Theater, and the Ethnographic Truth
5. "We Called Ourselves Modern": Race Music and the Politics and Practice of Afro-Modernism at Midcentury
6. "Goin’ to Chicago": Memories, Histories, and a Little Bit of Soul
7. Scoring a Black Nation: Music, Film, and Identity in the Age of Hip-Hop
8. "Santa Claus Ain’t Got Nothing on This!": Hip-Hop Hybridity and the Black Church Muse
Epilogue: "Do You Want It on Your Black-Eyed Peas?"