Soul Music: Never has a genre been more aptly named. The descriptive is also the essence that makes the music what it is, and imbues it with such a powerful human, social and political force. And note that I use the active tense when describing it, even though the real sweet soul music is currently in short supply.
I believe to my soul again in the music that made me dance as a youth in a syncopated groove of colorblind love, liberation and celebration and even exaltation (soul music and its soul did come from -- as much the notion seems to scare too many leftists I know -- the church). I just finished watching Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story on PBS's Great Performances, and it is indeed a great documentary filled with great performances, along with meriting a slew of other descriptive terms of praise that range from the spiritual to the libidinal to the temporal.
And it also touches my intellect, though right now I'd rather swoon to the Otis Redding CD I pulled out right afterwards. It plays as I write this. I hear those horns tearing down walls, rhythms beating with both the real and proverbial syncopation of the human heart, and that voice -- oh, that voice and so many others that wailed, shouted, whispered and moaned to the world from the Stax studio in Memphis -- conveying volumes of essential information and feelings to me as Otis sings.
One feeling the story and the music of the record label known as Soulsville USA evokes is the same sensation that I felt as I read Taylor Branch's near-cinematic civil rights histories Parting The Waters and Pillar of Fire. It's a soulful sensation that touches everything from redemptive hope to bittersweet heartache to the love these arms of mine so crave. It's the message that tells us that no matter how hard or tough life, love and the times may be, the very fact that we are human and can feel might just make things better, even save us.
Soul music was the soundtrack to the times as they were a-changin' among the races in America. And Stax Records, as I was reminded in Respect Yourself, had an almost ironic congruency with the civil rights movement that was centered at Memphis's Lorraine Motel. It was where the integrated community of talents that wrote, played, sang and produced the music recorded by Stax could gather in then-segregated Memphis to hang, swim in its pool together and create in its rooms. It is also where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
Respect Yourself provides a musical and black business parallel to Branch's books as well as delicious snippets of the soundtrack to a time when some of America -- and enough of America -- felt that this nation and our world could be better, fairer and less racially divided, stratified and oppositional. Many of us had Dr. King's dream, and today it's all too easy to believe that the dream of some kind of heaven on Earth has died, just as MLK did and, a while later, also Stax Records.
One of my current occasional fascinations is reading the posts on the Rants and Raves page of Austin Craigslist, which embodies both the beauty and horror of free speech. Yet what also drives me away from it is the plethora of hate expressed there, especially racial hatred. We have come so far only to slip back to an awful place where we once were.
In my young days, soul music was not just a balm to such hatred but in fact a curative. And oh do we need it now.
Soul and its offspring funk still echo in the samples heard in rap music, which I shy away from condemning wholesale even though it is so infected today with violence, misogyny and worship of riches and flashy bling (and also places singing to the side). It still has its adherents in musical artists both black (Macy Grey being one of the best) and white (like Joss Stone and James Hunter), but I have yet to hear one who truly gets deep down in the groove and expresses the fullness of soul as it was back then.
But as I watched Respect Yourself, I couldn't help but feel an eternal power in the soul music from Stax Records that still resonates today, and even believe that it can live again as it did back then, much as the unique circumstances that birthed soul seem so remote and so much a part of its times that its close to impossible to imagine that it can happen again. But the music is there, ready to illuminate and inspire, and maybe, just maybe, someone (if not some and even many) will again create soul with the same spirit and, well, soul that can take us to the top of the mountain and over into that better place on the other side.
For information, including links to a free video podcast of Respect Yourself, see (pbs.org/wnet/gperf/).
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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