Rock and Roll Book Club: 'The Meaning of Soul: Black Music and Resilience Since the 1960s'

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Emily J. Lordi's 'The Meaning of Soul.'
Emily J. Lordi's 'The Meaning of Soul.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

What is soul? "Soul is Black," said Aretha Franklin, and of course the Queen's word must be considered the last — but, as Emily J. Lordi notes in The Meaning of Soul, "that did not mean either soul or blackness was rigidly defined."

Lordi's fascinating new book traces the history and contours of soul, and soul music — similar, but not synonymous — over the past six decades. Concise but dense at 217 pages, The Meaning of Soul (buy now) isn't a history of soul per se, but rather an exploration what it is that "soul" connotes. Understanding soul, she argues, means appreciating its diversity, and in particular the ways in which Black women have been at soul's forefront from the beginning.

The term "soul" was first applied to music, she notes, in the early 1960s, when artists and audiences began using the term "soul-jazz" to describe a gospel-influenced form of jazz distinct from the more detached, experimental sound of "cool jazz." Throughout the '60s, "soul" gained traction as a descriptor of an intangible quality possessed by African Americans generally and Black music specifically. It gained visibility during the uprisings of mid-decade, as phrases like "soul brother" appeared on storefronts to indicate Black-owned businesses asking to be spared violence.

By 1968, James Brown had gone from "the King of Rhythm and Blues" to "Soul Brother #1." In 1969; Billboard renamed its R&B chart the "soul chart." The late '60s and the early '70s became what's now considered the classic soul era, with artists like Brown, Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, and Al Green releasing signature bodies of work that epitomized the soul sound: vocal and instrumental performances that brought the passion and profundity of gospel into a secular context, anchored in the Black American experience.

So, soul is Black. The central chapters of Lordi's book explore four key aspects of her thesis that soul is fundamentally the expression of Black resilience, "a capacious narrative of black overcoming." The author's focus on that core meaning of soul, she argues, helps to transcend canonical definitions of the genre that have too often treated soul as a mystical quality possessed by only transcendent (and too often, in the history books and record shelves, male) artists — or, alternately, as a purely political schema in which the purest expressions of soul are those most explicitly calling for racial justice.

She also pushes back against scholars and critics who valorize the neo-soul movement (in musical terms, think Erykah Badu, D'Angelo, Lauryn Hill) as one that corrected the patriarchal tendencies of classic soul. One can celebrate neo-soul, she argues, while also making time to revisit the classic soul era and recognize the ways that artists like Franklin, Knight, and Simone were always woven into its fabric.

In chapters on covers, ad-libs, falsettos, and false endings, Lordi takes close listens to songs ranging from foundational (Ann Peebles's understated "I Can't Stand the Rain," in the falsetto chapter) to contemporary classics (Solange's "Cranes in the Sky," which begins in falsetto). She notes the ways in which the otherworldly sound of falsetto can express withdrawal or climax, a sense of pushing the limits of voice and singer; how ad-libs emphasize community, conversation, and improvisation; and how false endings (including James Brown's legendary cape act) remind listeners that it isn't over 'til it's over.

The covers chapter is particularly fascinating, given a musical landscape that often valorizes original songs and their performance as the purest forms of artistic expression. Through cover versions, Lordi argues, Black singers demonstrate how the technique, innovation, and power of soul "parlay cultural displacement into a claim to multiple musical traditions." Whatever your favorite song might be, odds are a soul singer could improve it.

She cites two examples from the catalog of the Queen. "If Franklin covered your song," Lordi writes, "it was often because she was coming for you." The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" was anything but a soul song in its original version, but Aretha turned it inside out, singing "I'm Eleanor Rigby!" at the opening of her version. Suddenly all the lonely people seem a lot lonelier on the other side of the Atlantic.

"Bridge Over Troubled Water," on the other hand, seems like a case where the original performance, by Art Garfunkel, was practically a pit stop en route to Aretha's version. (Songwriter Paul Simon, who's said he was thinking of Franklin when he wrote it, knew this well.) As Lordi points out, Franklin takes the core narrative about one individual being there for another and turns it into an intimate seed cradled by an expansive musical community. Backing singers get a major role, and Franklin brings the song to church in a multitude of other ways — including putting her piano solo not in the middle, were pop tradition would put it, but at the beginning, where the gospel tradition would put it. Gospel was the song's origin, Lordi writes, and Franklin made gospel its definition as well. Now that's soul.

For all its treatment of adversity, soul music is often easy to listen to; the author pointedly observes that for white people today, classic soul can provide a way to acknowledge African American music while harking back to a more comfortable (for white ears) era when Black artists didn't dominate the landscape of popular music they way they do today.

In unpacking the many dimensions of soul, Lordi gives us new tools for appreciating not only new music from artists like Beyoncé and Janelle Monáe, but helps us see the present through the eyes of the past. The Afrofuturist movement imagined (and, in its current incarnations, imagines) the future through an Afrocentric lens; Lordi writes that she prefers an "Afropresentist" lens, in which we recognize that the present is "the yet unfulfilled future of a radical past."

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

February 11: The Big Life of Little Richard by Marc Ribowsky (buy now)

February 18: Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll by Maureen Mahon (buy now)

February 25: This Thing Called Life: Prince's Odyssey On + Off the Record by Neal Karlen (buy now)

March 4: Nobody Ever Asked Me About the Girls: Women, Music and Fame by Lisa Robinson


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