Soul music was the unique moment of history in American music - its confluence of facets forms a body of music more complete than any other genre produced by our country. In its marriage of musical sophistication to the complete gamut of human experience, it is almost unique among American musical genres. To this day, it has done a better job than any other American music in marrying the best in recording technology to the most individual and emotionally committed performers, and both to the best songwriters and lyricists and the most sophisticated musical arrangers. It marked the first true era of reconciliation and redress between white and black cultures, and marks the first time when the extraordinary musical culture of American Blacks were backed by the full might, support, expense, and hired talent of a recording industry controlled almost entirely by Whites. The result was a music which married the old world sophistication of European composition to the brave new world of American immediacy and improvisation, and both to furthering the emerging influence of the African musical roots that would come to dominate world music as the twentieth century progressed to the same extent which Europe dominated the nineteenth. All of Soul Music’s various facets synthesize in a fusion which mirrors the best of the democracy which produced the genre. It is the climax, the apex, and the ambassador for everything which American musicians are capable of achieving. It is the most American music there has ever been, and perhaps will ever be.
Not all soul music is created equal, and lots of it has all the same problems as the rest of the 1950’s and early 60’s musical genres - solid musical values, sometimes extraordinary ones, married to total vapidity; bad lyrics, sappy romantic sentiments, the desire for a commercial hit trumping the desire to create something meaningful. There is plenty by Ray Charles and James Brown which does not deserve to be heard again. Much of their second rate music can be amazingly fun and beautiful, and occasionally brilliantly inventive, but if mere fun and beauty and novelty is what people want from music, there’s plenty of music from their own eras which speak better to their experience. If you want to find what’s eternal in this music, you have to separate what might be forgettable from what’s truly unforgettable. If you want to understand why Soul Music is everything to America, here is a mere pebble in the pool of why that is.
You Are My Sunshine - If you want to understand the importance of Soul Music to America, start right here. You Are My Sunshine, that innocent children’s song, was written by Jimmie Davis - a country music singer and a virulently segregationist governor of Louisiana. Ray Charles takes that white bread melody and with fistfuls of dominant and diminished chords, he makes the song into something completely black - existing in a waystation between big band, gospel, Motown and the blues. Using a purely musical language, it is perhaps the most subversive cover in American musical history.
What’d I Say: If I have one complaint about any form of ‘popular music’, it is the obsession with sex. I know, I know, I’m a total stick in the mud. But sex is the primary signifier of vapidity in popular culture. If a musician feels the need in his songs to resort to incessant talk about love or sex, or selling a watered down version of romance that has nothing to do with the real thing, it’s an almost guaranteed indicator that a musician has nothing more profound to offer the world. It is no different than how classical musicians can create the most boring music in the world and can then slap a religious title on it and be lauded for their 'profundity' and 'depth.' But if you’re going to talk about sex in music, really talk about it. Don’t prettify it with romantic emotions which are completely divorced from anyone’s actual experience of love, lust, and loss. For various reasons, other Ray Charles songs get close to erotic realities too ((Night Time is) the Right Time, Hallelujah I Love Her So, Hit the Road Jack being prominent examples). But What’d I Say is unique among Ray Charles songs, in many ways unique among anything written until the day it was released. It was the first American song which actually traffics in the genuine sounds of sex. For perhaps the first time ever and the only time during the 1950’s, Americans could hear the sounds of fucking on the radio.
Unchain My Heart: So many American lyrics, particularly in the mid-20th century, traffic in euphemism. It’s probable that 90% of the euphemisms are very simple: they’re employed to disguise extremely sexual images in the terms of innocent love. But Soul Music brings an entirely different dynamic to that equation - what seems flippant and shallow at first glance contains far more depths to fathom. Unchain My Heart, in addition to having two of the most gripping hooks in the American popular tradition, has the metaphor of a heart in chains. Hailing as he did from Georgia, Ray Charles would have to view the image of chains as a very, very loaded symbol. Is this about an unfeeling woman in a bad affair, or is this about a region where the shackles of oppression still control people’s lives if not their legal states-of-being; a region that may have freed slaves in name, but not in deed? It’s entirely possible that the song is precisely as shallow as it seems on the surface, but I would stake a claim that this music alludes to something much deeper, and much more troubling.
Drown in My Own Tears: Moreso than perhaps any other nationality, one of the great qualities of American music is the seemingly effortless ability so many of its greatest exemplars have to skirt the line between comedy and tragedy. Other nationalities have their few, Austria has Mozart, Russia has Stravinsky, France has Jacques Brel, Britain has The Beatles, and America has dozens for every one of theirs. This ability is a simple question of taste and time. If there is such a thing as a national character, then it’s clearly not in American temperament to commit too much to any emotional extreme - and our music reflects that. Other countries view the ability to unquestioningly follow their primal instincts as a virtue, but we are (or at least we were) a nation which views apathy as something approaching our most cherished value. Music, at least in its written form, was the playground of obsessives who pursued their craft to the limits of infinity, and went through many corresponding periods of over-the-top expression that reflected the unbalanced obsessions of its creators. But with the development of recorded technology, music requires far less technical accomplishment to be powerful, and perhaps it is far more reflective of the way life is lived as a result. Life is not quite tragic, not quite comic or perhaps it is both all of the time. But so much of the Great American Music exists in precisely that state. And what you feel from this music is a Rorschach test of wherever on the emotional spectrum you’re feeling at the moment you’re listening to it. Drown in My Own Tears contains some of the most extravagantly emotional depictions of loss ever put on pen. The lyrics themselves are not particularly memorable, though perhaps the line “I sit and cry/just like a child/my pouring tears/are running wild/if you don’t think/you’ll be home soon/I guess I’ll drown, oh yes, in my own tears.” can’t help but make us wonder if this song is not in fact about the younger brother who's drowning Ray witnessed as a child. But what makes this song extraordinary is its major-key understatement. Yes, it’s clearly a sad song, but it sounds more nostalgic than tragic, and is not nearly as sad-sounding as such a sentiment would warrant, but it’s all the more moving for it.
Busted: I can’t lie, this is easily my all-time favorite Ray Charles song - another song which effortlessly glides the tragicomic line, and yet does so much more. Anyone would instantly relate to this song who’s ever been broke, or couldn’t live up to their responsibilities to those they love. It is an ultimate example of music endowing dignity to the lives of people who most desperately need it. There is something defiant about it, as though for all the indignities life has in store, we should, we must, we will nonetheless, keep marching forward, and celebrate in pure E-flat major brass glory. All it takes is two minutes, and within that tiny framework this song shows us a vision of life as it perhaps truly is; something full of heartache and humiliation, loss and misery, squalor and torpor, and yet still something exquisitely beautiful.
Seven Spanish Angels: There is a huge metaphorical resonance to this duet between Ray and Willie Nelson - perhaps the ultimate ambassador of White Southern Music. Is this song a romantic ballad about a violent Bonnie-and-Clydesque death of two lovers at the hands of evil men, or is the conjuration intentional which this song brings of a decision which hundreds if not thousands of widows who’d recently watched their husbands murdered by Klansmen had to make in the century before this duet was recorded? On the one hand, it is a glamorized view of death, romanticizing the idea of a glorious death in a way that’s slightly quease-inducing. On the other hand, the song is all too redolent of a decision which many women probably had to make after they watched their loved ones murdered in cold blood.
Georgia On My Mind: And finally we come to Georgia On My Mind, probably THE Ray Charles song in the mind of most people, and certainly the emotional heart of his output. There are two different sentiments that can be interpolated from this overexposed yet never too exposed simple song. The first is more obvious, the longing we all have for home and inner peace. Most people find that the further they grow from their origins, the more they long to go back. But there’s another sentiment made in this song that is far more challenging. Like You Are My Sunshine, there is a definite and important statement being made in this song. Georgia, the heart of slavery, is a place not only just as valued by its black population as its white one as a homeland, but also a place cherished for its beauties and consolations by a people whose history in the state is a litany of misery. It is a message of both liberty and of equality. It is the message of Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come (which was probably modeled on Georgia On My Mind much more than Blowin’ in the Wind as Sam Cooke claimed), of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land, of dozens of American hymns and spirituals both black and white, and even the message of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. And that message is the ultimate message of music: that all humans have a right to cherish the same things, that dignity is universal, that he who oppresses his fellow man is oppressing his brother (and sister), and that no law which separates can prevent them from feeling love.