Across the Great Divide
Quentin Tarantino’s film Jackie Brown begins, to quote the script, with “the rhythms of funky seventies SOUL MUSIC.” The title character, a middle-aged black woman, glides slowly through a busy airport, as Bobby Womack sings on the soundtrack:
Across 110th Street, pimps trying to catch a woman that’s weak
Across 110th Street, pushers won’t let the junkie go free.
Across 110th Street, woman trying to catch a trick on the street.
Across 110th Street, you can find it all in the street
The film was released in 1997, but everything about the scene seems to echo the blaxploitation movies of the early ’70s. The woman is played by Pam Grier, star of Coffy, Foxy Brown, and similar pictures of the period. The music comes from Across 110th Street, another low-budget ghetto flick. The scene is set in Los Angeles, and the song is set in Harlem. Nothing about the sequence suggests the American South, unless you distort the term beyond recognition by roping in southern California.Nothing, that is, except the voice in that funky seventies song. Womack was born in Cleveland, but his family’s roots are in Virginia and his music often draws on sources even closer to the Gulf of Mexico. He started his career singing southern gospel music, he played guitar for the Mississippi-born soul pioneer Sam Cooke, and he recorded much of his most memorable work in Memphis, Tennessee, and Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Put that Jackie Brown soundtrack on the stereo, and listen to the way Womack drawls the line “Been down so long, getting up didn’t cross my mind.” Suddenly it’s easy to imagine him shifting directly from a funk workout like “Across 110th Street” to a country-music standard. Indeed, on one album—1974’s Looking for a Love Again—he did shift directly from a funk workout (“Don’t Let Me Down”) to a country-music standard (“Copper Kettle”). In 1976 he even released a full-fledged country LP, titled B.W. Goes C and W.
In Say it One Time for the Brokenhearted, a detailed survey of the porous boundary between country and soul, the British journalist Barney Hoskyns reports that B.W. Goes C and W was almost released under the title Black in the Saddle Again. Some other names might have been under consideration, too: Womack once told an interviewer that he wanted to call it Step Aside, Charley Pride, Give Another Nigger a Try. “The drugs were taking over,” he added.
Cocaine might explain the record’s rejected title, but there was a more honorable rationale for the record itself. “I was very sincere about that album,” Womack told Hoskyns, “but people categorize you and they say wha—? But country and western is my roots, it’s deeply rooted in all my songs and lyrics. My people come from the hills of Virginia and played a lot of it.”
* * *
In the 1960s, the two giants of soul music were Motown and Stax, independent record labels based in Detroit and Memphis, respectively. Motown’s music usually had a poppy, polished sheen, while Stax had more grit and grits; the producer Jerry Wexler once declared that Motown made music for white middle-class teenagers while Stax made music for black proletarian adults.
Yet Motown was owned and operated by blacks, while Stax was initially owned by whites—cofounder Jim Stewart got his start as a country fiddler. Stax’s stars were all black, but the musicians playing behind them could be either black or white. And those black proletarian adults weren’t the only people in its fan base: Many whites bought records by Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, or Booker T. and the MGs.
Stax was the premiere label for southern soul music, sometimes called deep soul. It’s a genre whose identity was defined by region at least as much as it was defined by race. Drawing on gospel, blues, and country, it had many outposts besides Memphis, each with a distinctly local sound. Nashville, New Orleans, Houston, Macon: Each produced its own music. Shreveport alone gets six pages in Hoskyns’s tome.
And then there was Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the home of FAME Studios and the one town that seriously challenged Memphis’ claim to be the capital of southern soul. The cultural historian Charles Hughes once summed up Muscle Shoals’ music as “White rhythm sections combined with integrated horn sections to play on songs by primarily white songwriters sung by black artists, for sale primarily to black audiences (by white-owned record companies)”—all made in the deep South in the ’60s and ’70s, a time associated more with racial tension than racial harmony.
To hear the most instantly recognizable encapsulation of the Muscle Shoals sound, listen to Aretha Franklin’s first and best hit, 1967’s “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You).” Franklin was born in Memphis but raised in Buffalo and Detroit, and her first few albums had been cut in a “sophisticated” pop style. Then she traveled to Alabama to record some songs at FAME. “I Never Loved a Man” is slow and earthy; compared to the slick sheen of the Supremes and other northern Motown acts, it sounds bluesy, funky . . . black. But most of the musicians you’re hearing are white.
Hoskyns details the intricate, intimate ways the black and white elements came together in Muscle Shoals: “discreet but rock-hard bass . . . a sharp, precise snare beat, and a variety of country-style fills on keyboard and guitar”; where a country band would use a steel guitar, the Muscle Shoals musicians added an organ instead. The influences reflected not just the studio’s racial mix but the town’s geographic location. Keyboardist Barry Beckett told Hoskyns that he and his colleagues “were tied in a kind of triangle that stretched from New Orleans to Memphis to Nashville.”
* * *
There was one more important ingredient: the radio. Where blacks and whites could not always mingle socially, they could still hear each other’s music on the air. The South bred a generation of black singers who liked country music and white players who loved gospel and the blues. For years they had been influencing each other: Before Elvis Presley was mixing hillbilly music with R&B, Texas Swing bands were crossing hoedowns with big-band jazz; before then Jimmie Rodgers, sometimes called the father of country music, was as comfortable drawing on New Orleans jazz and the 12-bar blues as he was singing ballads about trains and tuberculosis.
But now the old social hierarchies were being sanded away, and those blacks and whites who had always cocked an ear toward the music on the other side of the tracks were able to interact as peers. The result was the sonic equivalent of the logo adopted by one of the less famous offshoots of the ’60s New Left, the Southern Student Organizing Committee: black and white hands clasped over a Confederate flag.
It was awkward and difficult, and it didn’t always work. Franklin herself fled northwards after cutting just two songs at FAME, swearing she’d never return. That reflected the region, too—though of course you could find such tensions in the North and West as well.
Jackie Brown, written and directed by a Tennessee transplant to Los Angeles, is a crime movie, but it’s also a love story; a white bail bondsman and a black flight attendant fall into a romance that’s doomed to fail. Along the way, the white man starts listening to his girlfriend’s favorite music. The film’s most memorable line comes when another black character, played by Samuel Jackson, reacts with surprise to a song playing in the white man’s car: “I didn’t know you liked the Delfonics.” Not many people remember the flip side of that scene: Jackson sitting alone in his own car, listening to Johnny Cash. Music forges links even when other connections break down.
The country-soul and country-funk fusion of the ‘60s and ‘70s dissipated, and southern music seemed to move in other directions; records that once seemed to express something happening now became fodder for record collectors, European journalists, and crate-digging DJs. But you can’t eliminate the past that easily. Rap in particular has been able to sample and absorb virtually any form of music, southern soul included.
Hip hop is also the form of pop most interested in place. In the hands of the rappers, that had meant a horde of boring records about the east side players’ plans to beat up the west side boys and vice versa. But sometimes there’s more to the lyrics than that. Consider “My Old Kentucky Home”—not the old Stephen Foster number, but a folky collaboration between the black rappers Nappy Roots and the white rap-rock-country band the Villebillies:
I was born here, raised here
When I leave here, bury my grave here
Until then I’ma ride and drink liquor,
Blow Swishers, sit back, collect my thoughts by the river
I’m a bluegrass CEO cat
Tryin’ to get my young homies out the projects
Better still, there’s the Bama Boyz’ rap rendition of “Sweet Home Alabama.” It’s built around samples from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s country-rock anthem of the ‘70s, but the lyrics are almost entirely new. “In Birmingham they love the governor” is gone; so, alas, is “Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers / And they’ve been known to pick a song or two.” Instead we get this: “Ain’t nobody speakin’ proper grammar ‘round here / It’s deep, but the sound is clear.”
The sound won’t be clear if you’re trying to file it in a conventional CD store: It’s rap, rock, and country all at once, with traces of blues and that “funky seventies SOUL MUSIC” that Tarantino loved. But why get bogged down in conventional genre labels? The sound is clear. It’s the sound of Alabama, black and white.
Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason magazine and author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).
Posted: November 29, 2008
A Return to the Thought-Murders