Songs in the Key of Life

The Meaning of Soul: Black Music and Resilience since the 1960s BY Emily J. Lordi. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 232 pages. $25.

The cover of The Meaning of Soul: Black Music and Resilience since the 1960s

IN AUGUST 1969, the Billboard “Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles” chart was rechristened “Best Selling Soul Singles.” A new type of music had emerged, “the most meaningful development within the broad mass music market within the last decade,” according to the magazine. The genre mystified much of the mainstream press. Publications like Time announced soul music’s birth one year earlier as if it were a phenomenon worthy of both awe and condescension. Its June 1968 issue featured Aretha Franklin as its cover star and called the music “a homely distillation of everybody’s daily portion of pain and joy.” Franklin was “a chunky, 5 foot 5 in girl” who sang with “gritty conviction.” Her ability to keep a crowd on its feet was attributed to the personal losses she had endured: Franklin’s mother left the family when she was six and died just before she turned ten; by fourteen, Franklin herself would become a mother. According to this reasoning, soul music was not art so much as an unrefined expression of hardship. In The Meaning of Soul, Emily J. Lordi addresses these misapprehensions by creating a genealogy of the music through close listening and a thorough review of the contemporary literature, much of it written by Black journalists and critics. “A broader misremembering of the civil rights and Black Power movements” has skewed soul music’s history, she writes, arguing that it was more heterogenous and more imaginative than it’s been given credit for. In Lordi’s sophisticated and perceptive rendering, “soul logic” encompasses “the term’s racial-political meanings,” and also reflects a “kind of virtuosic survivorship” made manifest in the details of the music.

Misreadings of the music have often been based on everything but the music. In Lordi’s estimation, “the aesthetics of soul” have been undertheorized, with many critics placing it in a vaguely political context that deemphasizes the musical choices and inventiveness of well-trained artists like Franklin or Nina Simone. In a similar vein, a younger generation of “post-soul” scholars have critiqued the music’s apparent shortcomings—its lack of patience with unorthodox notions of Blackness, its heterosexism and reverence for masculinity. Working against the masculinization of Black history, Lordi insists that women and queer people were central to the creation and performance of soul music from the beginning. If there is a unifying theme in her books, articles, and essays, it is an interest and sincere belief in the breadth of Black expressive culture, exemplified by the left-of-center virtuosity of artists like singer-songwriter Donny Hathaway or poets Nikki Giovanni and Lucille Clifton.

In The Meaning of Soul, Lordi uses a method of close listening “grounded in a moment-to-moment description of what is happening” in the songs. This means that wails and moans and scats and the intricacies of stage performances are texts that can be mined for meaning. When James Brown falls to his knees an astounding five times during a performance of “Please, Please, Please,” he is enacting the collective Black resilience soul artists labored to conjure. When Ann Peebles slips into a falsetto on the word “rain” during the skittery chorus of her 1973 hit “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” it “is an inside thing, a memory thing,” Lordi writes, with Peebles expressing a “cool interiority.” Here and elsewhere, soul’s connection to gospel is palpable, partly because its main practitioners, including Peebles, Brown, and Franklin, all trained in the church. “To go back in any historical (or emotional) line of ascent in Black music leads us inevitably to religion, i.e., spirit worship,” Amiri Baraka (writing as LeRoi Jones) observes in his 1966 essay “The Changing Same.” He suggests that the energy of devotion remained constant in the new music, even as the markers of religion fell away. During the 1960s, the same cultural forces that shaped soul—the movement for civil rights in the South; the uprisings in the North, Midwest, and West Coast; the built-up despair of centuries of battles and losses—also influenced jazz players. Out of bebop came soul jazz or post-bop, which leaned back into the blues and gospel that influenced the music’s first waves of innovation. Soul groups borrowed mightily from jazz: the musicians themselves, the instrumentation, and a hunger for improvisation. And the architects of rhythm and blues, like Little Richard and Esquerita, lent their rhythmic sense, dynamism, and vocal style to the “new” music.

Minnie Riperton, ca. 1970.
Minnie Riperton, ca. 1970.

With welcoming prose that belies its density, The Meaning of Soul focuses on ostensibly unconventional creative choices: soul singers’ covers of songs written by white artists; ad-libs, improvisations, and mistakes; the uses of falsetto and the “false endings” that trickle throughout the oeuvres of many Black artists. She is attentive to the significant contributions of the female architects of the genre. Simone, who trained as a classical pianist and earned the moniker “High Priestess of Soul,” is a key figure in Lordi’s retelling, as is Minnie Riperton, who first became well known as the lead singer of the psychedelic funk outfit Rotary Connection. Their cover of Franklin’s “Respect” (which had been usurped from Otis Redding, the writer of its lyrics) sounds fresh and avant-garde, less an anthem than a cooing negotiation between lovers. Lordi feminizes and queers soul, which, through my eyes, appears true to life. The dancing aunties at barbecues, the choir directors at church, the music instructor who taught me “Green Onions” on the recorder in fifth grade—almost all of my most important musical influences were women and gay men.

FOLLOWING THE WORK of legendary Black journalists Phyl Garland and Clayton Riley, Lordi gives a deft, concise accounting of soul music’s political and social milieu. From the beginning, “soul was fundamentally linked to black solidarity,” she writes, “to the kind of togetherness forged under siege.” Lordi tells this story of Black resilience by foregrounding the ways the personal, the political, and the idiosyncratic were expressed through musical craft. She complicates the notion of “soul-era politics” by emphasizing the collectivist spirit of mutual aid that animated the culture. As she writes:

I do not claim that soul songs provided perfect models of togetherness, but I do think that the logic of soul, as a force of group encouragement, offers a crucial alternative to our current state of personal and political atomization. By seeing soul’s complex beauty as a site of alternative futures, I refute suggestions from all quarters that what we have now—post-soul, the neoliberal hustle, the carceral state, electoral politics—is the best we could possibly get. Soul-era visionaries worked for and imagined more.

Soul strengthened communal bonds, assuring people that “even their most chilling experiences of grief did not isolate them but rather connected them.”

In “Love Poem (For Real)” from her debut collection, Black Feeling, Black Talk/Black Judgement, published in 1968, Nikki Giovanni writes:

it’s so hard to love


who will die soon

the sixties have been one

long funeral day

the flag flew at half-mast

so frequently

seeing it up

i wondered what was wrong

It is difficult for me, a woman born to a woman who came of age in the 1960s, to fathom the losses of the era, though Giovanni’s poetry, and the music of the age, help. What was passed down was subtle, nonverbal, akin to the small moments Lordi draws out of the songs she examines. It hung in the air, quietly expressed in the chances my mother didn’t want me to take, in the sad fog hugging the buildings in a Memphis left vacant in the decade between King’s assassination and my own early years.

After King died, the doctrine of nonviolence made less sense. Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture), part of a new generation of movement leaders, first used the term “Black Power” in a speech in Greenwood, Mississippi, in June 1966, after civil-rights activist James Meredith was shot during “the March Against Fear,” a nonviolent voter-registration drive. The Black Arts Movement—a cultural corollary to the politics of Black nationalism—imagined an aesthetic that would venerate distinctly separate norms for Black art in a bid for creative self-determination. Soul music would animate, inspire, and fuel this hopeful vision. It was a balm during troubling times. “When poor black people were so desperate for national visibility that they set their own cities of fire,” Lordi writes, “the language and logic of soul served as flares of a different kind.”

Lordi insists that soul persists by connecting the past to artists of the present, including Flying Lotus, Solange, Beyoncé, and Janelle Monáe. All are students of the tradition, and all were, like me, born in the early to mid 1980s, amid the wreckage of the Reagan years and the retreat from the policies won via civil rights and Black Power–era organizing. Our parents and aunts and uncles were forged in that fire. Lordi calls these later-day soul savants Afropresentists, who “use the past as a resource for rethinking this world” and “figure the present as the yet unfulfilled future of a radical past.”

To that list I’d add Alabama-born Brittany Howard, whose single “Goat Head,” from her first solo record, Jaime, was released last year. Atop piano chords composed and performed by polymath Robert Glasper, Howard recounts a painful incident: while she was a child in Athens, her family found a severed, bloody goat head in the back seat of her father’s car, apparently placed there in protest of her parents’ mixed-race union. (She is the daughter of a Black father and a white mother.) For me, it is the incantation’s swing that conjures its power. It soothes the sting of the wound by digging into it—with a pursed lip, a side eye, a strut. Through song, the pain gives way to an elegant, self-assured cool.

Danielle A. Jackson is a writer and the managing editor of Oxford American.