Wednesday, May 19, 1999

This is how we do it

Reconsidering 40 years of great black music in the U.S.A.

Posted By on Wed, May 19, 1999 at 12:00 AM

Partly a compendium of biographical sketches, partly a social-political history of the last half of the 20th century in America and partly a consumer’s guide to recommended recordings, A Change is Gonna Come is a very detailed, heartfelt, sometimes inspirational and sometimes annoying book. It is, in its author’s words, "my attempt to help renew a process of healing that at times seems to have stopped dead." It’s nothing if not ambitious.

For Werner, social-political history is inextricably intertwined with music, and one can track the ebb and flow of the nation’s well-being – that is to say the ebb and flow of its race relations which, alongside economic injustice, are the heart and soul of American discontent – by listening to what’s been done on disc as much as by reading what’s been said in newspapers and books. Perhaps more so, since music has a privileged place in the public forum, a realm of its own where an emotional explicitness and subversive subterfuge can cut through the conventional wisdom of the day.

Werner makes this point early on by starting with black gospel music, a longtime haven of double meanings where "heaven is heaven but it’s also a seat on the bus," and the halcyon days of the civil rights movement embodied in the majestic and yearning sounds of Mahalia Jackson.

Werner is very good at keying in on symbolic personages. Sam Cooke becomes emblematic of the movement of "the gospel impulse" into the secular sphere, while the ambivalent figure of Berry Gordy, who combined the boldness of an innovator with the caution of an entrepreneur, represents the first successful marketing of an extended group of black performers for a largely white audience.

Although the story Werner is telling is too complicated to be related in a strictly linear fashion – there are intergenre connections to made, geographical peculiarities to be explicated – still, as the book slowly progresses through the decades, one’s sense of foreboding increases. In the ’60s, the music scene "offered a tantalizing promise of a world where blacks and whites could live together, work out their differences without changing who they are. But the glimpse proved fleeting." By the early ’70s, he senses in the music of Aretha Franklin – another acutely symbolic choice – "the feeling of a community still holding on ... but aware that the revolutionary moment may be slipping away."

By the ’80s, forget about it – the issue is no longer "revolution" but "survival" and race relations hit a new noncommunicating low, reflected in the isolated camps of punk and rap and by the escapist, wholly impractical, utopian visions of megastars like Madonna and Michael Jackson. Come the ’90s and there’s an air of "complaint, anger and insurmountable isolation"... and yet a few beats later he adds, "but the music of the ’90s told a different, more complex, and, finally, more hopeful story." Man, this guy really knows how to keep the faith.

But then Werner is a solid progressive with a voracious compassion and a wide-ranging ear – traits which, combined, make him a more interesting historian than critic. There are not many people who can kindly embrace Mahalia Jackson, Wu-Tang Clan, John Coltrane and Elvis Costello, and one wishes that there were a little more vinegar mixed in with his honeyed love of music, a little more sense of aesthetic dissatisfaction. He’s too generous a spirit to acknowledge that having a love of music involves listening to a lot of stuff which, not to put too fine a point on it, frankly blows.

But his catholic tastes are also what gives his book its breadth and depth. Only once did I wince, and that was when he retold the old story about how many of disco’s detractors were racist and/or anti-gay, a serious underemphasis on the alienating aspects of what was essentially a producer’s medium – as one pundit at the time said, "nobody ever daydreams about growing up and playing on a disco record."

And I spotted only one howler, when he called Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil (aka One Plus One) one of the director’s greatest films, a case of Werner’s musical and political interests clouding his cinematic judgement; and only one gaffe, when he attributed Coltrane’s "sheets of sound" style to his modal and free-form periods rather than to his hard bop one.

Werner is cautiously optimistic but not unreasonable. Toward the end of the book he writes, "it’s been a long road into and at least partway back from the abyss" and "there’s no evading the blues truth that, now and always, the outcome remains in doubt." It seems that few people, black or white, still believe in the redemptive power of music but, he adds, "our history’s still being lived. What it will be is up to us."

Even if you don’t entirely believe that – and I don’t – it’s good to know that there are some people who do.

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