Good Ol’ American Soul

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In a dimly lit back corner of Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame, a television interview with Ray Charles plays on loop. His is an unexpected face among the other inductees. The museum’s walls pop with tributes to such country giants as The Carter Family, Hank Williams, Garth Brooks, and Dolly Parton. Yet, the Ray Charles exhibit somehow gets its own floor. Not bad for an R&B singer.

In that back corner of his floor, Charles talks about his love for country music and about the impact of his hugely successful album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (1962); how he famously spurned the advice of his label, cut the record, and became one of the most successful crossover acts in history. In between his signature “ya dig”s and “groovy baby”s, Charles, in his trademark sunglasses and dark suit, defends his actions with a statement as epic as his album. “See, there’s only two types of music in this world: good music and bad music.” His label couldn’t have guessed that Modern Sounds would stay number one on the Billboard charts for twelve straight weeks and take home a Grammy. But Ray, you’re an R&B singer; they’re not going to buy a country album from an R&B singer. The suits are right, they wont buy it. Unless, of course, it’s good.

What is it, then, that separates good music from bad music? What did Ray Charles know that the suits didn’t? What makes that first grainy back porch recording of Muddy Waters so damn good? Or a meandering Miles Davis album? Or even a Lou Reed record made with metal pipes? There are any number of explanations. The music makes you tap your foot, hits you in the gut, makes you think, changes your perspective, and so on. But, there is a more simple, one word explanation that I prefer: soul.

Good music is soul music. Not soul as in the “soul music” genre but soul as in someone pouring his soul into his music. To differentiate good from bad all a listener has to do (and we all do this intuitively) is ask himself, Is the music an expression of an artist’s soul? and, more importantly, Does this song make a connection with my soul (does it evoke strong emotion, make me tap my foot, hit me in the gut)? This definition also helps understand why people enjoy noise music or electronic music which, to some (read: me), might sound terrible. One man’s trash is another man’s soul music.

While many artists who produce great music are geniuses, soul doesn’t necessarily have to be related to musical ability. Artists like Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Yes, and Steely Dan are all supremely talented but their music lacks soul. Artists like the Ramones or Nirvana might not have had exceptional technical ability and yet they produced some great, soulful music.

Soulless music produced by talented artists tends to draw from a different tradition than soulful music does. The work of artists like Vai, Satriani, Steely Dan, Yes, and even Frank Zappa tends to be focused on elaborate orchestration and technical proficiency. Somewhere in the sheet music and arrangements the soul of the music tends to get lost. Brian Wilson’s genius was not in his ability to arrange but rather in his ability to preserve the painful soul of his music in his complex arrangements. There are hundreds of beautifully arranged and orchestrated Zappa songs but they lack soul, draw more from the classical tradition than they do from the folk tradition, and are as much high-brow art as the work of any European composer.

Music in the folk tradition comes from a very different, older place. Folk music has always been around. Presumably it grew out of a need for entertainment among people who had little else. For thousands of years, people have sat around fires at the end of a day’s work to tell stories, entertain, and, most importantly, to relate to one another. The music at these gatherings was, at its heart, the bearing of one soul to another. The classical tradition, however, is one of aristocracy and manners. It is grand concert halls, velvet seats, chandeliers, and pomp. The music can still elevate the soul, but it is much less likely to be about relating to another person than is folk music. The elaboration, the ornamentation, the instrumentation, the sheer size of the performance, all serve to pull the listener away from the people playing it. In its defense, classical music is, at its best, heavenly. But, it is never earthly. There is no dirt in classical music, no grit, no human bonding, or shared experience. It is music that the common man cannot possibly relate to except in the way he relates to the abstract (i.e. the notion of God). Folk music is real. Folk music is people connecting with people. Folk music is soul.

Those of us in love with American music know how rich and important the country’s folk tradition is. Historically, it is really the only American musical tradition (I include religious music in this folk tradition since it is performed by common people relating to others). From the very birth of the nation, Americans have rejected the pomp and aristocracy of old Europe. This includes classical music, the music of the rich. The classical music tradition, while always present, was never truly American. The country is just too new.

Being so multicultural has also helped promote the folk tradition. With so many waves of laboring immigrants America was not only an ethnic melting pot, but also a musical melting pot. Irish, German, British, Russian, African, Caribbean, Asian, and Latin American people have all had a hand in developing American music. Without these immigrants, there would be no Chuck Berry, no Elvis, no Bob Dylan. The songs that these immigrants and their children sang around the campfire or in a social hall, or in a cotton field, or in a church choir are the foundations of American music. They are the beginnings of the Blues, Jazz, Gospel, Bluegrass, Zydeco, Country, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Punk, Funk, and Rap. These wonderful, distinctly American musical styles are all folk music in one way or another. They arose out of a need to connect with others on a human level and all reach deep into the American history and consciousness.

While more recently the suits have told us that the music industry is dying and that good music has all but disappeared, what the suits don’t know is the same thing they didn’t know in 1962 when Ray Charles wanted to cut a country record: that at its heart, American music is not about ornamentation, instrumentation, or packaging, it is about uniting soul with soul. As long as there are people coming home after a day’s work wanting to share experiences and connect with one another, American music will continue onward in its uniquely wonderful folk tradition.


Written by JustJake

March 28, 2008 at 10:17 am

2 Responses

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  1. […] and, not coincidentally, where you’ll usually find the best American soul music (see idk. post Good Ol’ American Soul for a definition) in any given […]

  2. […] a whole, Mudcrutch is a tour through the last sixty years of American soul music. While the album is not without its faults, the few throwaway tracks are outnumbered by the wealth […]

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