Everyone knows the image and the words. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr., wiped his brow in the August heat, challenged the salt-and-pepper crowd spread out before him to create a world where children will "not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Beamed by television from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado to Stone Mountain in Georgia, King's vision of interracial harmony called forth an unprecedented display of shared faith. For one day in 1963, America transcended its history and let freedom ring.
Like its defining snapshot at the March on Washington, the larger story of the freedom movement is familiar if not altogether accurate. Bearing its anthems of redemption down the streets of the civil rights-era South, the movement called out to America's conscience-and the country answered. Repudiating violence, King led the masses of the black South up from the shadows of slavery and segregation. Inspired by King's compelling moral vision, mainstream America heeded the call of King's allies, the Kennedys, and dismantled the barriers separating blacks from whites. Like Lincoln and JFK, King was rewarded for his struggle and his martyrdom with a hallowed place in the gallery of American heroes.
The images and the stories that go with them are so familiar they've lost their meaning. It's not that they're entirely false. King was an inspirational leader. For people of all colors committed to racial justice, the sixties were a time of hope. You could hear it in the music: in the freedom songs that soared high above and sunk deep within the hearts of the marchers at Selma and Montgomery; in the gospel inflections of Sam Cooke's teenage love songs; 'in Motown's self-proclaimed sound track for "young America"; in blue-eyed soul and English remakes of the Chicago blues; in Aretha Franklin's resounding call for respect; in Sly Stone's celebration of the everyday people and Jimi Hendrix's vision of an interracial tribe; in John Coltrane's celebration of a love supreme. For brief moments during the decade surrounding King's speech, many of us harbored real hopes that the racial nightmare might be coming to an end.
It didn't. It still hasn't. And there's a bitter irony in the fact that King has become as much a problem as an inspiration for those seeking to fulfill his vision. Reverberating for three decades, invoked by politicians of all races and parties, quoted by his enemies to bolster causes he condemned in life, King's words too often drown out the multitude of voices that made the freedom movement something more than a frozen image on a stamp. Representing the march and the movement requires a montage, not a close-up. When all we can hear are the words of the great man, we miss the deeper sources of the movement's energy.
The story was larger, deeper, more troubling than any one dream. The hope was more complicated, the inspiration more profound, than our public memory admits. To hear the real story, we need to listen carefully to the voices of those who were there, starting with the gospel music that gave the marchers the strength to go on. We can begin, simply enough, by pulling back from the close-up of King's sweat-streaked face and refocusing on a woman standing in the second row, in the shadow of the Great Emancipator. Mahalia Jackson.
Mahalia and the Movement
If King gave the movement a vision, Mahalia Jackson gave it a voice. By 1963, she was nearly as well known as King among both whites and the blacks whose support had lifted her out of poverty and obscurity. During the mid-fifties, Mahalia's weekly CBS radio show brought gospel music into the homes of white Americans who would never have gone near the black churches of New Orleans and Chicago where she had learned to sing. Mahalia achieved the nearly impossible feat of becoming a major star without crossing over into the secular world. On occasion, she agreed to sing pop songs like "Danny Boy" and "The Green Leaves of Summer," but she steadfastly resisted the producers who wanted to cash in on her powerful voice in the new interracial market for rhythm and blues.
Like Ray Charles, who played a crucial role in opening that market, Mahalia modeled her style on the singing of the black sanctified churches. Often the poorest churches in poor communities, sanctified churches valued religious ecstasy more highly than polished phrasing or perfect pitch. At times, a sanctified church could erupt with a collective energy that transformed centuries of bitter hardship into moments of pure connection-with self, community, and the soul-deep presence of the Lord. Hinted at in Brother Ray's "I Got a Woman"-a secular remake of the gospel classic "There's a Man Going Round Taking Names"-such moments were the core of what the white audience was just beginning to hear in Little Richard's ecstatic whoops, lifted straight from gospel singer Marion Williams. Although Mahalia showed little interest in the spiritually suspect rock and roll, she understood the point: "I believe the blues and jazz and even the rock and roll stuff got their beat from the Sanctified Church. We Baptists sang sweet ... but when those Holiness people tore into 'I'm So Glad Jesus Lifted Me Up!' they came out with real jubilation." Mahalia's resistance helped maintain her strong connection with the churchgoing black community-still a large majority in the early sixties-even as she gained the ear of whites ranging from my grandparents listening to her radio show in rural South Dakota, where I first heard her voice, to John Kennedy, who hosted her at the White House.
Mahalia's presence at the Lincoln Memorial on that blistering August afternoon in 1963 was no accident. During the early days of the Montgomery bus boycott, Mahalia met King and Ralph Abernathy at the 1955 National Baptist Convention meeting in Denver. When the two young ministers asked her to lend her voice to the struggle, she embraced the opportunity. In Montgomery, she stayed with the Abernathys and performed at one of the rallies that defined the movement. Looking back, it's difficult to imagine the pressures at work on each black person who found the courage to attend that rally. The threat of physical violence was real. Two days after Mahalia left Montgomery, a dynamite bomb went off outside the bedroom where she had slept. But beyond that, the black residents of Montgomery faced the constant threat of economic retaliation. In an economy controlled by whites, being branded a troublemaker meant being fired. And retribution could be extended to family memberselderly parents, children starting out in the world. It could mean a hasty midnight departure for the North-or a long, slow parade to the local cemetery.
Again and again, movement veterans testify to the central role gospel music played in helping them find the strength to overcome their fears. So it was crucial that Mahalia was physically present while the police and the Ku Klux Klan-not always two distinct groups in the Deep South-circled the church. That night in Montgomery, Mahalia sang "I've Heard of a City Called Heaven" and "Move On Up a Little Higher."
Her choices illuminate the political power of gospel music, which is obvious to most blacks and obscure to most whites. When Mahalia sings that she's going to make heaven her home, she's most certainly singing about saving her soul. When she moves on up, her destination is a place by the side of Jesus. But she's also, and without any sense of contradiction, singing about freedom, moving up to full participation in American society. Heaven is heaven, but it's also a seat at the front of the bus. When, in a classic gospel cut that rocks as hard as anything the Rolling Stones ever played, Mahalia promises that she's going to "walk in Jerusalem," none of the cooks and maids whose marching feet carried the movement misunderstood her.
The strategy of expressing dangerous political messages under the cover of, and in concert with, religious lyrics extends back to slavery times. For Southern black communities whose cultural traditions had been passed down through the generations, the ultimate goal was freedom. The use of double meanings, accessible only to those attuned to the cultural code, developed as a survival strategy. Any slave openly expressing dissatisfaction, much less calling for resistance or rebellion, risked beating, whipping, death. Still, slaves did resist-sometimes spectacularly, as with the Nat Turner rebellion of 1831, which resulted in the deaths of fifty-five whites in rural Virginia. But, in large part because hundreds of blacks were killed in retribution for Turner's revolt, resistance typically took less direct forms: work slowdowns, which whites attributed to black "laziness"; failure to follow simple directions, attributed to black "stupidity"; "lost" property, blamed on black propensity for theft. When slaves stood barefoot in a white church and sang to their masters that "everybody talkin' 'bout heaven ain't goin' there," the singers knew whose destination was in question.
Unable to communicate openly in public spaces, slaves developed ways of sharing information that remained invisible to their white masters. Aware that the Christianity they were taught by proslavery ministers counseled endurance on earth in exchange for a heavenly reward, "docile" slaves sang ostensibly passive lyrics like "swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home." Taking the black song as evidence of the slaves' "childlike" acceptance of their condition, few whites heard the political message. But the slaves knew that the "River Jordan" was also the Ohio River, that the chariot's destinations included Philadelphia, Buffalo, Boston, Canada. "Wade in the Water," one of the most common slave songs and still a gospel standard, provided literal escape instructions for slaves pursued by bloodhounds. When they heard a voice call out "Steal away to Jesus, I ain't got long to stay here," slaves knew that Harriet Tubman used the song as a summons to the Underground Railroad.
Schooled in the cultural traditions of the segregation-era South, Mahalia was deeply aware of the power of masking. Studs Terkel, whose Chicago radio show first introduced her to a large white audience in 1947, recalls: "She explained to me that the spiritual wasn't simply about Heaven over there, `A City Called Heaven.' No, the city is here, on Earth. And so, as we know, slave songs were code songs. It was not a question of getting to Heaven, but rather to the free state of Canada or a safe city in the North-liberation here on Earth!"
While the songs Mahalia sang in Montgomery testify to the push for liberation, they highlight two very different aspects of that drive. "Move On Up a Little Higher," Mahalia's signature song, sold over two million copies, almost all of them to blacks, when it was released in 1947. Accompanied only by piano and organ, Mahalia carries her audience into a world impervious to the violence and poverty that have torn the black community apart, a world where "it's always howdy howdy and never goodbye," where the saints can lay down their burdens and put on their robes. The quiet confidence that allows Mahalia's voice to move just ahead of the beat, to lead the community, anticipates the more obvious assertive energies underlying the masked messages in "Walk in Jerusalem," "I'm On My Way," and "Walk All Over God's Heaven." The black community's overwhelming affirmation of Mahalia's voice expressed a shared determination grounded in the unshakable knowledge that, in the eyes of God, their struggle was righteous. When Mahalia assured them that his eyes were on the sparrow, that he would calm the raging sea, it helped black folks gather their energy. When Mahalia called on her people to keep their hands on the plow, her voice helped them hold the plow, and each other, tight.
Mahalia's powerful voice always carried undertones of something like despair, undertones that provide the emotional center of "I've Heard of a City Called Heaven." Reaching deep into the agonies of black history, the song testifies to losses that, from any earthly perspective, seem too much to bear: the four young girls who died in the Sunday morning bombing of a Birmingham church in 1963; the millions of Africans who died in the cramped holds of the slave ships and whose bones littered the Atlantic. The litany of horrors has been recited so often that it has lost its ability to shock. Almost no one stops to think what it means that during the search for the three murdered civil rights workers whose deaths gave the Freedom Summer of 1964 its symbolic meaning, workers pulled up body after body of black men who had simply been forgotten, whose deaths had never attracted any attention outside the black communities who knew only that they were gone, who could never be sure whether they had been killed or simply run away.
It gets to the point where none of it can be said in words. Yet it is the foundation of black life in America. Even as she dedicated herself to a future in glory, Mahalia refused to forget the past. In "I've Heard of a City Called Heaven," she voices that refusal as a moan. As theologian and social critic Cornel West observes in The Future of the Race, the moan lies at the core of black expression:
... it is a guttural cry and a wrenching moan-a cry not so much for help as for home, a moan less out of complaint than for recognition.... The deep black meaning of this cry and moan goes back to the indescribable cries of Africans on the slave ships during the cruel transatlantic voyages to America and the indecipherable moans of enslaved Afro-Americans on Wednesday nights or Sunday mornings near god-forsaken creeks or on wooden benches at prayer meetings in makeshift black churches. This fragile existential arsenal-rooted in silent tears and weary lament-supports black endurance against madness and suicide.When Mahalia sang "I've Heard of a City Called Heaven," she was reaching out for a home, trying to find a way to hold on to the belief that, someday, things would change. That night in Montgomery, as the community gathered in the church prepared to take the movement to a new level, it was crucial that Mahalia acknowledged both the reality of the moan and the determination to "move on up a little higher."
The people heard Mahalia at the same time they heard King. And they found the strength to march out and meet "the man." Often in the name of their ancestors, always for the sake of their children. Eventually, a lot of white folks found the strength to join them. Some of them began to understand the hope inside the moan. The paths of some of the black folks, some of the white folks, led to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
The setting for King's speech already resonated with a history that made Mahalia's contribution that shining August day particularly appropriate. In 1939, black concert singer Marian Anderson had presented one of the most politically important concerts of the century from almost exactly the same spot. When the Daughters of the American Revolution denied her permission to sing at still-segregated Constitution Hall, Anderson moved to the Lincoln Memorial, where numerous political figures including Eleanor Roosevelt watched and endorsed her dignified protest. Challenging the nation to live up to its betrayed ideals, Anderson sang "My Country 'Tis of Thee." When King introduced Anderson to sing "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" twenty-four years later, he was acknowledging that he hadn't made it there entirely on his own. When Mahalia moved to the microphone to sing, she was carrying on a tradition that placed black women and their voices at the center of the freedom struggle.
Between Montgomery and Washington, Mahalia had frequently warmed up crowds for King. The two had developed a kind of ritual where King would gauge the specific energy of a crowd and suggest a song to Mahalia. Before the march, King and Mahalia had tentatively agreed that she would sing Thomas Dorsey's gospel classic "Take My Hand Precious Lord," which Mahalia would later sing at her martyred friend's funeral. But in Washington, just before she was to sing, King leaned over and asked for "I've Been 'Buked and I've Been Scorned." As deeply rooted in the moan as anything Mahalia ever sang, it reminded the crowd just what the price of the ticket had been and would continue to be. As Mahalia began to sing, a low-flying airplane threatened to drown out her voice. But, drawing the energy from her massive frame and from the history that surrounded her at the memorial, Mahalia's voice surmounted its mechanical competition and rose up singing.
No better symbolic moment could have been imagined. As Mahalia's triumph, the triumph of King and the march and the movement, became clear, the crowd began to wave white handkerchiefs. Although the plan had been for her to sing only one song, the crowd called out for more. Mahalia answered with a quietly joyous rendition of "How I Got Over." If "I've Been 'Buked" moans, "How I Got Over" shouts in celebration. The song has been performed by almost every major gospel artist, but it never sounds the same. Compare Mahalia's best-known recording, which resembles "Move On Up" in style and feel, with the equally well-known version by the Swan Silvertones. Lead vocalist Claude Jeter turns the song into a high-energy expression of how individual brilliance can merge with a highly structured, polished background; change a couple of lyrics and the Swan's version could have been a Motown hit. In contrast, Mahalia's version tells of a very different path to the promised land; the slower tempo, the give-and-take between her voice and Mildred Falls's piano, lets you know that movement doesn't have to be feverish, that what's important is to keep on moving. As in Montgomery, Mahalia grounded the experience in both the realities of the past and the belief in a better world to come.
There's a story that credits Mahalia with another role in the success of the March on Washington. The written text of King's speech did not include the "I Have a Dream" section. And, while the crowd was certainly with King throughout, it's clear that without the "dream" section, an improvised version of a set piece he had used several times previously, the speech wouldn't have gone down as a classic. A few days before the march, Mahalia had heard King invoke the "dream" in a speech at the Detroit church pastored by the Reverend C. L. Franklin, Aretha's father. The story goes that, feeling the energy starting to slip away, Mahalia leaned forward to King and whispered, "Tell them about the dream, Martin." At the moment when it seemed most likely that the movement just might get all of us over, it was about Martin and Mahalia, the politics and the music. Most important, it was about the movement as a whole.
"The Soul of the Movement": Calls and Responses
It wasn't just Mahalia's voice, any more than it was just Martin's courage and determination, that gave the movement its strength. The power came from the community that responded so deeply to the songs that, as King wrote, "bind us together ... help us march together." The songs Mahalia sang were both a call for renewal and a response to her people's courage. Like their ancestors who imagined themselves as Daniel in the lions' den, the black people who made the movement real in the small towns away from the cameras had been turning the moan into music long before Mahalia and Martin forged their gospel politics.
The core of gospel politics lies in the "call and response" principle of African-American culture. The basic structure of call and response is straightforward. An individual voice, frequently a preacher or singer, calls out in a way that asks for a response. The response can be verbal, musical, physical-anything that communicates with the leader or the rest of the group. The response can affirm, argue, redirect the dialogue, raise a new question. Any response that gains attention and elicits a response of its own becomes a new call. Usually the individual who issued the first call responds to the response, remains the focal point of the ongoing dialogue. But it doesn't have to be that way. During the movement, Charles Mingus, fascinated with the political and spiritual implications of call and response, explored ideas of community based on the constant redefinition of the relationship between group and leader in "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting" and "Three or Four Shades of Blue."
Similar experiments took place in the ranks of the freedom movement, especially in the local communities where the activities organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "snick") often differed sharply from those planned by King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Most of the leaders recognized by the media were men, but SNCC organizers were often women who remained in the communities long after the television cameras had moved on to the next event orchestrated by the SCLC leadership from its Atlanta offices. Like the music itself, the grassroots organizing that made the movement happen was rooted in the local culture of the rural black South. And that gave the women who carried that culture a unique sense of the relative value of leadership and community, the balance of call and response.
After several decades of work with leadership-oriented civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the SCLC, which she said had too much of the "pulpit mentality" Ella Baker committed herself to SNCC, saying, "Strong people don't need strong leaders." For Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer, the guiding spirit of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, it was about the "beloved community" as a whole: the women, the poor, the young. Reverend King was magnificent, but if the movement was going to work, it had to work in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and Barnwell, South Carolina, not just in New York, Atlanta, and whatever small town the SCLC chose for its stage.
While the SCLC focused on issues of political strategy, SNCC demonstrated a deeper appreciation of the role of culture, especially music, in the movement. Somehow, communities had to find a way to break the old patterns, transform fear into resistance. SNCC field secretary Phyllis Martin pointed to music's crucial role: "The fear down here is tremendous. I didn't know whether I'd be shot at, or stoned, or what. But when the singing started, I forgot all that. I felt good within myself. We sang `Oh Freedom' and `We Shall Not Be Moved,' and after that you just don't want to sit around anymore. You want the world to hear you, to know what you're fighting for!"
One of the original members of the SNCC Freedom Singers, Cordell Reagon, put it even more directly: "Without these songs, you know we wouldn't be anywhere. We'd still be down on Mister Charley's plantation, chopping cotton for 30 cents a day." Bernice Johnson Reagon, then a member of the SNCC Freedom Singers, now presiding spirit of the black womanist group Sweet Honey in the Rock, recalls Ella Baker's influence on her sense of the connection between music and politics: "She urged us as organizers to understand how to create structures that allowed others in our group to also be leaders as well as followers. Her power was in her wanting to increase others' sense of their own power and their access to power." Reagon describes the courage the songs gave to the Freedom Riders jailed in Hinds County, Mississippi; the students participating in SNCC's voter education project in McComb, Mississippi; the marchers in Pine Bluff, Baton Rouge, Selma, Birmingham: "They sang as they were dragged into the streets. They sang in the paddy wagons and in the jails. And they sang when they returned to the Black community's churches for strategy rallies." One of those rallies took place in Dawson, Georgia, where, Reagon remembered, "I sat in a church and felt the chill that ran through a small gathering of Blacks when the sheriff and his deputies walked in. They stood at the door, making sure everyone knew they were there. Then a song began. And the song made sure that the sheriff and his deputies knew we were there. We became visible, our image was enlarged, when the sound of the freedom songs filled all the space in that church."
Mahalia testified to the music's power in her description of the Freedom Riders' arrival at the Montgomery bus depot in 1961. Remembering how "gospel music had given the people courage and spirit when they were in danger" during the early days of King's movement, Mahalia describes the community's fear as "cars were set on fire and bombs were set off, but the Negroes kept right on coming. They filled up the church and began singing hymns and gospel songs." Ultimately, music helped transform the burden into a movement. Mahalia describes Ralph Abernathy rising up and crying, "We don't have to sweat and gasp in here! Those U.S. marshals are supposed to protect us. Open the windows! Let the fresh air in! Let those outside hear us singing a little louder!" No wonder King called music the "soul of the movement."
As a man of the word, King attributed much of music's power to the lyrics, but the local people usually echoed Bernice Johnson Reagon's emphasis on the sound. The interlocking rhythms, the calls and responses, helped create a sense of the "beloved community." If they marched alone, they could be isolated, picked off, made into examples of the futility of resistance. If they found a way to move together, then walking in Jerusalem could be, would be, real.
The words did help focus attention and spread the message beyond the beloved community. Bernice Johnson Reagon's description of music's importance anticipates Chuck D's description of rap as "Black America's CNN": "With the need to gather supporters and disseminate information on the civil rights movement, the music gained increased importance as a means of conveying the nature and intensity of the struggle to audiences outside the geography of the movement."
No one did more to bring the power of the words together with the underlying power of the music than Fannie Lou Hamer, SNCC field secretary from 1963 to 1967 and cofounder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the state's segregationist delegation to the 1964 party convention in Atlantic City. At rallies, demonstrations, and SNCC meetings, Hamer used songs to bring her audience to a sense of connection. One of her favorites was "This Little Light of Mine," another way of phrasing her bestknown words: "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired." One MFDP member described the political impact of her songs: "When Mrs. Hamer finishes singing a few freedom songs one is aware that he has truly heard a fine political speech, stripped of the usual rhetoric and filled with the anger and determination of the civil rights movement."
Both in its political contexts and its more strictly musical settings, call and response moves the emphasis from the individual to the group. For African American performance to work, the performer must receive a response, whether the rallying of the beloved community around the women who were redefining everyone as leaders, the chaotic participation of the crowd greeting the landing of George Clinton's P-Funk mothership, or the intense concentration-punctuated by cries of "Yes Lord!" and "Tell it!"-that the Washington audience gave Martin and Mahalia. At its core, call and response is the African American form of critical analysis, a process that draws on the experience and insights of the entire community. The individual maintains a crucial role; a carefully crafted call can lead to the best, most useful insights. But the individual does not necessarily, or ideally, maintain control.
Mahalia linked her style with that of the pulpit, emphasizing the way both responded to their people's moan: "It is the basic way that I sing today, from hearing the way the preacher would sort of sing in a-I mean, would preach in a cry, in a moan, would shout sort of, like in a chant way--a groaning sound which would penetrate to my heart." When the preacher or singer shapes a call, it is already a response to the shared suffering of the community. If the members of the congregation or audience recognize their own experiences in the call, they respond. The simplest response consists of an "amen," but responses can also call on the preacher to consider something he's overlooked-the role of the sisters, for example-or challenge the singer to take it deeper, make it real. In its pure form, call and response can exist only in the interaction between people present with one another in the real world. But the underlying dynamic can be re-created in various ways. on many of Mahalia's greatest records, Mildred Falls's piano models the response of an aware congregation, walking at her side in the valley of despair, urging her up toward the mountaintop, letting her know, in good times and bad, that she isn't alone. On record, background singers or choirs stand in for the community in the world. The best gospel records always sound live, because they capture the uncontainable energy unleashed by call and response, even if they were recorded in studios. The producers and musicians who turned gospel into Chicago soul and Motown never forgot the principle. The calls and responses between Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions came straight from the churches of Chicago's South Side; Smokey Robinson and the Miracles re-created the dialogue between Claude Jeter and the Swan Silvertones. And those sounds had their origins in the slave songs and coded spirituals crafted in the centuries-old struggle for freedom. I second that emotion.
Motown: Money, Magic, and the Mask
The story of Motown is almost as familiar as the story of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s movement. And just about as trustworthy. The standard version goes something like this. A bunch of poor Detroit natives led by Berry Gordy, Jr., and Smokey Robinson decide it doesn't make any sense that black folks aren't making any money off their music. Paying careful attention to the most successful mainstream labels, they round up the local talent and put out about sixteen thousand number one singles. Motown helps realize the dreams of upward-bound black kids looking to get over like everyone else. White folks open their arms wide to embrace the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, Martin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and the Jackson Five. Everybody gets rich and, having put an end to cultural segregation, moves to L.A. No one has to think too much about desolation row. Or, for that matter, look very far for a sound track for a nostalgic movie about the sixties. It's the most compelling version of the American dream ever released in blackface.
Like the standard version of King's movement, it's not entirely wrong. Berry Gordy was certainly trying to cash in on the popularity of black music; the company slogan-"the sound of young America"-told a good bit of the truth. Some of the main players got rich, and most of them made a hell of a lot more money than anyone growing up in black Detroit could have reasonably expected. But if the public image of the movement misrepresents the deeper sources of its strength, the Motown myth obscures some hard truths about how money can undercut gospel politics.
In different ways, gospel and Motown exemplify the underlying drive of black culture in the fifties and sixties. Literary critic Robert Stepto labels the drive "ascent," observing that ever since the days of folk tales and slave spirituals, black expression has placed a central emphasis on the interdependence of freedom and literacy. Black leaders from Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth to Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson have said it over and over: No literacy, no freedom.
But literacy is more complicated than the basic ability to read and write. Becoming literate means learning to play the game by the real rules. You can't believe what the white world says about how things work. You have to be smart enough to play the game within the game if you want to have any real chance of making it. Part of literacy involves knowing when to put up a good front, when to claim the moral high ground while you're busy greasing palms. Not that ascent counsels cynicism. Handled carefully, the financial part of ascent maintains its link to communal freedom. The trick is to get paid without selling your people.
Stepto sets up a "symbolic geography" of black life based on the movement from the slavery of the "symbolic South" to the relative-but never absolute-freedom of the "symbolic North." In slavery times, the movement was literal; Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad carried people up from the slave states to free soil. By the time Berry Gordy, Jr., and Martin Luther King, Jr., appeared on the scene, however, history had complicated the geography. Mississippi remained as far South as it had been a century before, but now it was clear that Harlem, Chicago's South Side, and Boston's Roxbury were North in name only. The cities that their parents had envisioned as "the promised land," second-generation immigrants now laughingly referred to as "up South." The North could be a seat in a classroom at Central High School in Little Rock or at the front of the bus in Montgomery. But it could also be a house in a redlined area of middle-class Chicago.
For Berry Gordy, the North was located in the Top 40 charts, just across the Jim Crow line from the "Race" or "R & B" charts. The North was where they kept the money. Describing the situation just before the founding of Motown, Gordy reflected on the record industry he was about to transform:
In the music business there had long been the distinction between black and white music, the assumption being that R&B was black and Pop was white. But with Rock 'n' Roll and the explosion of Elvis those clear distinctions began to get fuzzy. Elvis was a white artist who sang black music. What was it? (a) R&B, (b) Country, (c) Pop, (d) Rock 'n' Roll or (e) none of the above. If you picked C you were right, that is, if the record sold a million copies. "Pop" means popular and if that ain't, I don't know what is. I never gave a damn what else it was called.
Although Gordy shared his awareness of money with numerous other black musicians, he had a unique ability to play the game as it's really played. The stories of Mahalia Jackson and James Brown serve as cautionary tales concerning the costs of failing to master the unwritten rules. Mahalia's obsession with money eventually alienated her from many of her closest friends. Throughout her career, she performed only after she'd been paid in cash. At times, she carried up to $15,000 in her bra, which led to some extremely tense moments when she was pulled over by Southern police. Her obsession with money was legendary among those who knew her, ultimately putting an end to her longtime collaboration with pianist Mildred Falls, whom Mahalia never paid more than a minimal fee. As Brother John Sellers, another of Mahalia's friends alienated by financial problems, remembers: "We didn't do right by [Mildred]. But you couldn't talk to Mahalia about Mildred's situation. She didn't want to hear about her. When Mahalia had money, nobody could talk to her."
James Brown dealt with the money problem by emphasizing the need for black economic self-determination. An ad Brown placed in New York City newspapers just before a 1969 appearance at Madison Square Garden proclaimed: "James Brown is totally committed to black power, the kind that is achieved not through the muzzle of a rifle but through education and economic leverage." Brown's embrace of "black capitalism" grew out of his experience on the "chitlin circuit": the black theaters and clubs famed for presenting performers with the toughest audiences imaginable. Exercising total control over his creative product and enforcing band discipline with monetary fines for mistakes, Brown earned nearly universal recognition as the "hardest-working man in show business" and "the Godfather of Soul." Even after he'd performed at the inaugural ball for Richard Nixon, another advocate of black capitalism, Brown steadfastly maintained, "I'd rather play for my folks at the Apollo than play the White House." But he definitely cashed Nixon's check.
Although Brown was delighted when his records crossed over onto the pop charts, he never surrendered the profound suspicions he'd acquired growing up in South Carolina, where it wasn't any too clear the white folks had gotten word that slavery had come to an end. Brown never established a workable relationship with the mainstream economic system. For all his emphasis on black economic power, he simply didn't take good care of the books. The IRS wasn't buying his lack of formal education as an adequate excuse, a point it made absolutely clear in 1968 when it confiscated his files and billed him for $1,870,000 in back taxes. As a result, he spent a good part of the seventies struggling to clear his tax problems and extricate himself from disastrous record contracts.
Berry Gordy wasn't about to make those sorts of mistakes, even if it meant relying heavily on experienced white accountants to take care of financial business. Motown's rise presents a perfect parable of black capitalism in action. For Gordy, attention to economics was a family tradition. As Motown chronicler Nelson George points out, the Gordy family moved from Georgia to Detroit for the most unlikely of all reasons: Berry Gordy, Sr., "made too much money," thereby attracting the envy of local white merchants who set about relieving him of the problem. The younger Gordy grew up in an atmosphere where capitalism's primary virtues-competitiveness and a strong appreciation for the dollar bill-were articles of faith. It's appropriate that Gordy's first real success in the music business came when he wrote Barrett Strong's hit "Money (That's What I Want)." Looking back on his breakthrough, Gordy said: "I was broke until the time I wrote `Money'; even though I had many hits, and there were other writers who had many hits, we just didn't have profits. And coming from a business family, my father and mother always talked about the bottom line, and simple things, and the bottom line is profit. You know, are you making money or not?"
Like Booker T. Washington, whom the family's grocery business was named after, Gordy wore whatever mask suited his purposes. Where the masks of Mahalia's music covered a political agenda, Motown's masks were designed to bring the highest price on the open market. Gordy was aware that white folks wanted to get close to the aura of black sexuality, black danger, without putting their self-image at risk. He'd served his apprenticeship in the music world writing songs such as "Lonely Teardrops" and "To Be Loved" for Jackie Wilson, whose sexuality was just dangerous enough to keep him on the wrong side of the color line. At Motown, Gordy kept enough of the blackness-the churchy feel of David Rufn's lead vocals or the label's signature tambourine-to set Motown apart from bland white pop. But he repressed the sexuality sufficiently to soothe the fears of uneasy parents. Motown worked hard to reassure America that the danger was safely under control, that the songs were about romance, not sex. Diana Ross and Tammi Terrell sounded like nice teenage girls; Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, and the young Marvin Gaye aspired to Las Vegas respectability. In a country conditioned to fear black females as Jezebels threatening the sanctity of white marriage, Motown promoted the Supremes as the quintessential "girl group."
Gordy owed much of Motown's success to the Artist Development Department. Under the guidance of etiquette expert Maxine Powers, choreographer Cholly Atkins, and musical director Maurice King, Artist Development transformed talented but unsophisticated teenagers into polished entertainers. If the opportunity to dine at the White House arose, Motown's acts would know which fork to use.
Artist Development had an equally profound impact on the records released on the Motown, Tamla, Gordy, and Anna labels. Singers attended elocution lessons to help them with the press and to make sure white listeners unaccustomed to the sound of black voices could understand the words. Otis Williams of the Temptations recalled: "A producer or a singer might love a great, elaborate vocal riff, but we rarely put them on our records because we knew that most people who bought the records wouldn't be able to sing along to those parts, especially not the white folks."
For all the awareness of the mainstream audience, Motown singles spoke deeply to almost everyone who heard them, black or white. The obvious key to the success was that the label featured some of the most distinctive voices in popular music history. David Ruffin of the Temptations accented syllables that most other singers would have treated as throwaways; Smokey Robinson's delicate lilt reconciled the choir loft and the malt shop; Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops expressed the darkest corners of the blues; Tammi Terrell radiated a girl-nextdoor sweetness; Martha Reeves added gospel depth to "Dancing in the Street" and "Nowhere to Run." On almost any other label, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder wouldn't have had serious competition.
But great as the singers were, the house musicians informally known as the Funk Brothers contributed at least as much to Motown's success. The lineup varied somewhat, but the core consisted of Earl Van Dyke on keyboards; Robert White or Eddie Willis on guitar; Jack Ashford on vibes and tambourine; Eddie "Bongo" Brown on percussion; Benny Benjamin on drums; and James Jamerson, the leastrecognized indisputable genius of soul music, on bass. Frequently playing off dramatic horn charts that established a compelling hook, the percussionists laid down a polyrhythmic foundation while Jamerson played bass lines that remain as stunning today as they were in the sixties. No one has ever matched his ability to improvise bass lines that define a song's spirit. He seemed equally at home with the deceptively simple solo that opens "My Girl"; the dramatic runs that reconcile the pop verses with the gospel chorus of "Nowhere to Run"; the bouncy pop of "Stop! In the Name of Love"; and the intricate funk of "I Was Made to Love Her" and "Ain't Too Proud to Beg." Jamerson attributed his style to influences that ranged from the arcane to the everyday call-and-response rituals of black Detroit:
My feel was always an Eastern feel, a spiritual thing. Take "Standing in the Shadows of Love." The bass line has an Arabic feel. I've been around a whole lot of people from the East, from China and Japan. Then I studied the African, Cuban, and Indian scales. I brought all that with me to Motown. There were people from the East in my neighborhood. I'd run into Eastern musicians who liked the way I played and they'd keep in contact with me. I picked up things from listening to people speak, the intonations of their voices; I could capture a line. I look at people walking and get a beat from their movements.... There was one of them heavy, funky tunes the Temptations did.... I can't remember the name but there was this big, fat woman walking around. She couldn't keep still. I wrote it by watching her move.
The Funk Brothers aren't recognized by the general public in part because Motown's emphasis on marketing stars kept the musicians' names off the album covers. The label's production strategy, a variation on Phil Spector's "wall of sound," made it easy to overlook their individual brilliance. The major Motown producers-Gordy, Smokey Robinson, the songwriting team of Holland-DozierHolland, Norman Whitfield-filled in all available sonic space. Instruments emerge from the mix briefly, but the richly orchestrated harmonies make it difficult to follow particular instruments or voices through entire songs. Yet almost every singer who worked with the Funk Brothers speaks of them in reverential tones. Seconding Otis Williams's claim that the Funk Brothers "must go down in history as one of the best groups of musicians anywhere," Martha Reeves writes: "These musicians were responsible for all of the success of the singers at Motown, because it was their music that inspired us to sing our best with excitement."
Based in the unassuming Gordy house identified only by a carved wooden sign with blue letters reading "HITSVILLE U.S.A.," the Motown production style expressed the communal dynamic that almost everyone who was there in the early years describes as "magic." Musicians hung out at Hitsville at all hours of the day and night. When a song was ready to be recorded, whoever happened to be around chipped in. No one minded being called out of bed to contribute a riff or lay down another take. Major stars sang backup and provided handclaps on each other's records. Disputes over billing, favoritism, and royalty payments eventually soured many of the original Motown artists, but at the start they cherished their own beloved community.
The best emblem of that community may have been the Motown Revue, which toured the South late in 1962, when memories of the vicious attacks on the Freedom Riders were fresh in everyone's minds. A lineup including Mary Wells, the Supremes, the Miracles, the Temptations, Edwin Starr, Marvin Gaye, "Little Stevie" Wonder, the Marvelettes, and Martha and the Vandellas played a grueling itinerary of ninety one-night stands. With rare exceptions, the singers slept on the tour bus. Cautioned by Gordy that they were representing "not only Motown records but all of Detroit," the musicians made it work in the face of difficulties, both grave and comic. Shots were fired at the tour bus; at one rest stop, a hostile gas station attendant refused to let the "niggers" use the toilets. On the other hand, tour participants laughed about the elaborate ruses they employed to get around the chaperons assigned to prevent private meetings between male and female singers; the chimpanzee Edwin Starr snuck onto the bus; and the incessant harmonica playing that led to good-natured threats to drop Little Stevie off at the next godforsaken roadside stop.
Remembering Gordy as a "very spiritual" man with "visions far beyond any of our imaginations," Martha Reeves sums up Motown in the early days as "an exciting place where magic was created." Otis Williams describes a community where everyone "was young and driven by the same dreams. You didn't have to explain yourself. We all had that passion about music and success. You wouldn't think twice about pitching in to help with whatever had to be done, whether it was singing backgrounds or mopping the floor. Joining Motown was more like being adopted by a big loving family than being hired by a company. This isn't just nostalgia talking either. It really was a magical time."