Whether or not George Orwell was right about all art being propaganda, there’s no question that art, and especially music, was a potent persuasive force during the most intense years of the struggle over civil rights in the United States. Bernice Johnson, one of the original Freedom Singers, a group started by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the early 1960s, testified to its importance: “I don’t have any sense of the civil rights movement existing without the singing we did in marches, mass meetings and in jail.”
The combination of culture and politics reached far beyond songs sung by activists. As Ruth Feldstein puts it in How It Feels to Be Free, “entertainers helped to make the civil rights movement meaningful to people around the world. A multitude of people never marched or boycotted, but they encountered and responded to the politics of black activism when they listened to certain music, bought particular albums, or watched certain films and television shows.” People did indeed start to think differently about race and racial justice as a result of engagement with music and movies. If anything, Feldstein, a history professor at Rutgers University, appears to understate the effect.
Hinge events in the history of the civil rights movement sparked passionate responses from artists and entertainers. In autumn 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus tried to block the desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School by directing the National Guard to bar nine black students from entering the building. In response, President Eisenhower deployed Federal troops to enforce the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education to end racially segregated schooling. Six years later, in 1963, Robert Chambliss bombed a church in Montgomery, Alabama, killing four black girls. Jazz giant Charles Mingus wrote “Fables of Faubus” because of the former episode, and John Coltrane composed “Alabama” to memorialize the latter. Or so claims music critic Greg Kot in I’ll Take You There. Kot views these songs as examples of artists using the vocabulary of social consciousness in their work. “Some spoke as bluntly as a brick thrown through a window”, he says in reference to Mingus’s “1960 screed”, Coltrane’s “evocative tone poem”, and Max Roach’s We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. In How It Feels to Be Free, Feldstein locates the origins of Roach’s album in both the sit-ins that began in Greensboro, North Carolina in February 1960 and in the Sharpsville massacre in South Africa the following month. Kot says Roebuck “Pops” Staples wrote the lyrics to “Freedom’s Highway”, which he calls “one of the era’s most profound songs”, as a direct reaction to the marches Martin Luther King led from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965.
Although black performers, including those who avoided explicitly political material, certainly did affect perceptions of black people, Kot and Feldstein concentrate on the entertainers who made the art-propaganda connection plain. Many singers and actors used their celebrity to advance causes, and certain kinds of observers can find political intent animating even avowedly nonpolitical performers. The way a number of female entertainers “performed black womanhood” was sufficient for them to qualify as activists in Feldstein’s tendentious interpretations of what she calls their cultural work.
For black Americans, Feldstein contends, popular culture “was an arena in which they carved out new meanings of identity and renegotiated power relations.” She uses “renegotiated” in a very literal way, depicting power struggles as things akin to arguments or debates. In How It Feels to Be Free, her highly selective survey of the careers of Diahann Carroll, Lena Horne, Abbey Lincoln, Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone, and Cicely Tyson, Feldstein focuses on what she calls “performance strategies.” This group of women, she contends, “offered critiques and demands that became central tenants of feminism generally and of black feminism specifically.” Horne achieved some significant historical firsts, Feldstein notes, such as performing with the formerly all-white Charlie Barnet Band in 1940 and becoming a sex symbol even though “for centuries whites had implicitly and explicitly defined ‘beauty’ as a value that excluded black women.” Thus, Horne “rejected definitions” then prevalent of what a black woman could be.
When Makeba, a singer from South Africa, “challenged apartheid and challenged dominant assumptions about black female beauty, talent and sexuality—while she also pursued her commercial career—she affected meanings of black power on two continents.” (To what extent, Feldstein can’t say.) She did this, Feldstein says, despite insisting: “I’m not a political singer.” As a high-profile female South African exile in the 1960s, she drew attention to the realities of apartheid, no matter what she sang about.
After learning of the same act of violence that may have motivated Coltrane’s “Alabama”, Simone wrote what she called her “first civil rights song.” In “Mississippi Goddam”, she demands equality “for my sister, my brother, my people and me” and dismisses any calls to “go slow.” “More than Lena Horne or Miriam Makeba”, Feldstein writes, “Nina Simone used music, lyrics, and performance strategies on- and offstage to develop black power perspectives that were free of misogyny and claimed black women’s experiences as relevant.” The lyrics of songs like “Pirate Jenny” and “Go Limp”, Feldstein asserts, “suggested that Simone was challenging political assumptions as well as conventional cultural categories.” She expressed doubt about patient nonviolence, for instance, and rejected “church-based freedom songs.” (Feldstein also eschews gospel-inflected songs like those performed by the Staple Singers, thereby ignoring a massive part of what she purports to analyze.)
Though with some of her subjects Feldstein focuses on their overtly political efforts, with Abbey Lincoln she takes a less obvious approach. She briefly touches on Lincoln’s contribution to her husband Max Roach’s record We Insist!, saying that Lincoln “used screams and other techniques to transform her voice into what critics regard as a political weapon; the song ‘Tears for Johannesburg’ directly evoked the violence in Sharpsville.” Feldstein devotes most of her assessment of Lincoln’s cultural work to a discussion of a single movie. For Love of Ivy paired Lincoln as the title character with Sidney Poitier in “a generic love story.” Feldstein concedes that, “as a narrative, the film had little to do with Lincoln’s jazz lyrics and pointed critiques of race relations in the United States and colonial relations outside of the United States.” Ebony magazine described the 1968 film as notable for “casting black actors in romantic leads”, but that was the extent to which its makers intended race to be a factor. Poitier, who developed the story of a maid who falls for a businessman, described it as a lighthearted comedy, and a Palomar Pictures executive said it could have easily been played by white actors. But Feldstein will have nothing to do with a race-neutral take. She insists that by portraying Ivy as independent and demanding that people listen to her, Lincoln “used her performance of Ivy to articulate the concerns of working-class black women and as a platform for a black nationalist perspective that critiqued racially specific standards of beauty.”
Feldstein applies the same interpretive formula to Julia, a television series starring Diahann Carroll, another woman who started her career as a “chic chanteuse” and, like Horne, was known for her glamour but also advanced the cause of civil rights by supporting SNCC and by other means. Though she admits that the “resistance” offered by the movie and television series was limited, she insists that it was there all the same: “For Love of Ivy and Julia illuminate the trajectories of two black women entertainers who negotiated a political and cultural terrain in a commodity culture that pointedly sought to de-emphasize political resistance.” Bestowing a bit of Carroll’s glamour on a black working mother was not without significance in the drive to use “popular culture to elevate black activism”, Feldstein opines.
Cicely Tyson—the only one of the performers Feldstein scrutinizes who didn’t sing—did, like Horne, Lincoln, and Carroll, get “her start before cameras and audiences by being glamorous.” In films like Sounder and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, however, Tyson “seemed to reject glamour completely, and profoundly challenged the equation between whiteness and beauty.” Though notable for her insistence on portraying black women as “dignified and respectable”, Tyson, Feldstein worries, may have acted in too many projects set in the past that “seemed to signal that a distinctly American civil rights movement was no longer needed.” For all their power, Feldstein’s heroines bear heavy representational burdens and are judged by gratuitously rigid ideological standards, which even those who admirably subvert, reject and resist sometimes fail to meet.
As for entertainers who aim only to entertain, artists concerned with artistry, they merit little of Feldstein’s attention, even if their impact on American culture cannot reasonably be denied. She has little to say about the hugely popular and influential record company Motown other than that it “had numerous hits.” Although the civil rights movement anthems performed both by the Staple Singers and by Mavis Staples as a solo artist might make Staples look like a natural candidate for coverage in How It Feels to Be Free, Feldstein displays scant interest in her or the less issue-oriented acts associated with Stax Records, the Memphis record company known for what Kot calls “a rawer, earthier, more down-home sound than the slicker uptown arrangements favored by its Northern counterpart, Detroit-based Motown.” This despite the fact that Stax issued the Staple Singers song “Respect Yourself”, which “rivaled the ‘Negro National Anthem’ for viability as an African-American theme and as a shove toward more self-esteem”, according to Booker T. Jones of Booker T. & the M.G.s, the interracial Stax house band.
Kot, who in I’ll Take You There recounts the experiences of the singing Staples family before, during and after their stint at Stax, contents himself with describing their contributions to the civil rights movement instead of questioning whether they could have done more. Pops Staples, who migrated from Mississippi to Chicago in the mid-1930s, began singing gospel songs with his children in churches in the late 1940s. With his daughters Cleotha and Mavis and his son Pervis, the guitar-playing parent cut a homemade recording of a popular gospel song as well as an original, “Faith and Grace”, in the early 1950s. It garnered some local radio airplay and led to the Staple Singers’ first record deal. Although the devout father mined gospel material, from the beginning the band had a distinct sound with elements of multiple genres. While this made them difficult to categorize, Duke Ellington summed it up well when he told Pops, “You play gospel in a blues key.”
The Staple Singers’ sound became even harder to pin down as the 1960s progressed. Their “sparse but haunting sound” appealed to Bob Dylan, whom the Staples met in the early 1960s, when they started incorporating folk music, including some of Dylan’s songs, into their repertoire. “The folk and civil rights movements symbolically merged”, Kot writes, when artists including Dylan and Joan Baez performed at the August 1963 March on Washington. The same year, Pops met Martin Luther King. “If he can preach it, we can sing it”, Pops told his family after the first encounter. With 1965’s Freedom Highway, a live album named for the song inspired by King-led marches in Alabama, “Pops connects the themes of gospel music and the civil rights movement more explicitly than ever before.” Thus, the Staple Singers “played a key role in creating a soundtrack for King’s work.” They also helped him raise awareness of Operation Breadbasket, an initiative to encourage Chicago employers to hire black workers, and in the process launched the public career of Jesse Jackson, who said the Staple Singers “were unabashedly freedom fighters.” Toward the end of the decade, the band’s rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll elements led it to share bills with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.
The Staple Singers had been planning to travel to Memphis in April 1968 to join King in his push to assist striking sanitation workers when he was assassinated. The city had already been “a spiritual and geographic center of Staples family life”, writes Kot. They regularly stayed at the Lorraine Motel (the site of King’s death) when touring in the South. The Lorraine was also a regular meeting place for Booker T. Jones, his bandmates and others associated with Stax, the record company that signed the Staples that summer. At that point, they had made the transition from gospel to what Mavis Staple called freedom songs, a shift she attributed to King’s influence. Their first Stax album, Soul Folk in Action, included the track “Long Walk to D.C.”, which commemorates the March on Washington.
The Staples moved further into pop music territory during their Stax period, but they also made songs, like “Respect Yourself”, that indicate a (fairly) consistent message. “They had expanded their audience by crossing genre lines while keeping their integrity intact”, Kot writes. Stax also issued “I Like the Things About Me”, which includes lines like, “There was a time when I wished my hair was fine / And I can remember when I wished my lips were thin”, as well as “I like the things about me that I once despised.” (Mavis Staples rerecorded the song her father originally sang for her 2013 solo album One True Vine.) As Feldstein might say, such songs challenged definitions of beauty as the exclusive preserve of white people.
In 1960, when Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Stewart Axton set up a recording studio in the former Capitol Theater on McLemore Avenue, the white siblings had rhythm and blues, not social issues, on their minds. So insists Grammy-winning music writer and documentarian Robert Gordon in Respect Yourself, a history of the Stax label. “It wasn’t a preconceived kind of goal or concept that I had that Stax would be a black-music-oriented record company”, Stewart explained. “As I got more and more into the music, I began to have a feeling for it. I got into it by chance, but it was becoming a labor of love.”
Over the next decade and a half, “the music made at Stax Records became the soundtrack for liberation, the song of triumph, the sound of the path toward freedom”, Gordon says. In addition to Booker T. & the M.G.s, Stax established the careers of Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, and Wilson Pickett. When the Staples joined the Stax roster, Al Bell (né Alvertis Isbell) ran the company’s operations, and the following year he became co-owner and “one of the most powerful African-American executives in the music industry”, in Kot’s assessment. From its start until 1975 (when it went bankrupt), Stax had more than 150 top-100 pop songs and almost 250 top-100 R&B songs. By no means were all of them “message songs” like those of the Staple Singers. Booker T. & the M.G.s hits like “Green Onions” were purely instrumental. Rufus Thomas made the R&B and pop charts with “Do the Funky Chicken.” Hayes reached the R&B, pop, easy listening and jazz charts with his album Hot Buttered Soul, which Gordon dubs “a boudoir record” that features “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, previously a country hit for Glen Campbell.
As a biography of a business, Respect Yourself rehearses the various travails of the company, including some distribution deals made with other labels that in retrospect look unwise and some other maneuvers that look a little shady. Far more important, it also exhibits a nuanced understanding of the relationship between “cultural work” and social change. A record label that provided opportunity to black members of its community, a firm that “rewarded talent and hard work, not white skin and cotton money”, could make a real impact even when selling songs about dancing and sex. Indeed, the fact that a muscular black man like Isaac Hayes could become a sex symbol is surely significant.
Perhaps more so, though, Bell ran the company in a manner that realized the goals of the civil rights movement. Gordon likens Bell’s business strategy to a mid-1960s SNCC statement on Black Power that urged focusing on organizing communities and achieving control over them: “Stax, however unintentionally, had essentially done just that—tuned in to its immediate environment, lifting the neighborhood itself. Though integrated and white-owned, Stax became an example of Black Power’s potential.” Though overly laudatory of an executive who bankrupted the company he helmed, Gordon nonetheless shows how, for a time at least, Bell provided a platform for black performers to become widely admired stars and for black staff members to realize middle-class dreams like homeownership. “Really, Dr. King was preaching what we were about inside of Stax, where you judge a person by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin”, Bell claimed. “And looking forward to the day when, as he said, his little black child and the little white child could walk down the streets together. Well, we were living that inside of Stax Records.”
With its integrated house band and the rapport between Stewart and Bell, Stax represented a harmonious refuge from the racial tension roiling its city and country. It proved to be a fragile one, however. “When Stax artists discuss race”, Gordon relays, “nearly all call Stax an ‘oasis’”, but it ceased to be one after King’s assassination. It wasn’t that people didn’t see color, Gordon explains, it’s that at Stax no one cared about it. “The anger that followed the assassination made people care.” Stax enjoyed several more moments of success, not least with the massive Wattstax concert, the culmination of the 1972 Watts Summer Festival (an annual event commemorating the 1967 Watts riots). It yielded multiple albums as well as a documentary film. But not long after that the company somehow lost its way.
Critics and scholars who see culture as a battleground, as both Kot and Feldstein do, risk reductive, even plain wrong, accounts of how artists and entertainers affect society and contribute to social change. Recall “Fables of Faubus” and “Alabama”, two songs that supposedly emerged whole from two specific events. Mingus actually recorded “Fables” in 1959 for his first Columbia album, Mingus Ah Um. The bassist claimed Columbia wouldn’t let him record the lyrics. Kot probably meant to name “Original Faubus Fables”, which appeared on a live album for another label the following year and which did feature the lyrics, which consist of exchanges between the bandleader and his drummer, Dannie Richmond, like this one:
MINGUS: Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie.
RICHMOND: Governor Faubus.
MINGUS: Why is he so sick and ridiculous?
RICHMOND: He won’t permit us in the schools.
MINGUS: Then he’s a fool!
While the meaning of what Mingus biographer Gene Santoro calls the “scathing, burlesquing vocals” could not be more clear, what of wordless “Alabama”? In Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, jazz critic Ben Ratliff allows that the song may have arisen from the 1963 church bombing, which happened two months before the recording date. He goes on to note that it could also have been the saxophonist’s response to many events that occurred in that state: the Montgomery Bus Boycott that began in 1955, the beating of Freedom Riders in Birmingham in 1961 or the imprisonment of Martin Luther King in the same city two years later, among others. Some styles of art-as-propaganda rely heavily on words, but Coltrane didn’t engage in rhetoric. Though a few of his song titles had “potent connotations”, Ratliff concedes, his music “was moving toward ineffability”, which Kot and Feldstein probably wouldn’t perceive as the most effective weapon on the cultural battlefield. (Even so, Feldstein believes song titles alone amount to meaningful gestures. She also mentions “Fables of Faubus” and says that Columbia “objected” to the lyrics. Despite the “masculinism” and “misogyny” that she believes marred the jazz world, she praises Mingus for naming wordless tunes “Work Song” and “Haitian Fight Song”, which she calls “songs whose titles made political statements about race relations in and out of the United States.”)
Making demands in their work is not the only way entertainers contributed to the civil rights movement. What could be called the mental desegregation of the country was abetted, via radio, records, movies, and television, by the images formed of black Americans through the artistry of the likes of Lena Horne and Isaac Hayes even when they weren’t performing at SNCC fundraisers or directly addressing racial issues in their work. Not easily dismissed in all this, too, is Bill Cosby, who in the television series I Spy, with co-star Robert Culp, was probably the first black man to play a part in which his being black was irrelevant to the role.
Ecstasy is no less worthy of artistic expression than anger, joy no less legitimate than rage. If people come to understand each other through art, then depictions and demonstrations of the full range of black people’s humanity achieved at least as much, if not more, than protest songs centering on specific issues. Such demonstrations and depictions could, and did, shape other Americans’ attitudes toward and ideas about their black fellow citizens. Gordon says Isaac Hayes’s “carnal image had been punishable by lynching only a couple decades earlier.” Performers like him and fellow Stax artists, as well as Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Cicely Tyson, and others helped undermine racist ideas even when they were not openly articulating their desire to do so.
Pops Staples may have insisted that all the songs his family recorded at Stax would have been appropriate to play in church, but as Kot points out, that’s not the case with at least one of them: “With sensual strings, purring guitar, and keyboard lines atop a smoky groove, ‘Let’s Do It Again’ sounded like postcoital bliss—even without the lyrics.” It became the band’s best-selling single. And why not, since part of the “cultural work” of music is to impart pleasure? Entertaining people reaches them in ways that lecturing or preaching at them never can. Sometimes indirection best hits the target.