A pleasing survey of soul music, from Lead Belly to Johnny Otis to Michael Franti to Louis Farrakhan.
Say what? It’s not every history of African-American song that takes time to recall that Farrakhan, later famed as a Black Muslim leader and political activist, recorded several calypso albums in the 1950s. (Who knew, too, that actor Louis Gossett Jr. was once a Greenwich Village folkie?) Music journalist and Crawdaddy columnist Sullivan (The White Stripes: Sweethearts of the Blues, 2004, etc.) has a good eye for the little-explored detail, and she puts it to use in this digressive but generally impressive look at the role of music in the tumult and toil that was the era of the civil-rights movement. The author charts the much-related story of how the blues and its urban cousin jazz united to form rock, and then began “to converge in a powerful new strain of freedom music” delivered by the likes of Odetta, Richie Havens and Harry Belafonte and thence by thousands of artists of every ethnicity and description. Here, Sullivan’s subtitle does not serve her well, for more than survey the role of music in the civil-rights movement—itself a more adequate term than “black power,” even lowercase—Sullivan capably shows how black music fed into white music and white music fed back into the black source. For instance, she notes that soul pioneer Sam Cooke was so taken with Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” that “he decided he should write his own protest song”—whence the classic “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Dylan, of course, was strongly influenced by Odetta, who in turn was shaped by Lead Belly and Marian Anderson, and so on, a great river of music that continues to feed us today.
There’s not much hard news for scholars of roots music, but for the rest of us, Sullivan offers a welcome exploration of how African-American popular music became America’s vernacular.