A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America

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A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America

Craig Werner
Plume, 1999
ISBN 0-452-28065

A Change is Gonna Come is another entry in a genre-in-the-making: critical studies that aim to trace the degradation of America's popular music. The gist of these books is that the music that most people hear/buy today is becoming increasingly nihilistic, hopeless and dark. But it's hard not to come to another conclusion: the Baby Boomers who write these books are becoming their parents. Instead of screaming: "Turn that crap down!," they go on for 300 or 400 pages about how today's music just isn't like yesterday's.

Though he notes pop's dark days, Werner's book is a little different from the likes of Martha Bayles' "A Hole in Our Soul" or James Miller's "Flowers in the Dustbin," which all but write off popular music as a lost cause.

Bayles takes a culturally conservative stance, blaming everything she doesn't like about today's music on the influence of the "decadent" values of dada and subsequent European art movements and on the hippie values of 1960s. Miller, on the other hand, comes off like a disappointed boomer, finding little to enjoy in the post-punk era.

But like the Sam Cooke gospel plea it uses for its title, Werner's book stays hopeful. He believes today's popular music can still be inspiring and liberating. From Mahalia Jackson to the Wu Tang Clan, Werner finds many examples of music that, while it is sometimes sad, angry, despairing and confused, is at bottom about redemption and the faith that things will get better.

Not surprisingly, Werner celebrates the 1960s as a golden age when soul, rock and pop, along with the jazz of John Coltrane and others, blended perfectly with the cultural and political dreams of the day. The music commented on and provided inspiration for the youth-driven civil rights, anti-war and hippie movements. There's an interesting chapter examining parallels between Coltrane and Malcolm X, some nice bits about Sam Cooke, and the obligatory survey of the Motown Sound.

But Werner also examines less-written-about and less-hopeful times. He looks at how the maleficent econonic and social policies of Thatcher and Reagan provoked the rage of punk and rap and how, while some of the music in those genres never went beyond rage, punks like the Clash and rappers like Public Enemy were rebels with a myriad of causes.

Werner's chapter on the Clash is a highlight of the book. It's refreshing to see an intelligent examination of this group, which has been all but forgotten in the onslaught of all that punk wrought. While other punk bands swore off outside influences to make music they saw as pure and uncompromised, the Clash embraced reggae (and rap and jazz, too, though Werner doesn't mention it), recognizing its revolutionary and emotional energy. Faced with obeying the rules of punk (a genre which, after all, shouldn't have rules, should it?), the Clash, Werner writes, made a decision: "Be honest about who you are; ignore the divisions imposed by those in power; reach out to the people whose burdens you share." The musical hybrid they came up with on albums such as "London Calling" and "Sandinista" succeeded, as Lester Bangs wrote, in finding "the missing link between black and white noise, rock capable of making a bow to black forms without smearing on the blackface."

In the later chapters, Werner notes how a number of rappers have collaborated and borrowed samples from funky elder statesman George Clinton. How Polly Jean Harvey, who grew up in the English hinterlands, found inspiration in Captain Beefheart and Delta blues. And he notes the strong role played by women such as Liz Phair, Sarah McLachlan, Lauryn Hill and Cassandra Wilson in 1990s rock, pop, hip hop and jazz.

Werner's focus throughout the book is on this trading back and forth between black and white musical forms and between old and new influences. How can you be anything less than hopeful when all these pieces come together in beautiful ways, as they so frequently do in popular music?

Naturally readers will have qualms about Werner's omissions/inclusions. Mine? I wondered why he settled on focusing his narrative—as he admits in his introduction—on "better-known music." Werner says he believes the familiar names will make it easier for readers to relate to his argument. Of course, this means jazz gets thrown to the margins. There are some good sections on Coltrane and Miles Davis, but with all the wonderful examples in jazz of blacks and whites coming together and influencing one another, it's a pity he didn't focus on it more. I was also perplexed, to put it mildly, by a chapter that draws comparisons between Duke Ellington and Prince. While certainly talented, imaginative and charismatic, Prince hasn't come close to producing music that contains the richness and generosity of Ellington's. In an effort to make this comparison, Werner sells short Ellington's enormous contribution to music.


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