December 29, 2006

Take Five--James Brown Cuts

[Take Five. Every Friday, Fire on the Mountain picks a category and lists five cool things in it. It's up to you, dear reader, to add your own in the Comments section. Just click on the word "comments" at the bottom of the piece and you're off to the races.]

This week's category is a no-brainer--James Brown tunes with political themes or implications. I was inspired to do it, and to keep things on the positive tip, by a memorial post for James on Ajamu Dillahunt's blog, Sankofa Meets the Future:

In 1980 i heard revolutionary activist Muhammad Ahmad/Max Stanford give a talk about how culture does not and cannot lead a movement. His point was that a mass movement creates conditions under which artist generate products that reflect the level of struggle and consciousness of the movement and even push it further. His example was James Brown and the creation of the inspiring and challenging lyrics of "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud." With the movement on the wane, James Brown could issue patriotic songs like Living in America from Rocky fame and even endorse Nixon in 1972.

I Don't Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open Up The Door, I'll Get It Myself) [1969]
Old James was a do-for-self kind of guy, and this is an ideological follow-on to that current in "Say It Loud." It's all the more powerful for its bluntness--just get your foot off our neck and we'll do fine.

Blackenized--Hank Ballard [1969?]
This is here because somebody stole my copy of "How You Gonna Get Respect (If You Haven't Cut Your Process Yet?)" about 30 years ago, and my memory being what it is (or isn't), I don't want to fake it. Hank Ballard & The Midnighters cut a bunch of great rockers in the '50s ("Work With Me, Annie" and "Let's Go, Let's Go, Let's Go," for instance) with a gospel flavor that was an influence on James. In the late '60s he paid his debt back by incorporating Ballard into his entourage, and producing several very James-flavored songs for him. This one is in the "Say It Loud" tradition lyrically, though not as funky, a flute-driven quasi-shuffle.
Now I don't know whether you realize
Before you get some respect
You got to be Blackenized
You been leanin' on others to be your keeper
That's why they call you Negroes and colored peoples
Rockin' Funky Watergate--The JBs [1973?]
A couple days ago, I blogged about "I Don't Care About Watergate, Just Give Me Some Bucks And I'll Get Straight" and the need to come to grips with its anti-politics message. This one doesn't even bother to make a value judgement--just turns "Rocking Watergate" into an intermittent party chant in one of those live (or "live") jams James excelled at.

King Heroin [1972]
Some of the most powerfully "conscious" Black songs have been anti-drug ones from Curtis Mayfield's "Freddie's Dead" to "White Lines (Don't Don't Do It)" by Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel. James's spoken entry in the field is kinda weird, because he recites it from the point of view of the drug itself.

Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto [Jeez, late '60s I guess]
Here not for really political lyrics (though I like the fade-out appeal "Santa Claus, a soul brother needs you so") but because it shows Brown's lifelong identification with the Inner City. Let's not forget James collapsed after his annual Christmas toy give-away in Augusta, GA. It's not the hard funk of the day, but an almost boppy rhythm wound just a half turn too tight to be relaxing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your five include two that i would have on my list if i could actually come up with five. To me Soul Power had both a driving beat and a message of struggle. I always thought that peoples' understanding of "soul" might not be clear politically and might be limited to the cultural aspects of the Black American experience. Yet, in reality, it was a grassroots understanding of Black Power in most cases given that people were clear on what power could mean and how much it was needed.

"Though I need it - soul power
Got to have it - soul power
Though we want it - soul power
Got to have it - soul power
Give it to me - soul power
How you need it - soul power
Though I need it - soul power
Got to have it - soul power

I want to get under your skin
If I get there, I've got to, got to win

Soul power, soul power
Soul power, soul power"

We would sometimes hear people at a party or rally singing "Black Power" as a substitue. Harry Chang in his great book "Can't Stop Won't Stop quotes hip hop journalist Steve Hager as saying that the street gang, the Black Spades would overrun the dance floor shouting "Spade Power!" when the James Brown classic was on the turntable.

Oh how we need folks to be singing about and fighting for power today.