Souled American: The White Obsession with Black Music

Souled American: The White Obsession with Black Music

by Kevin Phinney




From the first white performers who blackened their faces with burnt cork to contemporary rapper Eminem, whites have been fascinated with performing in the guise and style of African Americans. White America's obsession with black music spans centuries. That fixation is more than skin deep - it's a primordial itch of the psyche to dance like nobody's watching and sing like no one else can hear. White Americans have long believed that no one sings or dances like the African Americans who were brought to this country at gunpoint. To envy the creative freedom of a race brought to America enslaved sets up a fascinating irony, and Souled American: How Black Music Transformed White Culture is an ambitious and comprehensive look at race relations in the United States as seen through the prism of music from slavery to the present.

Equal parts social history and pop culture, this book argues that no form of American music can be described accurately as ethnically pure, and fleshes out the tug-of-war between blacks and whites as they create, recreate, and claim each innovation in popular music.

Taking a thoughtful and thought-provoking look at how genres such as rock 'n' roll, rhythm 'n blues, jazz, blues, soul, country, and hip-hop emerged through changing times and the dynamic personalities that shaped them, author Kevin Phinney chronicles the history of American music through its succession of black and white composers, performers, and entrepreneurs who have stepped into the limelight with one set of rules in place and departed having transformed not only the music, but the structure of society as well. By using each era's greatest commercial successes as a roadmap, he connects the signposts of America's musical evolution and societal shifts into a panoramic whole.

Tracing a direct line from plantation field hollers to gangsta rap, Phinney explains how jazz sprang up in New Orleans when military band instruments were abandoned after the Civil War, how spirituals matured into gospel, and even how the teen idols of yesteryear forecast the paths of New Kids on the Block and Boyz II Men, who in turn ensured that bands like the Backstreet Boys would be million-selling superstars waiting to happen. In doing so, he carefully recreates each era to help readers understand how these cultural milestones occurred, what the participants felt about them at the time, and the ways they recombined to create the music of today-including work songs, spirituals, bebop, rock, soul, and rap.

Anecdoies are rich and plentiful as the focus shifts from slavery and blackface to jazz, the British Invasion, and the MTV generation. White and black artists speak candidly about sharing the limelight, with jazz great Art Blakey complaining that the only way a white musician can swing "is from a rope." Show business insider stories include Donny Osmond's recollection that he was ushered into the Osmond Brothers barbershop group in order to transform them into a white Jackson 5, and Stevie Ray Vaughan's belief that on the best nights, his band sounded "like niggas." Also contained are appreciations of unsung music icons, among them James Reese Europe, the black man behind the Fox Trot, the organizer of the first black musician's union in New York City, and the man credited with bringing jazz to the European continent as the leader of a World War I military band of combat heroes.

Meticulously researched, this book includes dozens of exclusive celebrity interviews, culminating in revealing perspectives and statements from such music luminaries as Artie Shaw, Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Little Richard, B.B. King, Sly Stone, Steve Cropper, Joe Cocker, Buddy Guy, Donny Osmond, Bill Withers, Eric Burdon, Donna Summer, Lyle Lovett, Chaka Khan, Jerry Wexler, George Clinton, David Byrne, Bonnie Raitt, Nile Rodgers, Beck, and members of groups ranging from Fats Walle's band, The Rhythm, to Motown's Supremes, Temptations, Four Tops, and Jackson 5, up through the Bee Gees, the Time, and beyond. Filmmakers John Landis (The Blues Brothers) and Ken Burns (JAZZ) join scholars, critics, deejays, veejays, and record executives to add their pieces to the 400-year-old puzzle. The emphasis throughout is not on sex and drugs, but on the inspirations for such memorable compositions as "Oh, Susannah," "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "Rhapsody in Blue," "My Funny Valentine," "Rock Around the Clock," "The Thrill Is Gone," and "The Real Slim Shady."

In the connections it makes and the conclusions it draws, Souled American stands well apart from most music books. Its goal is a search for significance rather than another chronology of names, dates, and chart positions. Illuminating rather than regurgitating, revealing rather than rehashing, the book keeps an eye on the present as even today, music and race continue to cast a shadow play over what we mean to each other and who we are as black and white Americans.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780823084043
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/28/2005
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Kevin Phinney, an entertainment journalist based in Austin, has written for the Austin American-
Premiere magazine,
and the Hollywood Reporter. Currently, he is cohost of KGSRFM’s morning drive-time program, Kevin & Kevin.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1Of Massas and Minstrels24
Chapter 2Rags to Ragtime52
Chapter 3Big Band Theory86
Chapter 4When Worlds Collide126
Chapter 5River Deep, Mountain High171
Chapter 6Time Has Come Today205
Chapter 7Play That Funky Music238
Chapter 8Controversy268
Chapter 9Wigga Wonderland302

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