Ignored Obscured Restored
February 28th brought Black History Month 2019 to a close. Perhaps it was fitting that last Sunday’s Academy Awards were amongst the most diverse ever witnessed. Oscar nominations and winners in many categories included films focused on African American casts/themes such as Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman, and If Beale Street Could Talk. And in a surprise to most, Green Book walked away with the award for Best Picture.
This is progress, though still more needs to be done before we achieve a truly color-blind society.
This subject caused me to reflect on the work of Curtis Mayfield, a pioneer in writing and recording songs that reflected the condition of Blacks in the US. Long before Marvin Gaye (What’s Going On, “Inner City Blues”) or Stevie Wonder (“Living for the City”) were laying it out there, Mayfield was releasing gospel-tinged, message songs like “Keep on Pushing” (1964), “People Get Ready” (1965), “We’re a Winner” (1968), “Choice of Colors” (1969), and “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue” (1970). Some of these may have even inspired James Brown to become more politically strident with songs like “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1968).
I was tempted to select a song from Mayfield’s soundtrack to Super Fly, in keeping with the Academy Awards theme. But instead, I’ve chosen something you’re less likely to have heard, in keeping with the black history/political songs (and SotW) themes.
The consistency of Mayfield’s catalog is impeccable. Despite the steady quality of his releases, shortly after the success of Super Fly, his already modest audience began to wane.
In 1975, Mayfield released the terrific There’s No Place Like America Today. Even before you get to the music, the album cover conveys that you are about to hear something special. It is a variation on a famous photograph taken by Margaret Bourke-White called “At the Time of the Louisville Flood.”
Mayfield’s team colorized it and changed the wording to fit his album. But the1937 image still suited the status of Blacks in 1975 (and may still be relevant today).
There’s No Place Like America Today is a slow burn. This album is a single malt Scotch, nightcap – not a Cosmopolitan. It moves at a pace that reminds me of Sly’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On (though it’s not similarly as druggy or dark).
My first SotW is “Billy Jack,” the album’s lead track.
This is a funk workout with effective use of congas and a stellar horn arrangement. There’s a lot going on and a lot to like on this track. The lyrics deal with the issue of gun violence in the ghetto (another situation that remains as common today as it was in ’75):
There can’t be no fun, can’t be no fun
To be shot, shot with a handgun
Your body sprawled out, you without a doubt
Running people out, there on the floor
Sad bloody mess
Shot all up in his chest, shot in his chest
One-sided duel, gun and a fool, ah
What a way to go
As a change of pace, the next SotW is “So in Love.”
This song departs from the social commentary of the rest of the album’s selections. It is a simple love song – nothing more, nothing less – sung in Mayfield’s gentle falsetto that must have influenced scores of soul singers, from Al Green to Prince, and beyond. It too has a fantastic horn arrangement and was Mayfield’s last release to manage to reach the pop chart (#67) in the US.
The choice of Green Book as the Oscar winner for Best Picture has generated quite a bit of controversy. One of the most consistent complaints was that it followed the formula for “white savior” films. Personally, I don’t see it that way (though admittedly from a white guy’s POV). To me, it was a story of two people who started out from different worlds and grew to know and respect the others’. Curtis Mayfield once said:
“Segregation will only end when people get to know the people they think they hate. To start to know somebody is to respect them.”
That’s the message I heard!
Enjoy… until next week.
Wonderful text. I was moved by how you ended your essay. Thank you for this. I just discovered Billy Jack this evening and I wanted to find what others thought of it