Listen to a whole century 'Say It Loud'

An exhaustive compilation serves as a sort of soundtrack for generations of black Americans.

Pop Music

October 07, 2001|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,Sun Staff

Our lives have soundtracks, songs that become touchstones for our experience. All we have to do is hear a few familiar strains, and we are transported back to a certain time and place, a certain mood. It could be as dynamic and transcendent as John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme," as innocent and tender as Smokey Robinson's "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," or as exuberant and defiant as James Brown's anthemic 1968 hit, "Say It Loud. I'm Black and I'm Proud."

The Godfather's song was a cultural and psychological breakthrough if you happened to be a black baby boomer growing up in the 1960s, watching riots, assassinations and war, listening as your people moved by fits and starts from being colored to being Negro to being black.

Black? In less than 10 years, the word went from being an insult to a badge of honor, an in-your-face bit of self-determination. It felt good to the soul. Some long-hurting part of yourself was finally able to stand up and proclaim itself and in so doing begin to heal itself. And our funky soul brother gave us the words in call-and-response style.

"Unh. With your bad self. Say it loud." Then the joyous, triumphant shout, "I'm black and I'm proud." And along with affirmation came the belief that this time there would be no turning back to the old ways. "You know we are people too," he sang. "We like the birds and the bees. But we'd rather die on our feet than be living on our knees."

Brown's song does not lead off Rhino records' just-released, six-CD celebration of black American music. But in naming the compilation Say It Loud: A History of Black Music in America, the producers seemed to know the song was in a sense the spiritual heart of this collection. Say It Loud acts as a soundtrack for an entire people and for the incredible century that has just passed. An accompanying five-part TV series has its premiere tonight at 10 on VH1, and continues in the same time slot through Thursday.

Taken together, they present almost every aspect of the black musical experience, from ragtime to rap, jazz to country and western. The collection's variety and depth give the listener and the viewer chances to search for themes and connections linking one era's music to another. Some might think the music of protest began and flourished in the 1960s and continued with Public Enemy. It did not. You can go back to Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit," back further still to Louis Armstrong singing, "[What Did I Do To Be So] Black and Blue."

So many artists, so many styles

Putting this collection together was a daunting task. There were so many great artists to choose from, so many styles to consider. It had to be great fun, but also hard, hard work. The trio of producers spent two years compiling the collection. Somehow they left out Stevie Wonder.

"We have retraced our steps across America," they write. "The view has been both harrowing and humbling. We sat together for days on end listening to Otis, Aretha, Miles, and Muddy; and speeches from Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson. It's been a reminder for us of the tragedy and triumph that always has been -- and always will be -- America."

Similar compilations have been tried before, but rarely to this extent. Several years ago, Columbia records issued The Promised Land, a two-CD set that followed black American life from the rural South to the great cities of the North and West, the promised land of the Great Migration.

Earlier this year, Ken Burns presented Jazz, his monumental effort at trying to distill a music's history into a CD box set and a documentary. He kept the focus tight, limiting himself to one genre. Imagine the difficulty of trying to encapsulate 100 years of a people's music, 100 years that saw them go from the darkest days of Jim Crow to an unparalleled participation in all levels of American society.

The collection is laid out in chronological order and begins with Scott Joplin's piano roll of "Maple Leaf Rag," his brilliant work that heralded a new age. Ragtime was the first popular black American music to cross over and capture the country's soul. Our musical and cultural life was never the same after ragtime. Sure, there were official boundaries and strict segregation. But there also were radio and records and nightclubs.

By the century's end, the Pillsbury Dough Boy would be rapping and white kids in Minnesota would be pimp-walking, calling themselves "wiggers" and trying to imitate the thug life they saw on MTV.

The first disc gives a wonderful example of how two artists can give the same song wholly different interpretations. The producers give us the Mills Brothers singing "Tiger Rag," then follow it up later with jazz pianist Art Tatum's virtuosic performance of a song that if you don't know by name, you surely know by its chorus: "Hold that tiger. Hold that tiger. Hold that tiger don't let him get away!"

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