Revolution #78, February 11, 2007


From a Reader:

Remembering and Reflecting on James Brown

Revolution received the following letter from a reader:

I liked Joe Veale’s article in Revolution about the music, the politics and the irony of James Brown. [] I remember pretty vividly the experience of seeing JB in the same auditorium that Joe did. It wasn’t just about JB, but the whole experience, the people, the excitement, and also the “new day” that was being born in terms of people’s attitudes and sensibilities…something new was breaking out in society at that time. JB was also a product of the times. He came up in a time of great changes in this country, one being the great movement of Black people from countryside and farms to the cities of the U.S.

Into this changing reality came the turpentine man’s son, James Brown, born in a one-room shack in the pine woods of South Carolina. Growing up in Augusta, Georgia in a “neighborhood of ill-repute,” he sang and buck-danced for U.S. soldiers going off to WWII. He was jailed for breaking into cars as a teenager, then turned to prize-fighting, and finally to music as an attempt at a career. By the early 1960s he was the leader of one of the baddest bands on earth. Picture a “Night Train” chugging into a small Southern town under cover of darkness. Band members, clean to the bone, dressed as “sharp” as they could be, disembark and go off in the night into a dangerous, oppressively segregated world--but a world that was on the verge of being shaken to its foundations. Think about where exactly they were, in cities and towns and neighborhoods that contained--potentially--an extremely powerful force of the oppressed in society. And these people loved this James Brown and his band--he was one of them, he spoke their language. The band’s route took them along the so-called “Chitlin’ Circuit,” to concentrations of Black people in the South and all over the U.S. If you listen you can hear the bass, and the rhythm, and JB…Miami, Florida…Atlanta, Georgia; Raleigh, North Carolina; Washington, DC; Richmond, Virginia; Baltimore; Philadelphia; New York City; “and don’t forget New Orleans, the home of the Blues”…and the list of cities expanded as time went on.

The music. In the days and weeks after his death many people around the world have been discussing what JB and his music meant to them, and the music’s broader impact and importance. A blogger wrote: “Few people realize how much JB changed the way we look at music…for example, he took the role of rhythm away from just the drums and bass and actually turned the band itself into one big punchy hard hitting drum set…he was bold in mixing Jazz, Blues, Gospel and African influences together…to sum it up, JB made modern music more rhythmic and driving…[he] came to influence everyone in almost every musical genre around the world.” Scott Verastro writes that James Brown “helped shape and define R&B and soul, in effect altering the course and rhythmic vocabulary of jazz and planting the seeds of funk…and rap…Brown’s songs evolved from concise, upbeat constructions with tight arrangements and impeccable instrumentation into loose, extended improvisational and polyrhythmic workouts…”

JB, in his autobiography, talking about the conception of “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,” says: “I was still called a soul singer but musically I had already gone off in a different direction. I had discovered that my strength was not in the horns, it was in the rhythm. I was hearing everything, even the guitars, like they were drums. I had found out how to make it happen.” Guthrie Ramsey Jr., in his book Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop writes, “Funk or the ‘in the pocket’ groove rivals in importance the conventions of bebop’s complex and perhaps more open-ended rhythmic approaches. Each imperative--the calculated freedom of modern-jazz rhythm sections and the spontaneity-within-the-pocket funk approach--represents one of the most influential musical designs to appear in twentieth-century American culture.”

JB’s vocal work at the time was really something new on the scene. It was razor sharp, forceful and cutting. If Ella’s voice could shatter a champagne glass, JB’s could cut steel. His vocalizing influenced many, but it seems to me that only instrumentalists have been able to approach or encompass what JB had developed vocally. Avant-garde saxophonists Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders, for example, developed similar high-powered, biting-edged (multi-tones within) tones, and I believe were much influenced by James Brown. A testament to JB’s singular vocal talent is the number of vocalists who have covered his tunes. Jason Chervakos wrote that “as a singer Brown treated pitch as a quaint notion for old-fashioned singers. Even at its sweetest his voice was a hoarse rasp which seemed to articulate at two pitches at once… And his performances glided microtonally, soaring through songs, darting in the direction of the melodies without ever willingly landing on the branch of any distinct pitch…hard, relentless, these were the adjectives that Brown carefully cultivated, constructing a sound that seemed to be holding back a barely contained fury.” And much more can be said of JB’s vocalizing, his development of “call and response,” his rhythmic ideas, his signature and amazingly varied scream repertoire. Again from Chervakos: “We should have known from the start that Brown’s gift to the world was going to be rhythmic. ‘Please, Please, Please,’ Brown’s first single from 1956, isn’t much of a song--a desperate almost inarticulate plea not to be abandoned over piano triplets playing a I-IV-V. But in the third verse St. James performs his first miracle--repeating the word ‘please’ nine times in a rhythmic alteration that proceeds from something speech-like to a voice articulating a backbeat. Then he turns around and repeats the trick in the next verse on the word ‘I.’ It was a harbinger of things to come--a universe of Africanized music in which rhythmic development through altered repetition would replace melodic, harmonic, and even lyrical variation as the primary element in moving a song from beginning to middle to end.”

It’s a good thing that 1960s images of JB and band in performance are starting to appear on YouTube and elsewhere on the web. For those that weren’t there, including internationally, there are some wonderful things to see and hear, like “Live in Olympia 1966” and quite a few others. As far as JB’s international appeal and influence, Jeremiah S. Pam notes that in the mid-1960s “a musical tidal wave swept across Africa: James Brown.” JB who “was already recognized as titan of rhythm and blues” became even more popular and in West Africa “soon began to undercut the audience for highlife.” JB’s musical influence was notably felt in his effect on the great Fela Kuti of Nigeria. JB’s influence is still greatly felt in Africa and about everywhere else (for some more obvious examples check out Ethiopian Soul, Nigerian Afrobeat, Brazilian Funk-rap). Again, there was a flood of world-wide well-wishes upon this death--and, more importantly, reflections on his music and his politics.

Looking back, reminiscing about James Brown and remembering those times, it seems that quite suddenly (around 1968/1969) the excitement of “Mr. Dynamite” dimmed to a significant degree. But there is, again in people’s thoughts remembering him, a trend for people to want to gloss over and downplay all the “selling out” that he started to do big-time at a certain point. Many want to forgive JB, but we have to take an honest look at this: JB’s musical contributions were towering, but his actions must be looked at for what they were. His image will always be tarnished because he turned his back on the masses of people at a crucial juncture. And that hurt. The Last Poets captured some of this in their poem entitled “James Brown” from one of their early record albums. The sound poem implied how much James Brown meant to the oppressed: The Poets angrily appealed to JB, something like: “…as he cries the river, drinks the river, cries the river, sweats the river…but…Jimmy don’t fall, please don’t fall. Jimmy don’t fall…please don’t fall…” echoing a sentiment among the people that something big was up, and that the people wanted and needed JB and others like him with them on this great undertaking…

James Brown lost much of his audience ideologically for a time when suddenly a revolutionary mood swept through society, affecting especially the oppressed: Black people, Latinos and others. People were looking for more and moving in a different direction. “When revolution has its day, people see things a different way.” This became reality. What was sorely needed then was a vanguard communist party with deep ties among the masses that could take this sentiment and lead the people to remake the world--a party down for and capable of leading to do this. If this could have happened, things today could look completely different.

James Brown shows up into the late 1960s were gripping and draining affairs, with high notes, passion and drama--and the music…something that mattered (check out especially his live albums during this time, including Live at the Apollo, Volumes 1 and 2, Live at the Garden, and others). Later it changed, and didn’t matter much, if at all. I remember a Black friend, older than I, around that time telling me that his generation had done everything right--they respected the teachers in school, they wanted to do right and thereby better themselves--they didn’t rock the boat. And this hope, this expectation of positive change was not met, and he continued by saying that the kids today (late 1960s) wouldn’t go along with that anymore. I remember seeing the Castlemont High School basketball team win the TOC in 1969. The Oakland Coliseum management would intentionally dim the lights during the national anthem so that the view of thousands and thousands of Black people (and others influenced by them) with their fists high in the air would not predominate. And we know what side of all this JB ended up on. As Joe Veale’s article pointed out, “James Brown divided into two…he had a strong negative side going on as well as the positive…Shortly after ‘I’m Black and I’m Proud,’ this other side began to dominate. This led him into all kinds of stuff that was backward and frankly reactionary and damaging to the people…”

JB’s hometown, Augusta, GA, named a street after him in 1993, but it only named part of the street after him, the part that goes through the Black community. The business district of this “small southern town,” the home of the exclusive Masters golf tournament, couldn’t be tainted by the likes of someone like JB, even after all his groveling (years later city officials relented and named the rest of the street after him).

Jonathan Lethem recently reflected on the James Brown statue in Augusta for Rolling Stone magazine: “The statue’s back is to what was in 1993 renamed James Brown Boulevard, which cuts from Broad Street for a mile, deep into the neighborhood where James Brown was raised from age six, by his aunts, in a Twiggs Street house that was a den of what James Brown himself calls ‘gambling, moonshine liquor and prostitution.’ The neighborhood around Twiggs is still devastatingly sunk in poverty’s ruin. The shocking depths of deprivation from which James Brown excavated himself are still intact, frozen in time like a statue.”

Joe Veale is right: “It’s gonna take a brand new bag.”

for Jazz

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