Socialist Worker

Civil rights, black power and the music at the soul of the fight

The worst of times produced the best of soul, says BBC documentary Soul America. It’s worth watching, says Liz Wheatley, whether you’re new to soul music or not

Issue No. 2720

Mavis Staples of the Staple Singers who toured with Martin Luther King appears in BBC documentary Soul America

Mavis Staples of the Staple Singers who toured with Martin Luther King appears in BBC documentary Soul America (Pic: BBC Studios)


Let’s face it, Friday nights aren’t what they used to be. If your perfect way to welcome in the weekend was going out to hear good music then the last few months have been a bit of a challenge. One of the saving graces has been BBC4’s music slots. And starting on Saturday is a new three-part series, Soul America.

Narrated by Carleen Anderson, this series charts the development of soul. From Stax and Motown, by way of the Fame studio in Muscle Shoals, through to Luther Vandross, meeting Barry White and Teddy Pendergrass along the way.

Quite rightly the series looks at the relationship between soul music, racism and the developing Civil Rights and Black power movements of the time. Interviews with artists relate their experiences of touring round segregated states.

They talk about why they knew they had to get involved in the movements and use their music and platform to spread the gospel of liberation.

There’s the chance to hear some great artists such as Steve Cropper talking about the Stax house band, the multiracial Booker T and the MGs. Mavis Staples, who as part of the Staple Singers toured with Martin Luther King, still makes music about ­fighting racism.

Aretha Franklin gave us a vision of struggle - and of a radically different world
Aretha Franklin gave us a vision of struggle - and of a radically different world
  Read More

Artists from Motown discuss how because of the Civil Rights Movement, and the Detroit riots in 1967, some of them developed from being pop bands to being political.

Berry Gordy’s wish was that they would be the “sound of young America” for a Black and white audience. But they also expressed the hopes and frustrations of Black America.

The series focuses on a number of individuals including Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, James Brown, Teddy Pendergrass and Luther Vandross.

It uses them to highlight how soul developed from the 1960 to the 80s alongside social changes. Songs of defiance developed into the music of a Black middle class wanting a sound of their own. It concludes with the queen Aretha singing at the inauguration of America’s first Black president.

There’s some superb footage. And it’s great to hear the songwriters and artists talking about the era, their work and their peers—not least why steam used to rise from Teddy Pendergrass when he performed.

Anyone who watches it will ­probably say it missed out one of their favourite artists or songs, or that the ending implies the struggle is over once Obama got elected.

But that would be missing the point of how this series will reach people.

It encourages people to look ­critically at music, how it is made and how artists can relate to the times they live in and the world they want to see. If you’re familiar with the politics of soul then you won’t find lots of new things here—but you will enjoy the series.

Soul America begins Friday 4 September, 9:30pm on BBC4

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