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The Voice of Reason

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Bill Withers: I Can’t Write Left Handed
Taken from the album “Live At Carnegie Hall” on Sussex (1973)

Sorry for the delay in posting. We’ve been doing some site upkeep over here. So I’m returning with some real heft. Today’s gonna be a doosy…

What is the anatomy of a superb soul song? For starters I’ll say this: the same elements that build a great rock tune do not apply here; for while those artists will drift sometimes (and successfully so) into the soulful realm, the framework of the music itself rarely supports the kind of delicate, unaffected emoting that R&B not only allows for, but actually encourages.

Certainly to my mind, there seems little question that in the relatively brief histories of both popular rock and popular soul music, the former has benefitted from having an audience more ready (largely because of drugs, no doubt) to embrace a greater level of experimentation, both lyrically and musically. The effect of this can be thrilling, or at least… interesting. (Who doesn’t love a a track with a sitar and a fender rhodes threaded under the vocals of a scrawny white dude singing about catching butterflies?)

Soul music, though, thrives on its unremitting passion. Its yelps, shrieks and, yes, occasionally tears. Sometimes the music over-relies on these things, to the detriment of lyrics that actually enhance the depth and complexity of the vocals. (Sure, there are about a million exceptions to this rule (see earlier post), but bear with me a second…) Even still, there can be little question of the raw power of soul.

Now, with this in mind, ask yourself a question: Why– with soul music being the emotional powerhouse, the pacemaker of conscience, the visceral call-to-arms, that it is– why with all of these qualities in mind, has it not been more successfully employed in the making of great anti-war music?

Good question, right? Obviously, Edwin Starr had that one little song (ha.). And Gil Scott , god bless ‘im, had plenty to say. But name a few others… Anyone? Bueller?

Part of it is, I think, that political soul music consistently turned its focus on the local level: our ghettos, our drugs, our struggle. And considering the origins of the music itself (slavery, repression, etc.), a certain level of afro-centricity should be expected. But, in Vietnam, black folks were dying too. Who would stand up as the voice of reason in a time of massive social discontent? Who would transgress the thickly drawn lines of a racialized country, and perhaps even more racialized music, to address the problems that affected every American?

Enter Bill Withers. In my mind a greater statesman of soul music never lived… (save, maybe, Marvin Gaye). Not the most prolific, the most vocally gifted, or the most musicially original, but, in his subdued delivery and nuanced lyricism, more evocative than virtually any of his peers. He wrote music that made you think. He told stories. And he sang his songs unpretentiously enough that, listening to them today, I feel like Bill’s just sitting down to rap with me for a few minutes before heading off to the grocery store.

This song–the entire record, really– highlights all of those qualities. (If you’ve never heard the whole of this album, BUY IT TODAY. It contends with Donny Hathaway’s live album as best ev-ar. Check the version of “Use Me”.) But it also manages to make a profound topical statement about war and its unspoken casualities, issued with an impossibly understated elegance.

The result makes me weak: The hypnotic piano line. The almost hymn-like vocals. The bluesy guitar flourishes. And all of this made even more amazing by the singer himself, who manages to straddle ever-so-deftly the line between precise individual narrative and large-scale social drama.

This is a real-deal anti-war song, however Bill may have tried to de-politicize it by introduction. And without trying to get too preachy on you, I will say this:

3,054 American Soldiers Dead. 22,951 (officially–riiiight) Wounded. 20,000 more waiting to be deployed…