What Is Soul? ‘A Ham Hock In Your Cornflakes’

Sharon Jones [Photo by Dulce Pinzon/NPR]We all know ‘it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.’ What is swing? Gunther Schuller’s monumental treatise notwithstanding, it’s a word that defies strict definition. It’s like barbecue (just listen to Louis Armstrong’s Struttin’ with Some Barbecue) , the elusive, provocative sweet spot. Mmm, mmm, mmm!

So what is soul? George Clinton said it was “a ham hock in your cornflakes” but that’s too funky, better for a gloss on the name of his band, Funkadelic. George went on to say that soul was “a joint rolled in toilet paper.” Oh yeah.

“Soul music has grown and changed and kept up with the times,” according to music journalist Ashley Kahn. “Today, it seems to be enjoying a revival.”

Sharon Jones (above left), a leading light in that revival, doesn’t see it quite that way:

“You know what? It’s always been here,” says Sharon Jones, a gospel-trained singer who started performing soul in the ’70s. “You’re just hearing about it again.

“They say, ‘Well, isn’t soul, like, black people?’ No. Look at my band: young white guys, Jewish guys, or Spanish… You know, it’s all mixed up there,” she says.

Jones recently released a new album, 100 Days, 100 Nights, with her group The Dap-Kings. Her voice can be a formidable force, especially when it shifts an entire song into high gear.

Jones can sing with sweetness and grace, but she says there’s a lot more to it than that. “I think when you go soul, you got to get the ugly face,” she says. “Soul is singing with the ugly face.”

Sharon  Jones (“100 Days, 100 Nights”)  and Eli “Paperboy” Reed (“Fooling Myself”) are the “new faces” featured in Ashley Kahn’s NPR Music take on ‘What Is Soul?.  For the record, here’s how he answers the question:

… there’s no easy answer. But if you’re talking about music, soul is easy to define: It’s a gritty, vocal style, filled with a feeling straight out of the black church. Soul music was born in the ’50s, took over the charts in the ’60s, and remains alive and well today. Soul often has horn sections and sometimes strings, but it doesn’t like to be too dressed up with polished production: Soul is more about naked emotion and personal testimony.

Soul music was so prevalent by the end of the ’60s that the word itself took on a world of meaning for black America. “Black people identified themselves as soul brothers and soul sisters,” says Nelson George, who has been writing about African-American music and culture for more than 30 years. “There were soul shakes, soul haircuts, soul barbershops, soul food. There was a lot of soul. It was so widely used, it almost lost its meaning, quite honestly.”

The triumph of Soul music meant a lot, signifying a major shift in popular musical taste in America.

“By the ’60s, soul music was mainstream black pop music and became mainstream American music,” George says. “Certain styles of music are incredibly connected to the times, and certainly soul music and the ’60s are intertwined — things like Aretha Franklin’s ‘(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman,'” Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness.” I also think that soul music gets stereotyped by the rawer stuff, and actually there’s a quieter tradition from Smokey [Robinson] to Curtis Mayfield and the Delfonics. So I would say that ‘La La (Means I Love You)’ by the Delfonics is soul music.”

Check out Ashley Kahn’s tribute to Jerry Wexsler, who invented the term “rhythm and blues.”

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