In the non-niche-marketed '60s, Craig Werner heard soul music on the radio. But growing up in Colorado, he didn't have much opportunity to see soul performers on tour. Then James Brown came to Denver on an intriguing bill with the Byrds. The teenage Werner, already a fan of the songs he was hearing on the dial, was blown away.
The resulting imprint was indelible: even while hitting the books hard en route to a Ph.D. in English, Werner was giving as much time as he could to the music of Brown, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and others. Then at his first post-doctoral position, teaching at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, he dug deeper. "I began to realize that the reason that African-American literature spoke to me the way it did," recalls Werner, "was deeply connected to the music."
It's a connection that Werner, 55, continues to explore in his books and in the classes in African-American music, literature and cultural history he teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In his A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race, and the Soul of America, he rolled out the idea of the gospel impulse and how music infused with that impulse offers a vision of redemption. In the more recent Higher Ground, Werner tells the stories of Franklin, Wonder and the artist whose story he most wanted to tell, Curtis Mayfield—three musicians whose music glows with the gospel impulse. We spoke with Werner, who'd just gotten home after braving some snowy Wisconsin roads, about Aretha's "Think," Stevie's "As" and Curtis' "Keep on Pushing."
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: All three of these songs are like sermons, without being preachy. How do they succeed in walking that fine line?
CRAIG WERNER: All three are grounded in the call-and-response tradition of African-American culture, in which it is understood that when the singer or preacher says something, it's not to tell you how to think. It's to ask you to respond. It's to engage in the process of working through things together. They will state their position, state their take on the world very, very strongly. And they do that with the full expectation that you will think about that and bring it into conversation with your own experience and that you're absolutely free to say, "No, I don't think so" or "Yes, but ..." Or you can just give it your amen. I think it is a sermon, but I think you have to understand that the sermon is understood as requiring active response rather than passive acceptance.
In Higher Ground, you say this about Stevie Wonder's "As": "In a more truly democratic world, it would join Woody Guthrie's 'This Land Is Your Land' on the ballot for a new national anthem." Make your case for "As."
It gives you Stevie's vision of a world in which we take responsibility for our actions. When he says, "When you say you're in it but not of it/ Make sure you're not helping make this world a place called Hell"—that's not an exact quote, but it's close—he's saying, basically, don't pretend you're not a part of this world. Don't pretend that the things going on out there are somebody else's fault. The actions we take are the actions that create the world we're passing on to our kids.
He begins with kind of a beautiful, trippy vision, and he kinds of sucks you into that easy vision of love, if you want to say it like that. Then he goes through the piano break, and he comes back out, and his voice is literally changed. It's a growl; it's like he's grown up over that interlude. He's saying "Now, you want that? You take responsibility for it." That's exactly what Woody had to say.
"Think" is credited to Aretha Franklin and Ted White, her first husband, as are other songs like "Dr. Feelgood" and "Since You've Been Gone." How big of a role did White play in the writing?
He had jackshit nothing to do with it. [Laughs.] Those are Aretha's songs—"Think" more than any of them. She wrote that song in the immediate aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King's death, and she wrote it out of the deepest personal response imaginable. She was a good friend of King's. She supported King's movement. She raised money for him. That's her song, absolutely.
Maybe her greatest moment as a songwriter.
There's a lot of them. I actually put together a mix CD called Tapestry in Black. Everyone thinks of the white women—Carole King, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell—as these great singer/ songwriters. And they are: no rip on Joni or Carole King. But when you start stacking up the songs that Aretha wrote, man, she's a great songwriter.
Can you talk about what a song like "Keep on Pushing" and Curtis Mayfield in general meant to those in the civil rights movement?
What Curtis meant to people in the civil rights movement was profound. Joanne Bland, who ran the Voting Rights Museum in Selma, Ala., for many years, called Curtis' music "warrior music." She said that when people were marching out onto the bridge in Selma—when they were going into battle, literally—Curtis' music was what they played more than anything else. And Curtis was a really gentle soul, but that music fired people up. ...
What Curtis said is that when he needed a song, he just thought about the music that was sung in his grandmother's church. His grandmother was the minister of a very small church on Chicago's West Side. Hardcore ghetto—doesn't get any scruffier or more destitute than where Curtis' grandmother was preaching. He used "Keep on Pushing" as an example. He said, "I remembered this song that they sang in my grandmother's church, and it was 'God gave me strength, and it don't make no sense not to keep on pushing.'" And he said that he knew that they wouldn't let him sing about God on the radio, so he just changed it to "I've got my strength, and it don't make no sense not to keep on pushing."
Professor Craig Werner will give a free talk titled "The Black Side of Motown" at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 14, at the Auditorium at the Center for Documentary Studies. He promises to prove—with words, sounds and "some knockout footage of Smokey Robinson"—Motown was fighting the same fight as Stax. This is part of Duke Performance's Soul Power series. For more on the series, see our Q&A with director Aaron Greenwald.