Regular readers here will know that no one loves soul music more than I do, so I was looking forward to this new BBC documentary series. It has lots of great footage, much of it new to me, and interviews (mostly a bit obvious 90-second bites, but it’s still great to see these people, and they are mostly very well selected), and its pundits seem knowledgeable and not too prone to saying absurd things to make the cut.
But there is a deeply wrong underlying thesis. It can almost be reduced to black versus white. They start by playing ‘Hey Ya’ and claiming that all American black music traces back to soul. Even if you take a pretty wide definition of soul, it’s hardly a secret that Krautrock and Jamaican toasting fed into hip hop, for instance. They get worse in the ’50s, claiming that rock ‘n’ roll was a cleaned up white version of rhythm ‘n’ blues. There are too many things wrong with that notion to detail here, but I note they didn’t interview Little Richard, Chuck Berry or Ike Turner about it. Of course it was largely dominated, as time went on and in public popularity terms, by white people, but that doesn’t make the case at all. Clearly there is a vast amount that has been written, and I think still much more to say, about white appropriation of black forms, of white attitudes to those forms (I wrote an article here a while ago that talked about that, and I imagine I’ll discuss it again in future), but making obviously stupid statements won’t help.
I’ll keep watching, and I’ll keep enjoying the clips, but I hope the narrative gets a grip. I also hope that the relatively narrow focus of show one, completely dominated by Ray Charles, isn’t going to be repeated throughout, because there are a lot of strands and styles to cover. Hmm, as I typed that, the announcer over the closing credits made it sound as if next week’s will be similar, about Sam Cooke.