Brian Ward. Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness, and Race Relations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998, 600 pp. Npl paper.

In the classic text Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom – a largely anecdotal history of R&B and soul music – Peter Guralnick recalls the initial skepticism he encountered as he embarked on the research project: “No one was interested in that kind of book. It would never sell. Soul music was the province of collectors alone” (1986: 395). Since then, the post-war musical heritage of black America has been given its due, receiving more attention and considerably more appreciation, evident in the continued sales of recordings retrieved from back catalogues as well as the revisitations to the musical era via recorded rap and numerous popular and neo-“blaxploitation” film soundtracks.

In recent academic publishing, it also seems that someone left the door open at the soul factory, as a spate of publications indicates. These span a range from the comprehensive analysis of a narrow but crucial period in American black musical history and Southern soul (Bowman, 1997); the predictable rehashing of relatively common historical perceptions of soul music (Neal, 1999); cogent theoretical explorations of the musical and extra-musical composition of “soul” as an essence and the root of a whole way of life (Guillory & Green, eds.: 1998); and a broad social critique of U.S. black youth culture in the hip hop era (George: 1998). Brian Ward’s exhaustively researched Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness, and Race Relations proposes an ambitious project that falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. At once a primer on the history of organized political action and resistance to U.S.-style apartheid and a social history of post-war black popular music, the book straddles a line that is often indelibly drawn between them.

Taking 1954 as his temporal point of departure, Ward cites the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision on school desegregation, Brown vs the Topeka Board of Education, and the contemporaneous crossover success of the R&B recording “Sh-Boom,” by the vocal group the Chords, as curiously related indicators of emergent sensibilities reflecting a radical cultural transformation in the U.S. This is more than a convenient initiating device since Ward is intent on exploring the very nature of the racial transformations that followed. For Ward, both the Brown decision and gradual processes of black musical crossover (defined as a phenomenon whereby music by black artists achieves commercial success among white/popular consumer markets) heralded a new era in American race relations. Moreover, Ward asserts that the changes occurring within white and black cultural enclaves were sounded out in the lyrical discourses and musical styles of the post-war period and that the gradual articulation of black cultural politics, racial identities, and collective dreams and desires, joy and pain, were expressed in and through the R&B, soul, funk, and disco that black artists and entrepreneurs have produced since 1954. Ward would do well, however, to include the temporal frame of his work in the book’s title; the analysis ends at roughly the end of the 1970s, although a brief and flimsy epilogue attempts to carry the themes into the 1980s and 1990s. This incomplete addition smells suspiciously of the publisher’s indiscrete wish to close with a nod to the contemporary condition, but following such a thorough and well-researched book, it is entirely wasted, despite Ward’s lengthy footnote pointing to existing work on the music and politics of the period.

The depth of research that Ward brings to the project is perhaps the defining characteristic of Just My Soul Responding. Where Guralnick’s loving recovery of the R&B and soul era in Sweet Soul Music is structured upon interviews with the key artists of the time, Ward combines interviews with political activists, musicians, and music industry executives (Julian Bond of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Commitee [SNCC] and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP], former SNCC Freedom Singer and Smithsonian Institute Civil Rights archivist Bernice Johnson Reagon, and popular entertainer Harry Belafonte figure prominently) with copiously footnoted primary archival sources. This is, ultimately, his most significant scholarly contribution to the study of both organized racial struggle and black popular musical production and consumption between 1954 and 1979. In one instance, this rigor includes exhuming bank deposit slips from June to December, 1965, to determine the amount of money generated for several of the most prominent Civil Rights organizations, including Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, from a New York benefit concert organized by Sammy Davis, Jr. Ward also engages with the soul studies “canon” by confirming or refuting prior accounts, at times nudging the research forward with gentle correctives to inaccurate or incomplete ideas, while at other times dismissing prior studies with stern rebuke. In the latter case, Nelson George, author of the influential and widely cited The Death of Rhythm and Blues (1988), is the most consistent target of Ward’s wrath as he tears apart George’s many undocumented assertions and wrong-headed statements about the nature of race and politics and their impact on the black music industry. With 54 pages of footnotes, there is a trove here that harbors valuable material for researchers working in the fields of sociology, popular music, or American black studies.

Ward approaches his topic with the guiding presupposition that popular music’s social and political meanings are always conjunctural, intersecting at various moments within an array of overlapping factors that, as he notes, “can be crudely divided into forces of production and consumption” (p. 5). He also cites the importance of “a conventionally recognized spectrum of musical techniques and devices which range from nominally ‘black’ to nominally ‘white’ poles” (ibid.). Just My Soul Responding therefore sets out to chart the movement between these two poles – between a cultural blackness and a cultural whiteness – at precise historical moments across the Civil Rights Movement, through the transition to a more emboldened Black Power Movement, and into the waning stages of openly confrontational black cultural struggle. The music (or, more precisely, the artists, entrepreneurs, and audiences involved in its circulation) occupies the central focus of his arguments, but it never displaces the powerful sociological thrust of the research which describes human action and practice in exceedingly precise detail.

To Ward’s credit, his conceptualization of race and culture is expansive. In comparing, contrasting, or describing basic cultural practices among whites and blacks or among blacks of differing educational and economic status, he is attentive to the many ways that distinct forms of race and racial consciousness can be manifested. For instance, in describing the rise of Detroit entrepreneur Berry Gordy’s Motown label and the exceptional levels of professionalism Gordy displayed, Ward pauses to rationalize the lame, questionable, or outright criminal business practices of scores of smaller independent black labels that Motown eclipsed: “That such problems were especially acute at black-owned labels did not indicate a lack of black managerial talent or aptitude, or some preternatural black tendency toward embezzlement and larceny. It reflected the continued absence of professional training and executive experience for blacks in the recording and radio industries” (p. 278). Elsewhere, dissecting the systems of political engagement and the limited participation of soul musicians during the late 1960s Black Power Movement, Ward writes that “black musical celebrity did not always indicate financial well-being, let alone political consciousness…There was a class dynamic within the early Movement which reflected both the nature of the white audience it was trying to reach and its own heavy dependence on clerical and student leadership” (p. 331). Still, where “whiteness” is thinly sketched as a series of socio-political positions – radical/engaged, liberal, moderate, conservative, and ardently racist – “blackness” is portrayed as a more complex, enlivened system of nuanced identity positions.

While this is understandable given the book’s emphasis on black music and its evolution within the social tensions produced by explicit and implicit racial segregation in the United States, a more thorough discussion of “race” as a social construct is warranted. How else can the core of something called “black consciousness” be adequately comprehended? With only intermittent and brief attempts to deconstruct the social categories of race, how are we to make sense of Ward’s statements pertaining to race relations that are founded on a categorical system of difference, such as the following: “although distinctive, black urban culture was crucially shaped by its relation to a white-dominated mainstream culture which constantly affected both the material existence and the changing consciousness of black Americans” (p. 58)? Readers may well ask, “upon what ideological and historical grounds does this perceived consensus on the functional definitions of “white” or “black” lie?”

Ward infrequently summons the likes of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,bell hooks, Paul Gilroy, and David Roediger to explain in theoretical terms the nature of racial difference but, with the entire project resting on the themes of race, complex taste distinctions, and identity politics, he runs the risk of further fixing these differences as facets of widely held (and entirely contestable) “common” sense. A more carefully defined critical engagement with race’s conceptual underpinnings early in the book might reinforce some of the arguments and observations Ward later advances in the text. It is telling of Ward’s main research interests to note that Roland Barthes (whose concepts of “plaisir” and “jouissance” are unnecessarily summoned) appears in the index next to Marion Barry, the first chairman of SNCC and, more recently, beleagured mayor of Washington, D.C. Similarly, Antonio Gramsci (whose theory of hegemony is appropriately introduced but insufficiently developed) is situated, undoubtedly for the first time ever, between 1970s funk artists Graham Central Station and Nashville’s country music mecca, the Grand Ole Opry.

This, then, is not a sophisticated theoretical analysis of race, culture, and music in the U.S. but a detailed historical account that weaves the social, political, and cultural expressions of racial experience together. This is amplified near the book’s conclusion, where Ward explains, “the real strength of black-oriented radio and Rhythm and Blues music was its ability to dramatize and celebrate shared aspects of the black experience and, at its best, to give shape and form to barely apprehended hopes, dreams, and aspirations…Music and radio, records and concerts, helped to spread that sense of pride, empowerment and cultural identity far beyond the ranks of the frontline activists who were transformed by their experiences of protest and struggle” (p. 449).

There can be little argument that Brian Ward’s Just My Soul Responding deserves to be read. Its meticulous attention to historical detail and accessible descriptions of American race relations, cultural production, and public musical consumption in post-war society assures it a place on many scholars’ bookshelves. It stands out in a rather cluttered field as an exceptional text and an invaluable academic resource.


Bowman, Robert. Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records. New York: Schirmer Books, 1997.

George, Nelson. The Death of Rhythm and Blues. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1988.

George, Nelson. Hip Hop America. New York: Viking, 1998.

Guillory, Monique & Richard Green, editors. Soul: Black Power, Politics and Pleasure. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Guralnick, Peter. Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.

Neal, Mark Anthony. What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Murray Forman, Ph.D.
W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research,
Harvard University.

January 1999
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