Hippo Manchester
December 1, 2005

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Books: Souled Music

Kevin Phinney (Billboard Books 2005, 368 pages)

****

By Robert Greene

“Though I’m not the first king of controversy / I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley / To do Black music so selfishly / and use it to make myself wealthy,” white hip-hop artist Eminem rapped on his 2002 album, The Eminem Show.

Kevin Phinney, author of Souled American: How Black Music Transformed White Culture, might agree with him and he’d probably add that such “thefts” have been going on for a mighty long time.

Souled American is an important book. It is nothing less than the story of 200 years of American history and race relations, as seen through the focusing lens of music. It’s all here — from whites donning blackface to entertain their peers with black music to Hank Williams learning his licks from a black street performer to the infusion of jazz into the mainstream after the 1900 race riot in New Orleans to the co-opting of the blues to Pat Boone stealing from Little Richard to Elvis making hay from the black sound to Marshall Mathers (Eminem) rapping his way to the top of the charts with a music style created by black musicians in the inner city.

Phinney’s story spans all genres, including blues, country, gospel, jazz, R&B, ragtime, rock and rap. Along the way he checks in with musical luminaries like Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, B.B. King, David Byrne, Sly Stone, Donna Summer and Bonnie Raitt to see how they view the issue.

Phinney’s writing is concise and detailed, yet lively. He’s telling a good story and making the most of his mostly excellent material.

The issue, he says, is not black and white. Historically, it’s true that black artists have been the innovators in the American music scene. It’s also true that white artists have been enormously successful in adopting and adapting black music for their own use. But black artists, including rock icon Little Richard, freely admit that they would not have been successful had white artists like Pat Boone not brought the music to the mainstream. Still, Phinney says, at best black artists are getting sloppy seconds.

For fans of music, history, social issues, pop culture and good writing, Souled Music is a must.