December 1, 2005
Kevin Phinney (Billboard Books 2005, 368 pages)
“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
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
Phinney’s writing is concise and detailed, yet lively. He’s telling a
good story and making the most of his mostly excellent material.
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
fans of music, history, social issues, pop culture and good writing,
Souled Music is a must.