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Eight Forty-Eight

Music Wednesdays with Tony Sarabia and Richard Steele: Race and Identity

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Tony Sarabia:

On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to announce its decision on President Obama’s Health Care Law, known as the Affordable Care Act. Eight Forty-Eight will devote the hour to the ruling Thursday, which means no Music Thursday. Instead, we’re taking a look at the themes of race and identity on Music Wednesday.

This is a broad theme as it can encompass everything from a patriotic songs to one lamenting an interracial relationship. There’s also the more explicit homage such as The Godfather of Soul’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).”

One song included in the mix for this installment is called “Call Out My Name” written and performed by Cleveland-based journalist Afi Odelia Scruggs. The tune is about coded race words. She’ll be joining Richard Steele and I with her music picks on the theme.

I was going to go with Janis Ian’s most well-known song about identity; the pop-dirge that tells the story of a 17-year-old outsider but instead I went with a song centered on race and more specifically racism.

"Society’s Child" was written when Ian was 13 years old, and while it’s not autobiographical, it was a subject close to her heart. In 1964, Ian lived in a New Jersey neighborhood that was predominantly black and once said she knew about parents who were incensed over the idea of their daughter would dating black men and mothers who were worried about their sons or daughters dating white girls or boys.

In the end, the song’s young protagonist can’t bear to turn away from family, friends and what society thought at the time. The original title of the song was "Baby I’ve Been Thinking" but the songwriter/producer who signed Ian to a record contract changed it to its more familiar title.

Not surprisingly, many radio stations —  including WLS — refused to play the song.

Despite the radio censorship, "Society’s Child" did manage to hit number one in several markets when it finally made the Billboard Top 40 in 1967.

Joe Bataan was born Bataan Nitollano in 1942 to an African American mother and Filipino father. He grew up in Spanish Harlem singing doo-wop on street corners in the 1950s before being hauled off to prison at the age of 15 for auto theft. When he got out of jail, he threw himself into music and put together his first band called Joe Bataan and the Latin Swingers. His style, like some other young musicians from New York’s Spanish Harlem, mixed Latin boogaloo with R&B and doo-wop. The sound was dubbed Latin Soul and Bataan was its king. He later called the music Salsoul.

"Young, Gifted and Brown" is not a cover version of Aretha Franklin’s "Young Gifted and Black," which came out the same year. While Franklin’s gospel tinged song is aimed at instilling pride among blacks, Bataan’s is more personal and autobiographical in nature. The other difference is the song’s tempo, which is more upbeat.

Bataan’s songs were often very personal and this is no exception. One of the more interesting lines deals with changing the world. While he sings about changing the world through his music, Bataan would also try to change the lives of young men who found themselves in trouble with the law. He quit music in 1981 to work as a counselor at a youth facility he himself spent time as a kid.

Ah, but the pull of music was too strong to resist and in 2005, Bataan made a comeback and occasionally still performs.

Imagine Billie Holiday’s classic "Strange Fruit" being played as an instrumental: It wouldn’t have the same impact without the scathing lyrics about lynching. It’s the same with the jazz standard "(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue." The song has become a jazz standard but more as an instrumental than a vocal. The song was written in 1929 by the great Fats Waller with lyrics by Andy Razaf.

The lyrics deal with racial injustice. Here’s a verse:

'Cause you're black, Folks think you lack
They laugh at you, And scorn you too,
What did I do, to be so Black And Blue?
When you are near, they laugh and sneer,
Set you aside and you're denied,
What did I do, to be so Black And Blue?

The song was part of the successful 1929 Broadway musical Hot Chocolates which also featured Waller’s "Ain’t Misbehavin’" and "Honeysuckle Rose." Early blues and vaudeville singer Edith Wilson an original cast member who first sang the tune. On this version of "(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue," Wilson teams up with another great African American artist: pianist and songwriter Eubie Blake.

India was still in its infancy as an independent country when this patriotic song first appeared in the 1954 early Bollywood film Jagriti (The Awakening). I LOVE both Bollywood and Lollywood films for their storylines, cinematography and most of all, music. Lollywood by the way, refers to Pakistan’s short lived but highly creative and musically innovative film industry.

In the film, "Aao Bachchon Tumhe Dikhaye" is sung by the main character Shekar who runs a boarding school for ne’er do well young boys. He tries to instill in them a sense of pride in their young country and urges the lads to become model citizens. The main chorus of the tune is loosely translated as, “Kids, I will show you India how India is. . . take a glance I will show you how it is.”

This still popular song was written by a man who I think of as a Woody Guthrie, a thorn in the side of authority figure. Kavi Pradeep was a renowned poet and songwriter who was forced underground because his controversial pro-independence songs ruffled the feathers of the then ruling Raj. Pradeep was born in 1915 and died in 1998.

Incidentally, this song was later used in a Pakistan version of the movie and the word Hindustan was traded out for the word Pakistan.

Richard Steele:       

The late Curtis Mayfield was a Chicagoan who wrote and played some very powerful music during the civil rights era. He was a self-taught guitar player who grew up singing in church and started writing lyrics as a kid. He and Cook County Commissioner Jerry Butler were raised in the same neighborhood and eventually became members of an important Chicago R&B group called the Impressions.

During the ‘60s, Curtis was very much motivated by the Civil Rights Movement. That led to a series of songs he wrote that became R&B hits as well as civil rights anthems. Some of those songs include “Keep On Pushing,” “People Get Ready,” “We’re a Winner” and this 1969 classic entitled “Choice of Colors.”

A still from the Disney film 'Pocahontas'
Vanessa Williams is a former Miss America (the first African American) who made an amazing comeback. She was forced to resign as Miss America when some nude photos surfaced in a magazine, but she rose above that incident to become a successful actress and recording artist. Her most recent successes have included feature roles in the TV series Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives.

Williams recorded the song “Colors of the Wind” for the Disney 1995 animated film, Pocahontas. The song essentially reflects a Native American viewpoint toward a number of things, including our relationship to the Earth and to each other. Skin color is mentioned in the lyrics: “For whether we are white or copper skinned, We need to sing with all the voices of the mountains, We need to paint with all the colors of the wind.” It was a surprise hit that won an Oscar for Best Original song, which was performed by Judy Kuhn as the voice of the animated Pocahontas.

Williams’ version was sung over the movie credits and released as a single that went on to become one of her biggest hits, earning her a gold record. “Colors of the Wind” is a really beautiful piece of music.       

Ray Stevens was essentially a country artist who also wrote and recorded novelty songs that became big sellers. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine that songs like “Ahab The Arab,” “The Streak” and “Harry The Hairy Ape” were chart-topping recordings back in the 1960s.

Stevens was a pretty versatile entertainer who managed to get his own short-lived TV variety show in 1970. It was a summer replacement package called The Ray Stevens Show. He set out to write an uplifting theme for his family-friendly show. The result was called “Everything is Beautiful.” The TV show didn’t last, but the song earned him his first Grammy. 

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