James Brown & the Music of the Civil Rights Era
Written by Jana French, Video Editing by Connor Pannell
The 1960s brought The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to the United States, and rock ‘n’ roll surged in popularity on AM radio and American television. But even more culturally important than the British Invasion was the role homegrown music played in crossing race barriers, serving as an expression platform for the Civil Rights Movement. No one man more fully personified this transitional period of culture, music, dance, performance and showmanship than James Brown.
Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown follows the soul legend from birth through his lasting legacy. Not only did he revolutionize music by creating three new genres, Brown also played a major role in the Civil Rights Movement. “What he hadn’t really reckoned with or properly understood,” Alex Gibney said, “is how he was very much a part of the Civil Rights and Black Power movement in a way that was really transformative because he could speak to a mass audience in a way that so many people couldn’t.”
A pivotal moment in the documentary illustrates Gibney’s point. Just a few days after Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated, people raced on stage to dance with James Brown at a show in Boston. Police struggle to get the people off stage, but Brown told the police to leave and took the situation into his own hands. As his drummer Clyde Stubblefield remembers, “He handled the crowd like he was the king, and they respected him.”
Brown’s effect on the music industry is still felt today as his music lives on. Piano prodigy Michael Tilson Thomas’ Peabody-winning public radio show, The MTT Files, includes an episode about Brown in midst of other episodes dissecting classical music.
The episode, “We Were Playing Boulez, But We Were Listening to James Brown,” gives Thomas the chance to dig deep into what he found so technically fantastic about Brown’s body of work. Thomas also includes an interview with Brown reflecting on his work from the months before his death. The Peabody Board captures the finesse of this particular episode in the winner’s citation when it says the episode allows Thomas to “elucidate his undying admiration of ‘Cold Sweat.’”
While the Grandfather of Soul has many musical grandchildren, he was not without his inspirations and influencers.
Motown 25, Yesterday, Today, Forever strikes the same chords as Mr. Dynamite in addressing the importance music played in uniting people of all colors. But as opposed to looking into past performances, it brought the artists together in 1983 to discuss the label’s effect on culture and have fun performing together again. A number of artists, including Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, thank the label and its fans for all its years of support by performing their own hits. Besides being an incredibly fun program to watch, it shows how the musical impact of Motown is still being felt.
Today, the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement permeates all aspects of modern American political life, but it is in the passion and joy of the musicians of the era that listeners are provided with a timeless, visceral experience of the highs and lows of that history.