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Friday December 2nd

Racial politics and the history of southern soul music are linked, says visiting lecturer

Wednesday night’s performance by Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake at the CMA Awards is a great example of the mix between country and soul music, according to Charles L. Hughes. 

Hughes, director of the Memphis Center at Rhodes College, gave his lecture, “I Got What I Got The Hard Way: Memphis, Muscle Shoals, and the Racial Politics of Southern Music" as part of the third Hutchins Lecture of the year. 

Music professor Jocelyn Neal introduced Hughes. 

Hughes’ lecture was drawn from his acclaimed book, "Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South." 

He introduced the idea of the southern dream of freedom, in which the goal was to promote integration and the eradication of white supremacy. 

But Hughes said historically black recording studios such as Stax Records and FAME Records had to navigate race and racial politics every day behind the scenes. 

“There is little evidence that white musicians (during the '60s and '70s) sought to transgress racial protocols,” he said. “White folks always had more opportunities to cross over.”

Regardless of race, musicians wanted to work with the best talent. On the surface, things might appear to be normal and provide for a good working atmosphere, but this is where the relationship between black and white artists typically ends.

Hughes said just because blacks and white artists would work well together making music, this didn’t mean they would go and have a cup of coffee afterward.

He also said the best example of musician integration during this time period was the group Booker T. and the M.G.'s — an influential group in forming the southern soul and Memphis soul sound — which was comprised of two black and two white men.

The group’s many Stax Records hits established them as the South’s face for integration possibilities.

Many black activists also drew inspiration from these soulful, funk sounds.

“This activism was a crucial piece … in solidifying soul as representative of their blackness,” Hughes said.

Successes such as Booker T. and the M.G.'s inspired many white artists to adapt to those different sounds. The Osmonds, for example, recorded at Muscle Shoals, wanted to get in on these funky sounds to revamp their image, as evidenced in their hit, “One Bad Apple.”

The problem with this, Hughes said, came from the appropriation of the black musicians’ original sound. As studios like FAME Records benefitted tremendously, they began to slowly forget about the black artists who got them. They cut their contracts and became a predominately white label. 

“Who is Eddie Floyd next to Bob Seger?” Hughes asked the audience. 

Sophomore Mark McGuire attended the lecture for extra credit, but said he left with much more knowledge than he had before.

“I didn’t know much about that whole time period, but I was interested to learn about how blacks and whites were able to work together,” he said.

Despite the many racial undertones and setbacks, black and white musicians can, in fact, work together, Hughes said, quoting Rufus Thomas. 

“Acknowledgment of this ambivalence doesn’t mean we should appreciate (the artists) any less,” said Hughes. “It actually increases our appreciation for them.”

“They got what they got the hard way,” he said.


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