While there is plenty of facts and official historiographies on Southern Soul records (Stax, Hi, Muscle Shoals), Northern Soul records, be it Detroit (the Motown/Tamla and their subsidiaries fame), or even partly New York City (with Atlantic Records and their subsidiary ATCO): the fruitful (from a cultural perspective, not an economic one, definitely) Vee-Jay Records label has been left aside for decades.
However, it played a major role in helping develop what stood as a unique avenue in Chicago, South Michigan Avenue, nicknamed “Record Row”.
Vee-Jay was a venture launched by an Afro-American couple named Vivian Carter (herself a performer and a disc jockey) and James Bracken (himself a writer and composer) in 1953. But they did not start from zero, as the label was intended to be a branch of the existing record label and store founded several years before in Gary, Indiana.
In 2007, Daily Herald music critic Mark Guarino expressed his regrets to realize that Vee-Jay Records, as far as influencing was concerned, didn’t get the credit it deserved. The main difference outlined is that of the stylistic association between one label and its productions: Motown was clearly a pop/rhythm and blues venture, while Stax Records was fostering a Southern rough-sounding approach. Vee-Jay was none of them: starting with doo-wop-like bands (their first pressing was a band called The Spaniels, but they also recorded Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs Stay, which found success again 27 years later, thanks to the Dirty Dancing movie soundtrack in 1987), they embraced rhythm and blues (recording the first Curtis Mayfield’s The Impressions records), jazz (Paul Chambers and Wayne Shorter were amongst them).
Sadly, entrepreneur Ewart Abner was expecting considerable growth for Vee-Jay as he came on board back in 1955. Though his work propelled the Venture into the high spheres, hazardous investments and a missed Capitol Licensing contract got them into debt.
A documentary explored recently the story of Record Row, entitled Record Row: Cradle of Rhythm & Blues, was broadcasted initially in February 1997.
It is remarkable how Du Bois used musical quotes to build up his writings, especially his most famous work The Souls of Black Folk (1903). He was known to be a fairly good singer, though he used to self judge and in fact considering he knew “little of music”.
Du Bois himself claimed that music was way more evocative than words in the construction of black people’s identity and whole story, in the sense that it travels through the entire oral tradition (even though this accurate expression is never used in his own writings). He considered he inheritated his own history through his grandparents’ songs.
Every chapter opens with a musical quote, illustrated with the very first bars of the score. These quotes took their origin in the black people’s sorrow songs’ tradition. The aim was to highlight, we guess, the popular culture that underlies the process leading to freedom.
In the video selection hereafter, one will enjoy not only the various of the song quoted by Du Bois, but also the writer’s thought process itself.
As a conclusion, we take good note that Pr. Alexander Weheliye (Rutgers University) published an exciting essay in 2005, Phonographies (Duke University Press), in which he analyses the reuse of musical fragments in a whole personal work.
Prologue : Donny Hathaway (1945-1979) released his debut solo album, Everything is Everything in 1970. The Chicago native explores the typical love/soul theme concern, addressing to God.
A soulful moment amidst various styles, from rhythm and blues to Cuban rhythm, is the classic gospel-inspired Thank You, Master (For my Soul).
This is a very typical incarnation of gospel and Negro spiritual genre in a soul record from the 1970s, reaching success in popular audiences, as did Ray Charles records.
First of all, double and equivocal meanings are remarkable, so as the general praising tonality. The words are sung on a piano-driven laidback and slow groove, alternating a range of shades, form quiet, nearly silent passages to moaning vocals helped by a solid brass ensemble.
Here, Master can be heard as a way to address to God in an ambiguous or double-sided meaning, but Lord is added to unveil the intention, hence the use of the anaphoric way. This is quite a relatively simple prayer-type songwriting. The vocabulary is as simple as it can be, and the repetition is typical of the greeting, thankfulness song. One can count 26 repetitions of “Thank You”, with the exception of the more formal “Much Obliged”. Humility, as a result, dominates the song.
In this respect, despite the pain, despite the sadness and the tears, Donny Hathaway thanks the Lord for keeping him. One can see it is none of a request for absolution or penitence: just selfless and pure thankfulness, as suggested by the following example, underlining a certain unworthiness:
My Bed was not my cooling board
Using a metaphor with the equipment used for dead bodies preservation, Hathaway emphasizes on his own ability to live as simply as can be, and to thank God for putting shoes on his feet (a typical biblical figure), completed with words: the walls of his room were not the walls of his grave.
With a catchy hint, Hathaway addresses the audience with a rather disturbing, somewhat elusive:
Y’All don’t know what I’m talking about.
What’s more, it precisely synthesizes the unique relation, quite mystical, with God.
Some of the stances then following offer a double, if not, a triple reading and an increase in intensity. For instance, with the play of words hereafter in the last words of the song (that are echoed by a backing vocal performed by Hathaway himself), Hathaway uses a surprising polyptotic anaphora:
My sheet (my sheet) was not my wine (Was not my whining sheet).
On the whole, this is the epitome of revisited Gospel in popular soul music, characterized by this ability to play with words. Sheet can be linked to either a musical sheet, a bed sheet or, eventually, as suggested by the echoed words in brackets, a whining sheet, to dry one’s tears. Wine undoubtedly refers to the Christ’s blood at the church, given by the Minister, while Hathaway opposes sheet/wine in a curious manner that seems more relative to improvisation and the subsequent ad libitum part. A satiety that meets the need for “food for the spirit” while it still does suppose the “food for the body”.
Every single good owned briefly by the praying songwriter is described as a precious gift given by God, as a reference to the famous overexploited quotation found in the book of Job “The Lord Gave, and the Lord Hath Taken Away” (Job 1:21). Even the word blessed, in “But Lord You Blessed Me” can be linked to either the benediction or the gift.
Thank You, Master(For my Soul)
(Donny Hathaway, 1970)
[Verse 1] Thank You, Master, for my soul Thank You, Master, thank you for my soul You gave me food to eat, you put shoes on my feet And You kept me Lord, I know, haven’t been so good this week But You continue to Bless me And just want to take time to thank You, for my soul
[Verse 2] Thank You, Master, thank You for my soul Lord, thank You, thank You, Master, thank You for my soul, yeah ‘Cause you didn’t have to hear my moanin’ Lord, You didn’t have to hear my groanin’ But You kept me, yeah You put shoes on my feet, you kept food for me to eat, yeah And Lord, how You Blessed me But most of all, thank You, Master, for my soul Thank You, thank You
[Bridge] That’s alright Woo-hoo
[Outro] Thank You, Master, Lord, thank You for my soul, yeah Thank You for my hands, thank You for my feet Thank You, Lord, thank You for my mind Thank You for my soul Lord, I know I haven’t been so good this week, God But You kept me You didn’t have to hear my moanin’ You didn’t have to hear my groanin’, hey hey But Lord, You Blessed me And Lord, i want to thank You I just got to say “much obliged” to You, Master ‘Cause the walls of my room was not the walls of my grave My bed was not my cooling board Y’all don’t know what i’m talkin’ ’bout My sheet (My sheet) was not my wine (Was not my whining sheet) And I want to say thank You, thank You Thank You, thank You, thank You, I want to thank You, Lord