Soul Searching


A 1979 article in Ebony Magazine asks in its title: “Can White People Sing the Blues.” An enticing subtitle draws the reader in further: “Ray Charles says ‘No,’ but a few are trying to prove him wrong.”[1] The idea that certain types of musical ‘soul’ are the sole birthright of certain types of bodies is long-standing and wide-spread, like the Portuguese Fado singer who says: ‘one does not learn to be a fadista; one is born a fadista.’[2] But for those of us not content to play only within the musical forms of our biological ancestors there has always been a kind of second best option. Lacking the right body, we can still go to the right place. That’s how it was for the Rolling Stones in 1969, when they took a break from their North American tour to record a few tracks at the famous studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where black artists like Wilson Picket and Percy Sledge had helped define the sound of American soul music. The very first night there, the band cut a traditional blues number, “We Gotta Move.” Guitarist Keith Richards explained the choice later: “If ever I’m gonna do it, it’s gotta be here.”[3]

As an American—albeit a white New Englander—I am used to thinking of my country as ground zero for soul, the place where British Blues players and Japanese Jazz cats come to find the real thing. But that has not always been the case. Two-hundred years ago, the United States grappled with its own musical inferiority complex, and sent its own brightest players abroad to soak up the ‘musical atmosphere’ of continental Europe, specifically Germany. The sounds they sought were quite different from what the Stones were after, but the language of the quest was not. American students of classical music flocked to Europe to find “real music” and “real emotion,” both of which were seen to be inherent to Germany. They were advised to seek out great masters such as Franz Liszt—who could apparently inspire tears with just a few chords—and to visit the graves of past masters to pay tribute. Many German music schools, including the prestigious Leipzig Conservatory, enrolled more foreigners than nationals. Americans represented a large percentage of this total, a trend that continued right up to the outbreak of World War One. Music was simply in the air over there, while America could boast little more than “savages and steam engines” according to some.[4]

A documentary about the Muscle Shoals studio, where the Rolling Stones came to tap the root of black American music, was released in 2013. It features sweeping shots of the Tennessee River and surrounding cotton fields, interspersed with an impressive cast of musicians recounting the magic of the place. Somehow Bono is positioned as the poetic scholar of the studio, and despite the fact that he never actually recorded there he is able to tell us how the “the music comes out of the mud.”[5] This tone runs throughout the film, and what bothered me about it (besides the assumption of Bono’s authority on the subject) is its failure to acknowledge that what really made the studio great was a handful of talented people: Rick Hall, Roger Hawkins, Spooner Oldham, and the rest of the house band. Their story is an obvious challenge to the notion that music is inherent to bodies—the producers and musicians were all white—but that doesn’t mean that it must be inherent to the place either. The film, just like American concert musicians in the 19th century, seems to give the physical place—the air and the mud—as much credit as the people. The thing is, when Aretha Franklin brought the Muscle Shoals rhythm section to New York to record a little tune called “Respect,” they sounded pretty good up there too.


[2] Lila Ellen Gray, Fado Resounding


[4] Jessica C.E. Gienow-Hecht, “Music, Magic and Emotions” from Sound Diplomacy



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