Nowadays, a music critic is what we call anyone who writes about music, though actual music criticism has all but disappeared. As Greil Marcus wrote in his rock crit classic Mystery Train, “a critic’s job is not only to define the context of an artist’s work but to expand that context” — to argue for ways of hearing that make connections and that articulate what music means, and could mean, in people’s lives. In other words, criticism is music writing that moves beyond private aesthetics to wrestle with why public music matters so much in the first place.
In a music press too often limited to personality profiles, album reviews and industry journalism, then, Craig Werner’s A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & The Soul Of America arrives as a revelation. Believing that no American art has expressed our struggles with race as well as our traditions of black and black-informed popular music, Werner uses soul, rock, reggae, funk, disco, rap, jazz and more to illustrate how we’ve struggled — sometimes successfully, often unsuccessfully — with America’s savage and still persistent issues of race. Underscoring these ongoing conversations is Werner’s earnest conviction that with the insight and inspiration of the music, plus the hard work of a whole lot of Americans, positive changes really can come. In our irony-armored, largely apolitical times, it’s genuinely inspiring to discover someone writing about music with such conviction.
Werner tells his story by pointing to the dialogues, the calls and responses, between three musical impulses (a term borrowed from Ralph Ellison). “The blues impulse,” according to Werner, “fingers the jagged grain of…brutal experience” and bears witness to it, in order to celebrate our continued survival in the face of great burdens. “The gospel impulse” acknowledges and testifies, too, but also offers the additional possibility of redemption through community, making “the feeling of human separateness, which is what the blues are all about, bearable.” Finally, “the jazz impulse” establishes links between the community and the individual, yesterday and today, a beloved tradition and the need for new sounds for new experiences. For these insights alone, A Change Is Gonna Come would be essential reading.
But Werner’s application of these complementary impulses to America’s recent history — from Martin Luther King Jr. to Bill Clinton, from Mahalia and Motown to Bruce Springsteen and Wu-Tang Clan — is even more revealing. Particularly impressive is his ability to meld cultural theory and social science (Werner is an Afro-American studies professor at the University of Wisconsin) with the clear and passionate prose that persuasive criticism demands.
Werner easily links poverty stats, for example, to Run-D.M.C.’s “It’s Like That”, then ties that band’s story to the folk parable of the tar baby. He draws intellectual and emotional connections between Duke Ellington and Prince, James Baldwin and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life and Jimmy Carter’s affirmative action policies — intellectual and emotional connections so powerful, in fact, that distinctions between the two virtually disappear. Especially strong is his chapter “Springsteen And The Reagan Rules” (“Rule #2: ‘First pig to the trough wins’ or, the purpose of life is to make a lot of money”). It’s a definitive statement of America in the ’80s, “a world where the values of black music could not even be voiced, let alone put into action.”
As might be expected, given his focus, Werner doesn’t have much to say about country music. What he does say is critical, and all too accurate. “The real problem with country’s racial politics during the ’60s,” he writes, “was that they pretended not to exist.” This is an overstatement, of course, but only barely. Besides the obvious exception of Charley Pride (which Werner acknowledges), the late ’60s did find country music confronting race in isolated cases: Merle Haggard, for example, recorded his interracial romance tune “Irma Jackson” during these years, and Waylon Jennings covered Tony Joe White’s “Willie And Laura Mae Jones”. In each case, however, the songs remained unreleased for years because the record labels feared controversy. Probably not unreasonable fears either, since the country encounters with race that did get released typically sank like stones. Dolly Parton’s version of “In The Ghetto” climbed to just #50 on the C&W charts, and Tony Booth’s try at “Irma Jackson” didn’t do that well.
Werner devotes entire chapters to explicating the racial messages found in specific artists, sounds or songs: Sam Cooke and John Fogerty, Curtis Mayfield and Philly soul, “The Message” and The Clash, and so on. Near the end, though, the book devolves, somewhat, into marathon lists of recent relevant recordings. Werner’s brief acknowledgments to everyone from Iris DeMent to Alejandro Escovedo to Tupac Shakur to Kirk Franklin may overwhelm even as they impress.
This isn’t entirely Werner’s fault, of course. If you want to write about race, America and the key musical figures of, say, the ’60s, it’s a no-brainer: Motown, Stax and Jimi Hendrix. But in today’s niche-marketed world, minus the Top 40 formats that once galvanized national discussions around a shared language of pop singles, how do you even begin the conversation?
Werner’s book hopes to jump-start that public conversation. Embracing the very blues impulse he writes about, Werner looks race hatred square in the eye, and doesn’t blink. And, like the gospel and jazz impulses he articulates, Werner also knows that “We can never separate who we are from the people around us,” that we must value the wisdom of our ancestors even as we discover new ways to talk to each other.
In A Change Is Gonna Come, Werner makes connections, broadens the context, illuminates ways to listen. Not at all coincidentally, that’s precisely what great music criticism does, too.