Radical Records: Free Your Mind…

Race is such an amazingly complex issue in America, and one which I am regularly asked about overseas, particularly since the emergence of Barack Obama as a genuine contender for the presidency.  Of course, it is not just an “issue” – those complexities equate to a legacy and an ongoing nightmare of suffering – of impoverishment, marginalization, violence, waste, neglect, “dreams deferred.”

Music has always been one of the meeting grounds, and also battle grounds, of black and white in the United States. The recurring meetings and mash-ups within American music of black sounds and white sounds – the clashes and combinations, recuperations and reverberations – have created the sound of the 20th century, and are responsible for the bulk of the United States’ genuine contributions to world culture: jazz, blues, R&B, rock ‘n roll and hip hop.

In the late 1960’s, a black musician named George Clinton moved with his group The Parliaments from New jersey to Detroit. Clinton worked writing for Motown Records and his group had some recording successes, but Clinton, in the best traditions of American popular music, was promiscuous – polymorphous perverse even – in his interests and influences.  He was hanging out with and listening to not just the R&B hit machine at Motown, but also the progressive Christian preachers who were embracing the ideals of the 60s and creating a progressive, multiracial church, the hippies, and rock ‘n roll bands like MC5 and Iggy Pop and the Stooges. Out of all this came a new sound, and Clinton’s two bands, Parliament and Funkadelic.

As the name suggests, Funkadelic combined the new funk sound coming out of R&B with psychedelic rock. Other bands at the time were doing similar things – Sly & The Family Stone most notably – and there were connections to what white rock groups like The Rolling Stones had been doing when they recorded R&B songs. But the fusion of rock and soul, funk and punk has seldom been as compelling and compulsive as it was when Funkadelic hit the stage. During the first few years of the 1970s, Funkadelic released one funky, psychedelic album after another – two in 1970, including “Free Your Mind… And Your Ass Will Follow” – the title of the album reflecting Clinton’s often stated belief that right thought and right dance moves are intimately related, though he often reversed the order.

Clinton is more known for the “politics of dancing” (and reefer) than for overt political consciousness in his music. Many of the other black musicians of this period were more explicitly political – Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Sly & The Family Stone perhaps most notably. But Clinton was a tuned-in as well as turned-on funkster, and you don’t have to look far in his music to find him articulating critiques of contemporary American society, such as in this song, which I recently rediscovered while cleaning out the basement (thank you, iTunes shuffle):

“Funky Dollar Bill”

U.S. dollar bill (x2)
You go to school
To learn the rules
On how to love and life your life
But think about it twice
Funky dollar bill
The pusher push, the fixer fix
The judge acquits
The junkie leads his life
For the dollar bill
Funky dollar bill
Funky dollar bill
U.S. dollar bill (x2)
You don’t buy a life, you live a life
A father learns much too late
He was never home
He worked two jobs, never stayed at home
He had to, ’cause
His love life was gone
For the dollar bill (x3)
U.S. dollar bill
It’ll buy a war
It will save a land
It pollutes this air
In the name of wealth
It’ll buy you life
But not true life
The kind of life
Where the soul is hard
My name is dollar bill
Funky dollar bill
U.S. dollar bill

What I find particularly appealing in this is the critique of a capitalist consumerist mentality: “It’ll buy you life / But not true life.”  That, and the funkiness of course – free your ass, indeed.

For more funky goodness….

Note: The “dreams deferred” quote comes of course from the poem “Harlem” (sometimes mistakenly referred to as “A Dream Deferred”) by the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes:

“Harlem”

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over –
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

– Langston Hughes, 1951

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One response to “Radical Records: Free Your Mind…

  1. Well said Great information, keep up the great work!

    Like

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