I’m listening to Curtis Mayfield’s first solo album right now. Besides his lucid and provocative lyrics, there’s some incredible guitar playing on this record. Hints of funk and straight out rock, the clarity of his instrument’s tone on tunes like “We Are the People Who Are Darker Than Blue” and “If There’s a Hell Below (We’re All Gonna’ Go)” emphasizes and enhances Mayfield’s incredible voice.
Like Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Eddie Kendricks rolled into one, Curtis Mayfield’s voice sweetens any melody that he applies it to and moves the song itself out of the earthly realms and into the stratum occupied only by the angelic seraphim and their master. From his songs with The Impressions to his soundtrack for the 1970s film, Superfly, and beyond, Mayfield’s voice does more than enchant, it takes the listener up to that heavenly throne where the Seraphim hang out.
I first remember hearing Mayfield in late 1968 on the Impressions hit single “This Is My Country” on one of the soul music stations I used to listen to out of DC. Soon afterwards, the song crossed over to the pop charts and was played regularly for a few weeks on the Top 40 station my younger brother preferred (it was his radio, after all). The song, a stirring piece that not only reminds the listener that African-Americans have as much right to the riches and freedoms that the US promises but promises dire consequences if those riches and freedoms aren’t shared, certified my growing disillusionment with the land of the free.
The war in Vietnam, the murders of Martin Luther King (and the murderous repression of the rebellion that erupted afterwards) and Bobby Kennedy, the police riots in Chicago outside the convention of the Democratic branch of the war party-all of these events in the months of 1968 prior to the song’s release made Mayfield’s observations seem obvious.
I’ve paid three hundred years or more
Of slave driving, sweat, and welts on my back
This is my country
Too many have died in protecting my pride
For me to go second class
We’ve survived a hard blow and I want you to know
That you must face us at last
You might notice that this isn’t a request, it’s a warning. Informed by his Christianity, but not oppressed by it, Mayfield interprets that faith in a revolutionary way. Like the Koran did for many of his brethren, the liberatory aspects of the New Testament moved Mayfield to the same place that it moved the abolitionists to more than a century earlier. In Mayfield’s Christian world, it’s the powerful and the greedy that are the realization of evil, not the disenfranchised and exploited, who only do what they have to in order to survive. One can hear this dynamic quite clearly on “People Get Ready”, one of his other masterpieces from his days with The Impressions. This song, written after the 1963 Freedom March on Washington, utilizes Biblical imagery symbolizing freedom and an end to oppression in its call for Black America’s release from the bonds left over from their enslavement in this country’s earlier days.
Mayfield’s best-known effort is probably the soundtrack to the film Superfly. This film is a classic of the genre film freaks like to call blaxploitation. The story centers around a coke dealer named Youngblood Priest played by Ron O’Neal who wants to do one more big deal and get out of the business. His partner, however, sees no way out of the scene. Of course, there are several crooked cops who want a piece of the action. Priest refuses to go along with their plan, while his partner sees no other way. There’s also a junkie who tries to play both sides of the street in his struggle to stay high and alive. Of course, after all is said and done, the money is still going where all profits go: to the god of capital or, the Man. In brief, the film is about the ultimate exercise in free market capitalism-the illegal drug marketplace. In turn, the drug market is a metaphor for the capitalist system.
(I can’t help but think of William Burroughs and his writing here, wherein he uses the entire junkie life as a metaphor for the system of modern capitalism. The way Burroughs sees it is like this: the dealer creates a need by proffering heroin to the potential user and the user, like what they have been offered, develops an addiction for the drug. Next thing you know, the user is hooked and that desire for junk has become a need. In Burroughs dynamic, the junk that the addict desires/needs is the same as the consumer goods that the capitalist consumer desires/needs and the dealer is the corporation that needs the sales as badly as the addict needs the dope.)
The aforementioned junkie is the subject of the best song from the soundtrack-“Freddie’s Dead.” This praise is not given lightly, considering the overall excellence of the entire score. Mayfield takes the urban black drug scene of the early 1970s and transfers its dangers, thrills, sorrows, and contradictions into each and every song. The lyrics take the lives of the various players in the scene and make them real, even to the person unfamiliar with this part of modern reality. Each song tells the story of its character. “Pusherman” evokes the arrogance of the man in charge of a junkie’s life, yet acknowledges the pusher’s dependence on his customers. “Freddie’s Dead” provides a certain kind of nobility to a man whose life is pathetically tragic. Underlying all of the music is Mayfield’s conviction that every character-junkie, dealer, and cop-is just a minor pawn in the man’s game; a game played at the highest levels of power and finance. Mayfield’s funky psychedelic guitar licks and honey voice lend beauty to a place where ugliness reigns. It’s obvious here that he understands the true mission and beauty of art. Of course, it was obvious way before this soundtrack. Once again, I encourage you to listen to the Impressions recording of the gospel-laced song “People Get Ready” to hear what I mean.
Unfortunately, Curtis Mayfield died prematurely in 1999, nine years after some stage scaffolding fell on him during an outdoor concert and left him paralyzed. After he recovered, he continued putting out some fine music and, fortunately, most of it is still available on CD.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: email@example.com