I’ve been thinking a lot about context lately. The best music tends to come from extreme climates; like the Punk movement that rose out of the rubble of Britain’s economy or how Hip-Hop came about as a matter of necessity after crack hit the streets of New York.
When Soul music first appeared it was largely informed by the Civil Rights movement. Listen to a baritone like James Carr’s and you can hear the riot dogs and fire hoses. You can hear the oppression and heartbreak, and you can also hear the pride of the struggle. If you listen close enough you can read his voice like a newsreel.
It can hardly be a coincidence that Carr recorded “At the Dark End of the Street” right after two major events in Black history. The first of these events was the completion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was a huge step in the right direction for American race relations, giving Black folks a voice in the political system of our country for the first time. Carr had obvious reason to celebrate and there is a distinct joyous quality to this somber ballad. When the song modulates and Carr’s voice peaks it’s a direct response to this victory and the other successes that had already come to pass.
But this song is not finally triumphant. The rhythm section never truly climaxes and the background singers sound like they’re on the verge of tears. Half of it is exhaustion. After a lifetime of struggle, not just as a race but also as a human, Carr is bone-tired. The other half of the emotion in his voice is apprehension, because while “The Dark End” was being recorded Malcolm X was being assassinated. The Civil Rights Movement, like any revolution, was equal parts tragedy and success and you can hear those two viewpoints battling in every second of Carr’s delivery.
After this record was released Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed and the energy of that era of the movement died with him. Carr continued to try to record; coming into the studio and standing in front of the microphone, but nothing would come out. From time to time even his shows would end up like this. Just him standing at the mike, not being able to open his mouth to sing. So while it took brute force to silence the two great voices of the civil rights movement, all it took was a change of context to silence a third.
LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org