The Racial Courage, and Questions, Surrounding Muscle Shoals' Soul Songs

A new documentary pays rich tribute to the Alabama city's color-blind musical contributions in the '60s, but skims over the more difficult issues raised by its material.
Magnolia Pictures

From jazz to rock and roll to hip hop, music of mixed racial heritage is one of America's greatest treasures. The documentary Muscle Shoals drives that point home with love, tenderness, and unmatchable soul. The film chronicles the incredible music made in Muscle Shoals, Alabama by producer Rick Hall and his house band, the Swampers. Starting with the Arthur Alexander's 1961 hit "You Better Move On," Hall produced many of the greatest soul hits of all time, from Wilson Pickett's "Land of 1000 Dances" to Aretha Franklin's "I Never Loved a Man The Way That I Loved You" to Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman" to Etta James's "I'd Rather Go Blind." 

Performers like Pickett and Franklin traveled down from the north expressly to get the Muscle Shoals sound. Moreover, the Swampers played on all those hits, which means that the iconic soul sound of the ‘60s was created in no small part by a bunch of rural white dudes in the middle of nowhere Alabama. As one commenter drily notes, when you're listening to Aretha's greatest hits, you don't necessarily think the backing is by a bunch of Caucasians.

As the film points out, this integrated music was being made at the same time as George Wallace was proposing massive resistance to school integration in the state capitol. Everybody involved in the sessions says that there was no color line in the studio. Meanwhile, in Muscle Shoals, the terrible weight of segregation was deliberately and consistently put aside. Clarence Carter notes that in most places he had to call whites "Mr. Jimmie" or "Mr. Rick" but on the sessions everyone was on a first name basis. The session players say that they often got odd looks from other white townspeople when white and black musicians went out to eat together—but those looks didn't stop them from doing so. Muscle Shoals, then, offered not just phenomenal music, then, but an alternative white Southern tradition—one that, deliberately and honorably, defined itself in large part by not being white at all.

The most moving example of this color-blindness in the film is the recording of Clarence Carter's massive 1970 hit "Patches". The opening lyrics run:

I was born and raised down in Alabama
On a farm way back up in the woods
I was so ragged that folks used to call me Patches
Papa used to tease me about it
'Cause deep down inside he was hurt
'Cause he'd done all he could.

Rick Hall asked an initially skeptical Carter to sing it out of personal motives. Hall himself grew up bitterly poor; he talks about other children at school mocking him, and about his mother leaving home to become a prostitute. He went to Carter with the song after his own father, whom he credits with instilling in him his fierce drive to succeed, died in a tractor accident.

Hall, then, saw his own life in a soul song (originally written and performed by the group Chairmen of the Board) and looked to his friend and collaborator to sing it. The Southern experience here—of hardship and striving and overcoming—has no color. Hall speaks through Carter, or Carter speaks for Hall, not as an act of ventriloquizing or appropriation, but because they come from the same place and know each other. They have the same home.

But as inspiring as "Patches" is, it also raises some uncomfortable questions.  As Carter performs it, it's basically one long recitative, a classic maudlin country music weeper. But it wasn't a country song—or at least, while it went to No. 4 on the pop charts and No. 2 on R&B, it didn't get country chart action. That's the case with the other classic Muscle Shoals hits too. Arthur Alexander's vivid storytelling and light, emotional, shoulder-shrugging vocals seem like they should have appealed to fans of Lefty Frizzell. For that matter, even Etta James sounds like she could be a country singer when backed by the Swampers. The white performers at Muscle Shoals have made a huge, widely recognized contribution to R&B. The black performers could have become a massively important part of country-music tradition, but they didn't, and it's hard to see what stopped them except for their color. The black musical tradition is open; the white one much less so. Integration in Muscle Shoals only goes one way.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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