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.
More
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.

There are other queasy moments in the film as well. For example, the filmmakers get Mick Jagger to pontificate earnestly about how Aretha Franklin needed to come to Muscle Shoals to find herself. Later he and Keith Richards talk about recording "Brown Sugar" in Muscle Shoals and how real and earthy the sound is. You're left with the sense that Muscle Shoals' history of interracial collaboration exists mostly in this case to allow white boys to make pronouncements about and fetishize the authenticity of black women. At the very least, you  have to wonder why white guys like Jagger get to talk about the realness of black music, but the interviewers never ask Aretha or Alicia Keyes what they think of "Brown Sugar."

And then there's Lynyrd Skynyrd, who worked with and were championed by the Swampers. "Sweet Home Alabama," which mentions the band, closes the movie.

"Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers;
And they've been known to pick a song or two.
Lord they get me off so much.
They pick me up when I'm feeling blue."

Unfortunately, the song has other lyrics, with the result that this stirring testament to integration ends with a bunch of white guys singing about how in Birmingham they love the governor. (And yes, we do get to see a Skynyrd concert in the film, complete with Confederate flag.)

This isn't a refutation of Muscle Shoals' music, or of its legacy of integration. Skynyrd's reference to George Wallace is ambiguous; they're arguably not endorsing his actions so much as attacking folks like Neil Young who use Wallace as an excuse to dismiss all Southerners as racist. In that sense, the reference to the Swampers in the song could be seen as an effort to evoke a different kind of southerness—as a reminder that southern men are black as well as white, and that they, and southern women and northerners as well, have often made great music together.

Still, given the controversy around the song, it seems like you'd want to actually make those points, rather than just run the tape. Again, it would be instructive to know what, say Jai Johanny Johanson, the black drummer for the Allman Brothers, thinks about "Sweet Home Alabama," or about Skynyrd's use of Confederate iconography. Surely that would be a more enlightening use of screen time than having Bono burble on and on about how real black music is.

In some ways, then, the documentary feels like a missed opportunity, avoiding many of the most difficult issues raised by the material and opting instead for feel-good bromides and easy narrative conventions. That's not ideal—but it doesn't negate the positive aspects of the story either. Even with its disappointments, Muscle Shoals can't help but make a hopeful sound.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Noah Berlatsky is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

Just In