“Speaking to yourselves in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart”
– Ephesians 5:19
Motown Records. Detroit. The 1960s. The record label achieved 79 top-ten hits with its distinctive soulful songs. The sound grew from the Gospel and Blues music of the early twentieth century, which in turn, was inspired by the ‘Spirituals’ of the black slave workers that “constructed America”, to quote the author James Baldwin: “they picked cotton, carried it to market, and built railroads under someone else’s whip.”
Motown’s artists came from a Southern Baptist choral tradition: Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, Martha Reeves, Diana Ross, Barratt Strong, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Levi Stubbs. The African American Spirituals were work songs in a “call and response” oral tradition that had emerged from African musical roots. The sorrow of enslavement stirred yet more singing, inspired by Christian words and hymns. Tunes from the Nile ended up in Louisiana.
Then Motown itself was influential in the music that followed, from Two-Tone, SKA and Northern Soul, to Rhythm & Blues and Hip-Hop. Soft Cell covered several Motown hits in the 1980s such as: ‘What?’ (Tina Mason), ‘Tainted Love’ (Gloria Jones) and ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ (The Supremes).
In 1997, the pop group Cornershop had a number one hit with the catchy ‘Brimful of Asha’. Its chorus was playfully lifted from a 1763 Christian hymn by Augustus Toplady called “Rock of Ages”, which became a popular “field holler” song, with the lines: – “The world is on fire, Don’t you want Christ’s bosom for to be your pillow.”
Czech composer Antonín Dvořák was moved by African American Spirituals when visiting the USA in 1892. “The future music of this country must be founded on these melodies,” he said. “These beautiful, varied themes are the product of the soil. Folksongs of America.” He used Spirituals-inspired music in the second movement (Largo) of his 9th symphony (New World). We know it in the UK as “the Hovis advert” music.
In the late sixties and early seventies, a movement sprang up in the working-class industrial towns of northern England – Blackpool, Wigan, Bolton, Stoke, Manchester, Blackburn. Young men travelling down to London for football matches would visit the ‘Soul City’ record shop in Covent Garden. They wanted obscure, fast-paced Motown inspired soul music. Their template was ‘I Can’t Help Myself’ by the Four Tops, but they wanted less commercial, less mainstream songs, that they could dance to. For example: ‘Wade in the Water’, by Marlena Shaw.
This spawned a night-club scene in those northern towns. The dance moves evolved into break-dancing, and the clubs created our “DJ culture”. Fashion-wise, it gave us mod culture – brogues, Ben Sherman shirts, Dr Marten’s, shrink-to-fit Levi’s.
The clenched raised fist symbol associated with Northern Soul emanates from the USA’s Black Power movement. Black gloves were worn in the clubs, with cries of “right on now” between songs. Carl Douglas’s No. 1 hit “Kung Fu Fighting” was the UK’s first domestic disco hit. It refers, not just to martial arts, but also to the high-kicking, high-energy dancing in Northern Soul clubs.
Finally, there’s a connection between American Blues and songs sung in the poor quarters of Smyrna, Istanbul and the Greek ports in the late nineteenth century. They became Rembetika music (1930s to 1950s). Affectionately known as, ‘Greek Blues.’
(Recommended: ‘American Folk Songs and Spirituals’, John Work. ‘Motown in Love’, Herb Jordan. ‘Go Tell It on the Mountain’, James Baldwin. ‘Road to Rembetika’, Gail Holst)