James Brown Danced towards Transcendance

The new James Brown biopic debuted recently.  I don’t have much interest in the movie, as on the surface it looks a lot like Ray and Walk the Line.  Steven Hyden encapsulated my thoughts when he wrote,

Like all biopics, Get on Up inserts the idea of a famous icon into a classic melodrama story line. It’s like making Terms of Endearmentabout Batman. It never really works, but Hollywood never tires of trying anyway, in part because audiences always seem to show up, in spite of already having seen this movie many, many times.

My interest in James Brown got renewed, though not so much by the movie itself, but a particular review I read.

I usually like what Grantland’s Wesley Morris has to say about film, but not this time.  In reviewing the film Morris reduces Brown’s music and stage act to, “the sex, basically.”  Now I won’t deny that an artist who had a hit album/song called “Sex Machine” wasn’t talking about sex in his songs.  But I strongly object to reducing his music to sex, even the song “Sex Machine.”

I can easily forgive Morris’ mistake because it’s so common to our culture.  We have elevated the physical experience of sex as the proper “end” of human experience, and this has cast us adrift on a host of issues plaguing our society.  We miss the transcendent pointers in sex when we make it our stopping point.  N.T. Wright put it succinctly when he wrote about sex and marriage (frequent readers will note I quote this in another post — forgive me),

It’s all about God making complementary pairs which are meant to work together. The last scene in the Bible is the new heaven and the new earth, and the symbol for that is the marriage of Christ and his church. It’s not just one or two verses here and there which say this or that. It’s an entire narrative which works with this complementarity so that a male-plus-female marriage is a signpost or a signal about the goodness of the original creation and God’s intention for the eventual new heavens and new earth.

Back to James Brown (almost) . . .

I remember hearing an interview with pianist Jeremy Denk some years ago when he recorded his album of pieces by Ligeti and Beethoven.  Denk talked about the repetitive nature of the pieces from both composers on the album.  But he didn’t see monotony, he saw Beethoven and Ligeti both grasping at the reaches of space and eternity.  They strove for transcendence.  Denk commented,

“The last Beethoven sonata seems to me [to be] one of the most profound musical journeys to infinity ever made,” he says. “The whole piece seems to want to bring us from a present moment into this timeless space where everything is continuous and endless.”

But of course Beethoven and Ligeti are classical musicians and we expect them to think about these things.  We don’t naturally assume the same of James Brown,* though perhaps we should.

Most pop/soul/rock/swing music emphasizes the “2” and often the “4” of a four-beat phrase.  On multiple occasions Brown talked about how his shift of emphasis to the downbeat, the “1” of a musical phrase, permanently changed his music.  Instead of, for example, “Gonna’ HAVE a  funky-GOOD time,” he sang, “GONNA have a funky-good time.”  This “cleared the decks” for Brown’s musical phrasing in the rest of the measure/multi-measure phrase — it gave him a lot more room to maneuver — a kind of “timeless space,” to quote Denk.

We can hear this in one my favorite Brown songs, “Mother Popcorn.”  Listen for a start to the rhythm like, “and-ONE-and.”  By the time we get to the “and” of beat four we have lingered so long in the space Brown creates that it hits us like a coiled spring.  Because the song gets built around a two measure phrase, after the “and” of beat four we have a whole measure of “space” until the downbeat comes again.

A lot of Brown’s music in the late 60’s/early 70’s (my favorite era of his) devolves into rhythm almost exclusively, and his downbeat emphasis allowed for extended rhythmic exploration.  Brown discovered he had no real need for melody.  This meant that the songs had a repetitiveness to them, but it also meant that Brown could then make his bid for something in the great beyond.  He was free to “explore the space” unfettered by beats two and four.

Brown had a string of failed marriages.  His friend Rev. Al Sharpton described him as a lonely person with few real friends.  This should not surprise us, considering that both of his parents abandoned Brown as a child.   Given the facts about his life and music, are his songs really just about sex, or even primarily about sex?  It can’t be. What was “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” working for?   When we listen to “Cold Sweat” we have other things to contemplate besides sex.

His dancing adds to the transcendence. Watching him I can’t help but laugh in amazement.

The quality of my laughter is easily placed.  It is, to borrow a song title from Over the Rhine, a “Laugh of Recognition.”

Every night we always
Led the pack
There and back
And we never could do anything half
Oh you have to laugh
You just gotta laugh . . .

It’s called the laugh of recognition
When you laugh but you feel like dyin’

You’re not the first one to start again
Come on now friends
There is something to be said for tenacity

To quote the late, great, Mr. James Brown, “Ain’t it Funky?”

Or perhaps we should say, “AIN’T it funky?” (go to ca. 4:30-5:30 mark for some fun).


*In comparing these three I don’t mean to assert their musical equality. For the record, I’ll take Beethoven over Brown by a long shot.  But I’m guessing many of you will join me in taking Brown over Ligeti in a rout.