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If Motown was the “sound of young America,” Curtis was the wail of black America. And

also the croon. Pentatonics and rhythms. And awareness: we people who are darker t

han blue. Damn, what an inspired descriptive phrase: “darker than blue.”



People Get Ready

Curtis Mayfield was the wail of black America.

By Kalamu ya Salaam


Curtis Lee Mayfield (June 3, 1942 – December 26, 1999) tuned his guitar to the black keys on the piano. But what else would we expect from a man who was proud of his pentatonic heritage? Five notes, six strings—put the bottom on an octave. You could play anything and it would fit if you had the rhythm or knew how to drop in a passing chord.

Passing chord? Remember how when you was going somewhere you used to stop some place in between—maybe to pick up a sandwich or to see if ya boy was home who been holding your Pharaoh Sanders record for six weeks now and always seems to forget to bring it back to you. Being determined to keep your collection intact, you decide every chance you was anywhere near, you would do a Bobby Womack and stop on by until you got back what was rightfully yours? Remember? Well, a passing chord is one of them kind of trips—it’s not a destination, rather it is a stop on the way to the destination.

Turns out Curtis is a passing chord in the history of post-fifties conscious black music. Mayfield is seldom the final stop in our collection, like is, for instance, Nina Simone or John Coltrane or, for that matter, Jimi Hendrix (except he is not quite both conscious and black at the same time, even though, obviously, he is both; anyway…), Curtis Mayfield is a minor chord who has had a major impact on the music.

While the “major impact” should be obvious, why do I say “minor”? Well, except for “Superfly,” Curtis’ music never dominated the charts, and were it not for the popularity of Superfly the movie, even that song may not have been so dominate.

Curtis’ work with The Impressions, though clearly inspirational, and clearly of a high artistic level, The Impressions were not a match for The Temptations, who surpassed them in both popularity and in lasting impact as a group.

So that’s part of what I mean about “minor.” I’m speaking in the sense of “pop” popularity. But by “minor,” I’m also referring to that sound Curtis mined, a sound centered in the exploration of what Europeans call “sadness” or “melancholy,” a sound most of us of African heritage intuitively know as the dialectical aurality of living in this mean old world, the vibration of colonial and post-colonial existence from the field perspective.
If Motown was the “sound of young America,” Curtis was the wail of black America. And also the croon. Pentatonics and rhythms. And awareness: we people who are darker than blue. Damn, what an inspired descriptive phrase: “darker than blue.”

What is darker than blue? Who is darker than blue? What’s left to get to on the spectrum if you go darker than blue? It sho ain’t gray.

Like looking at the negroes in the field while you’re standing on the upper balcony of the big house, Curtis Mayfield seems minor in a far off over yonder sort of way, but the big news is that Curtis was not writing to appeal to or describe what was happening in casa blanca. You might say what Mayfield wrote was a shovel and hoe variation on hammer and sickle—revolutionary in it’s political implications and anathema to mainstream moderates, who, at best, damn by offering only faint praise.

If you check closely, you will also note that Mayfield’s lyrics paid attention to black women, as would any accurate reflection of who was in the fields and what went on there.

All of which is just an introduction, or should I say, is a just introduction to one of Curtis’ most enduring songs, a song my man gathered from the lives of the sufferers, from the musical heritage of those whose cultural patrimony/matrimony is systematically low-rated, not to mention whose cultural contributions are both super-exploited and super-demeaned (even by well meaning observers).

If I say black music has had a greater impact on post-colonial, world musical culture than has classical music, almost everyone could understand that assessment. But is that assessment taught in public schools, enshrined in higher education, upheld by national tastemakers and mainstream opinion shapers?

And I would suggest that until the other man gets ready to officially recognize the seminal importance of the brother man, until all of us get ready to recognize the reality and importance of black cultural contributions, until then, Curtis Mayfield’s music will continue to be under appreciated.

Before I forget, go here to read an appreciation of “We People Who Are Darker Than Blue,” another Mayfield composition that we featured last year on BoL.

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Here is the People Get Ready Mixtape ( . And what a joy to behold.
What struck me in putting it together was how diverse the interpretations are, ranging from Asante and The Persuasions a capella arrangements to major productions from Al Green with Heather Hedley and British superstar Seal; from stripped down hip-hop beats behind a resurgent Stephanie Mills and all up underneath Roy Davis Jr., to classic takes from Aretha Franklin and Aaron Neville.
Fifteen versions, including Curtis live, singing in his distinctive, trademark falsetto—BTW, Curtis makes it sound simple and easy but try singing along and you will find out those five notes are easy to recognize but difficult to match. I also like voices such as Dionne Warwick and Jimmy Scott, both of whom are instantly identifiable, whether sticking to the middle of the pop road or taking an outtish jazz excursion.

There is something about the song that makes it possible to do so much, so, so much. Add your own flavors, bend it to fit how you flow melody, what you like in harmony, not to mention your rhythm proclivities. Indeed, it’s almost hard to believe that everybody on the mixtape is singing the same song. But that’s just part of the genius of Curtis Mayfield—any of us could have been in the field, bringing whatever we brought with us, brought from our mother cultures, and Curtis in his musical wisdom wrote to reflect our field-hand diversity. Curtis crafted songs we could all use in our own way to get our point over.

This music continues to be open, wide open for participation from around the world. Bring whatever what your mama birthed you, you can fit ‘cause black music is not a form but a feeling, not a restriction but an open-ended exploration. Whatever you got, you can give and get it refracted, amplified, focused in its feeling, articulated in its representation of your own reality, distinctive within but not separate from all of humanity.

In these versions you can hear church but you can also hear blues, you will find straight singing as well as jazzy variations. Diversity, the democracy of the pentatonic as opposed to (and in opposition to) the tyranny of tuned music that dictates that only one way is the correct way.

Finally, I want to mention the last track by Terry Callier, a fellow Chicagogian and contemporary of Curtis Mayfield. Terry’s contribution is actually a two-song medley. The opening is Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” but the bulk is Callier’s “Brotherly Love.” I really, totally dig both songs. Hope you do too.

posted 20 October 2009 

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