The History of Soul Music

The History of Soul Music

Soul music is the creation of altering social conditions and diverse musical influences. Tracing its roots into the traditional folk songs of the African slaves that were brought at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, soul music was originally the ‘African Spirituals’ of the period between 1825 and 1850. These spirituals had significant harmonious and metrical relationships with West African songs and were often used by black slaves as a means of secret communication. By the end of the 19th century, they were replaced by gospel songs.

Black gospel music had developed out of a blend of earlier hymns, elements from the spirituals and black performance styles. The singing often reflected ecstatic dance and was accompanied by a piano or an organ, anchored with tambourines, electric guitar and hand-clapping.

During World War I, many black people migrated from the agricultural South to the industrial North. This population shift altered the setting and created a new demographic group, which developed a new music genre known as R&B. In the late 1940s, R&B became a massive phenomenon in the North, with black R&B artists being promoted by black-owned radio stations. Besides, white radio station owners, in fear that the newly invented TV would make the radio old-fashioned, promoted and distributed R&B; in an unprecedented way. At the same time, the South experienced the evolution of jazz, which also traced its roots to the musical traditions of African slaves. Performed by piano soloists and small marching bands, jazz music featured spirituals, blues, and hymns.

Soul music did not evolve until the mid-50s with the resurgence of gospel and doo-wop and the commercial blast of music for African Americans. Tracing its roots in rhythm & blues and gospel, soul music was associated with the black civil rights movement through the metamorphosis of black music into a form of funky confirmation.

Besides, the dominant trend of the 1960s towards cultural integration enabled the development of the soul as a means to integrate black and white America. By featuring catchy grooves, hand-clapping, spontaneous body moves, improvisational add-ons, and constant interplay between the soloist and the chorus, the soul genre made white America more open to the idea that African-American culture was not demeaning or corrupting, simply different. In a way, the sociopolitical inroads made by jazz popularized black music within white audiences. The soul genre was also, rather indirectly, assisted by rock music, mostly because rock made white pop music sound old-fashioned. Without offering an alternative to the obsolete sounds of white pop music, rock music, in effect, legitimized black pop music.

As the black civil rights movement moved forward, increasing African-American pride, soul music gained credit in the hearts of African Americans-as a means of expression and artistic freedom. Soul music became the flag of unity for the black communities, and although never truly political in nature, for many, its instant rise in the pop charts was representative of the first successes of the civil rights movement.

Ray Charles

Ray Charles is widely regarded as the pioneer of soul music with his 1954 release ‘I Got A Woman.’ After that release, a number of successful artists followed, taking soul music to its apogee in the 60s and 70s. The geographical dispersion of soul music and its associations with racial discrimination against African Americans popularized soul massively as a fundamental psychological element of the black struggle. From Florence and Memphis to Chicago and Detroit, soul music reflected idealism and how life should not be accepted as it comes but should be made worth living.

The magnificent recordings of Sam Cooke (‘You Send Me,’ 1957 and ‘Twistin’ the Night Away,’ 1961), Arthur Alexander (‘You Better Move On,’ 1961), Otis Redding (‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,’ 1965), Wilson Pickett (‘In the Midnight Hour,’ 1965), Percy Sledge (‘When a Man Loves a Woman,’ 1966), Aretha Franklin (‘Respect,’ 1967 and ‘I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),’ 1967), and Sam & Dave (‘Soul Man,’ 1967) were some of the Southern soul releases of Florence and Memphis throughout the 60s.

Northern Soul was developed in Detroit and Chicago. Motown Records practically swept the charts with top-selling artists that established the Motown Sound featured smash hits such as ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ by Diana Ross and The Supremes in 1964, ‘The Way You Do The Things You Do’ by The Temptations in 1964, ‘Tracks Of My Tears’ by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles in 1965, ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ by Marvin Gaye in 1967, ‘I Want You Back’ by The Jackson 5 in 1969, Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’ in 1972 and many others. Chicago became known for the sweet soul featured by Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions, who introduced a call-and-response style of group singing as derived from gospel.

Even James Brown and Little Richard, who were both into R&B, music featuring a variety of deep backbeats, funky saxophone grooves, moans, screams, and emotive inflections with boogie-woogie sounds, embodied in their music soul elements in their most commercially successful productions.

During the 1970s, the emergence of hip-hop culture and disco influenced the soul genre greatly, while in the 1980s the use of synths and other electronic equipment featured house and techno music over soul. Although its popularity has declined over the years, the impact and the influence of soul music is evident in many music genres such as funk, pop and neo-soul.

Nancy Vawter
Nancy Vawter

Nancy Vawter has been a reporter and writer since shortly after her graduation from the University of Arizona. She spent seven years with the New York Post, working as a national feature writer in New York. She later taught journalism as an assistant professor at American University in Washington.