Soul music spoke to the part of me that was unaddressed by my upbringing and education–art and music. Art was my own exercise and music was the world’s gift to me.
by Barry Taylor, PhD
December 10, 2012 marked the 45th anniversary of the death of one of pop music’s greatest singers, Otis Redding.
I came of age at a time and in a place where the chief musical influences were American, not British. I have said before that my musical ‘church’ was populated by largely black voices–there was just something in it, something I couldn’t really put my finger on, that just reached an elusive part of me, something that lurked deep within me, but was also close enough to the surface of my life to make me a reflective and somewhat melancholy human being–I’ve been that way for as long as I can remember. Soul music spoke to the part of me that was unaddressed by my life–upbringing, enviroment, education, religion–none of it touched this part of. I attended to it by two things–art and music. Art was my own exercise and music was the world’s gift to me (it took me a number of years to overcome the challenges of left-handedness in a right-hand world when it came to playing music, and find my way to my own music).
I’ve always loved music–and from an early age became a disciple, in fact before anything else in life I am a music disciple. I have broad musical tastes and a taste for what’s next, I am not someone for whom the music of their youth is the only music that moves them, this year’s sounds are just as exciting, but that said, soul music in particular, which was formative in my musical life, remains central and key.
I don’t really believe in the existence of the soul–I am in similar territory to Nancey Murphy in her book, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? who puts it this way, “we are our bodies — there is no additional metaphysical element such as a mind or soul or spirit.” That’s probably not the whole story and she goes on to say that we are “complex physical organisms, imbued with the legacy of thousands of years of culture, and, most importantly, blown by the Breath of God’s Spirit; we are Spirited bodies.” I might take a little different path to her with regard to the second quote, but essentially, I think we are physical and then…metaphysics doesn’t move me, and never has (it just took me a long time to work out that I didn’t need it in order to thnk about religion). Although I don’t really believe in the soul, I belive in the idea of soul–the depth of us, the portion of our physicality that is drawn beneath the surface of existence, to question, to seek for the elusive meaning and meaningful existence of a life, and soul music is a pathway toward that for me. It has little to do with the content of most soul music, which is often about love or failed love, and the subsequent isolation and pain, it is the emotional arc that soul music creates which makes room for me to address that part of me. And that was mostly affirmed as an option for me when I first heard Otis Redding sing–Try A Little Tenderness and These Arms of mine undo me, even to this day. Otis Redding, Nina Simone and Donny Hathaway–whose Extensions of a Man is for me one of the greatest soul albums of all time–the title itself tells you what the music does for me–its very Mcluhan!!:) are part of the architecture of my self-understanding and the way I understand what it might mean to be human.
The other side of soul music is the religious world from which much of it emerged, and there is a legacy of gospel influence in soul–so i heard a lot of it growing up, a counter-vision to the church of my childhood–cold, dry, stiff–but neither option appealed particularly–I saw the voicing of these cries as simply a means by which we try to express the unexpressable–the essence of us which we attach to ideas of the sacred. The older I get the less that means to me concretely and yet the more my soul cries out–not to God, but to life itself.
Soul music is a genre, but it is not limited to that field. I hear it everywhere–Joseph Arthur immediately springs to mind, as do Ray La Montagne and Jackson Browne,and of course Van Morrison, but so do Zeppelin, and Radiohead have it in spades–the list goes on and keeps growing.
But on this day, thank you Otis Redding for helping me to remember that I am but dust, but somehow, and who knows how, imbued with depth of feeling, depth of emotion, with substance that extends me beyond the time and geography of my birth like so many stars filling the universe with sparks of fire and light.