To help me answer that question, I contacted the American professor in philosophy, Joel Rudinow (pictured left) who wrote the book “Soul Music - Tracking the Spiritual Roots of Pop from Plato to Motown”, and asked him to define soul music.
I identify soul music originally as a stylistic merger of African American gospel music with rhythm & blues and rock & roll, which coincides historically with the American civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s.
Many people generally refer soul music to the style of pop music that came up in the late 1950 with the singer Sam Cooke and his gospel group “The Soul Stirrers” who had the hit “You Send Me” in 1957.
However, Joel Rudinow writes that according to the African American writer Amiri Baraka, the word “soul” was used within music a couple of years before that by jazz musicians to label something authentic, something that went against the 'tamed' and 'domesticated' music that was mass distributed by the mainly racist cultural industry at that time.
The jazz musicians, among them for example: John Coltrane and Horace Silver, honoured a link between African American music innovations and the African American church. In their music, they used the call-and-response and the spirit possession characteristic in many African American churches. All this was a conscious resistance against the repressive and racist conditions of 1950s America. The word soul became a sign of solidarity within the African American community in their struggles for justice and empowerment. The word was added to various things such as soul food, soul patch, and soul brother.
So the roots of soul music is closely connected with the American civil right struggles and is also very connected with the spiritual and suggestive moods aggregated in many of the African American churches at that time. A mood that is not being controlled or tamed; a feeling of liberation from an often suppressing and hard daily life.
Joel Rudinow writes about the spiritual roots of soul music, so I asked him if there is such a thing as soul music without the spiritual connection.
There's a sense in which all music, all life, all everything, is spiritual, or has spiritual significance. On the other hand, there's a sense in which spirituality depends on the awareness, the practices and intentions of those involved in the activity, whatever it is. In response to this question, an interesting example to look at is what Tina Turner has done with her life and with music.
Tina Turner overcame hardships in life and managed to comeback both as an artist and as a person, which makes somehow a telling example about the core of soul music.
So from the American civil rights struggle and beyond, soul music has been working as a tool for healing both on a personal level, as the example of Tina Turner demonstrates, and also on a national and community level.
An example on a community level that I read about in Joel Rudinow’s book of how the soul music movement in practice created a new culture, in opposition to the surrounding community, is that of how the soul movement in the American south, was racially not only mixed, but integrated.
something that went against the 'tamed' and 'domesticated' music
The legendary record company Stax records was more or less from the beginning racially integrated on all levels from the start of 1957, and this was in Memphis Tennessee, a state that as late as 1971 would rather close their public swimming pool than let blacks and whites swim side by side.
Perhaps Mavis Staples said it best in the liner notes to her 2007 CD, 'We'll Never Turn Back'. She said, "Here it is, 2007, and there are still so many problems and social injustices in the world. Well I tell you we need a change now more than ever, and I'm turning to the church again for strength . . . We've got to keep pushing to make the world a better place”.
Maybe the movement forward, towards a better world is an essence of soul music.
So here in Scandinavia, when listening to soul music, it could be good to consider the origins of the music we love. Sometimes it can be good to think about the soul part of soul music. Especially now when there are forces in our society judging people because of their origin or how they look.
We should not forget that soul music bears resistance and healing at its core. The soul music scene in Scandinavia represents a multi-racial collective of people and stands strong against racist currents around us, and when looking into the history we see that it is not a coincidence, it lies in the soul.
A change is gonna come. It has to. Always.
Joel Rudinow’s excellent book is called “soul music: tracking the spiritual roots of Pop from Plato to Motown”.
Professor Rudinow is also a passionate musician, his love for soul music started before his interest in philosophy, starting when he first heard Ray Charles.
You can listen to his music project "The Parlor Professors Project", which you find here: https://itunes.apple.com/ie/album/on-your-way-down-single/id855819265