Craig Werner is professor of Afro-American Studies at the university of Winconsin. A Change Is Gonna Come aims to tie up American politics, race and the musical movements of the last fifty years or so in one narrative. It’s a pretty daunting task that the author has set himself which in the end I think he pulls off.
Of course you’re not going to agree with everything he writes. Music is so subjective. At first I was resistant to the book. It seems audacious to make so many pronouncements on music – something so essentially emotional – telling us what it all means. But by the end I felt he had a created a very convincing narrative. The book left me thinking.
Basically the book tracks mostly black music from Mahalia Jackson right up to the Spice Girls. He sees gospel music as one of the major musical impulses throughout the history of pop music, to which all music returns. Weaved in through this are all the other various musical styles and innovations – jazz, blues, soul, funk, disco, house, hip-hop, rap. Thrown into this mix are the various political backdrops – the black panthers, Malcolm X, the civil rights movement, the Reagan years, the Clinton years. The work of black women behind the scenes is also discussed.
This is a big, exhaustive study. If you want to think about music, this a good place to start.
One last note. I was happy to read Werner on Mariah Carey (he bemoans the woeful pop material she does; remember the book was published in 1998):
‘There is no reason Mariah shouldn’t be making gospel soul in the tradition of Curtis Mayfield and Aretha Franklin.’
Just what she is doing with her new album, The Emancipation of Mimi.