- The Funk Era and Beyond: New Perspectives on Black Popular Culture
Perhaps recent movies such as Cadillac Records or Beyoncé's performance of "At Last" during President Obama's inaugural ball will introduce innovative musicians, songwriters, and vocalists of long ago to a new generation. If not, maybe contributor and editor Tony Bolden's ambitious new collection will. Developed as a result of the "Eruptions of Funk" symposium held at the University of Alabama in 2007, the collection includes fifteen chapters contributed by established and rising scholars. The chapters are divided into six sections: "Prelude from the Funkmaster," "Introduction," "Inside the Funk Shop: Writings on the Funk Band Era," "Impressions: Funkativity and Visual Art," "Funkintelechy: (Re)cognizing Black Writing," and "Imagine That: Fonky Blues Rockin and Rollin."
Funk is an ambiguous term that has been defined and redefined over the years, so several of the chapters include definitions of the word. African art historian Robert Farris Thompson traces the derivation of the word to the Ki-Kongo word lu-fuki, which refers to the body odor of a man who has been working hard. Negative connotations led to funk being "associated with the most degrading and dehumanizing racial stereotypes associated with blacks, including sexual profligacy, promiscuity, laxness, lewdness, and looseness" (15). According to Bolden, blacks revised the term, opting for a more positive definition so that the funk discussed here is "honest expression and integrity, because the artistic and/or material products that accrue from . . . exertion reflect a high level of commitment to one's work" (15). Cheryl L. Keyes adds that among black Americans funk became " 'earthiness,' 'raw,' or in a musical sense, 'the return to the evocative feeling and expressiveness of traditional blues' " (222-23). [End Page 774]
Mark Anthony Neal opens the collection with a focus on the influence of "sanctified," or black Pentecostal, churches on music, particularly Stand!, the fourth and most successful album by Sly and the Family Stone. Neal maintains that Stand! was "a metaphor for the act of testifyin' . . . during black Pentecostal services," and he draws connections between Sly's performance onstage and the performance of an emotional preacher in the pulpit (6). A focus on funk music and musicians continues with the section titled "Inside the Funk Shop: Writings on the Funk Band Era." Rich essays offer insight into the production of funk music in the 1960s and 1970s, from George Clinton and the emergence of Parliament-Funkadelic and its legacy to James Brown and his revision of Western music via the "funk" beats. Next, Dayton, Ohio is presented as a lush and nurturing home to funk music, supporting groups like the Ohio Players and Lakeside. A humorous but revealing treat is the sole interview in the collection: Thomas Sayers Ellis speaks to Bootsy Collins, former bass guitarist for James Brown and Funkadelic, about the journey that led him to his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1997 along with Parliament-Funkadelic. Musicians who may not be as memorable as those featured in earlier chapters are discussed toward the end. For example, Cheryl L. Keyes shares details about Louisiana native Henry Roeland Byrd's life and development as a pianist and composer. Poor health and destitution made it difficult for Byrd (known as Professor Longhair) to make the type of national impact that his contemporaries from Louisiana, Fats Domino and Little Richard, managed.
While music and musicians is a major focus of the collection, contributors also emphasize that funk is not confined to music. Maurice L. Bryan, Jr., explores Gordon Parks's film Leadbelly (1976) in "Good Morning Blues: Gordon Parks Imagines Leadbelly." The film, which was marketed poorly and overlooked by moviegoers, is loosely based on the life of Huddie Ledbetter, a blues artist who struggled to maintain his dignity and manhood while battling racism and exploitation. In "Shine2.0: Aaron McGruder's Huey Freeman as Contemporary Folk Hero," Howard Rambsy II reads Huey Freeman of McGruder's popular cartoon The Boondocks as an "up-to-date underground black hero" (9). Intelligent...