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August 2011, Week 4

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Tue, 23 Aug 2011 21:29:19 -0400
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RIP Nick Ashford and Jerry Leiber: You Created the
Soundtrack for a Multiracial America

By Mark Naison
August 23, 2011
http://hnn.us/articles/8-23-11/rip-nick-ashford-and-jerry-leiber.html

When I discovered that two of the greatest pop
songwriters of all time, Nick Ashford (of the duo
Ashford and Simpson) and Jerry Leiber (of Leiber and
Stoller) both died yesterday, August 22, my first
impulse was to go into mourning.  As someone who grew up
in Brooklyn in the 1950s and came of age as a civil
rights and anti-war activist at Columbia University in
the 1960s, I looked to songs that they had written (from
"Hound Dog" and "Stand By Me" to "Ain't No Mountain High
Enough" and "Solid as a Rock") as part of the soundtrack
of my life and markers of my personal and political
evolution.

But after thinking about their music--not only on its
impact on tens of millions of people of my generation,
but on the cultural politics their songwriting
reflected--I think it's important to understand that
they were figures who, in their own way, helped redefine
race in United States by creating a sonic universe in
which people of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds
could find joy and meaning.

It is easy to forget how unique this multiracial sonic
universe, which evolved with the popularity of rock and
roll in the middle 1950s and lasted through the late
`60s, was in its historic moment.  There are certain
songs--most, but not all of them performed by black
artists--which involved themes of love and loyalty, and
which young people in every single part of the country,
regardless of racial or cultural background, adopted as
their own personal anthems.

At a time of unprecedented economic growth, when unions
were strong, wealth was far more evenly distributed than
it is now, and working class people of all racial
backgrounds strode through America with a confidence and
optimism that would be unimaginable today, songwriters,
record producers, radio DJs and singers managed to
capture that optimistic spirit by adapting rhythm and
blues-a music forged in postwar urban black communities
to a broader youth market.  And while the driving
impulse here was commerce, the music that resulted had a
joyous spirit that cut across racial boundaries more
than anything the nation had ever seen.

But it could only work because some of those boundaries
were being crossed in daily life.  In cities like New
York, Los Angeles, and Detroit, young blacks and whites
not only found themselves working in the same factories,
they sometimes attended the same high schools and lived
in the same housing projects.  And if the majority of
people who moved through these integrated settings kept
to their own cohort, there were enough people who
crossed those boundaries in friendship, and occasionally
in love, to understand that there were some very real
commonalities in material aspirations and cultural
values.  Young people in those times, irrespective of
their racial backgrounds, wanted cars and houses, good
jobs and good times, and hoped, at some point after they
had their fun, to find love and marriage.

Songwriters like Nick Ashford and Jerry Leiber knew
this.  They were part of a generation of young people
who believed in "love" (however gendered their
definition of that was) and who believed that their
economic prospects were promising enough to imagine love
leading to marriage.  That deindustrialization, war, and
stubbornly persistent racism might undermine that
possibility-and that women's empowerment would render
the ideal problematic-goes without saying, but for a
good ten-year period, a whole generation raised in those
heady times was emotionally entranced by the vision of
love and loyalty put forward in songs like" Stand By Me"
and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough."

Look at the lyrics of each of these songs:

Stand by Me

   When the night has come
   And the land is dark
   And the moon is the only light  we see
   Oh I won't be afraid, no I won't be afraid
   Just as long as you stand by me

Ain't No Mountain High Enough

   If you need me, no matter where you are
   No matter how far, don't worry baby
   Just call my name, I'll be there in a hurry
   You don't have to worry
   Cause ain't no mountain high enough, ain't no valley
   Low enough, ain't no river wide enough, to keep me
   From getting to you baby

These heroic visions of devotion and loyalty might
elicit laughter today, but they were as much part of
what it meant to be young in the early and mid-60s as
the draft, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Star
Spangled Banner.  Wherever you go, whether it be the
Deep South, the Pacific Northwest, New England or the
Great Plains or the Mesabi Range, you put these songs on
for a sixty-and-over group, irrespective of race, and it
will be a moment of reverence, not just for lost youth,
but for broken ideals, and for passions that emerge when
you live life to the fullest.

That these two songwriters, one black, one white, could
capture those feelings with such perfect pitch and
startling universality, reflected not just as astute
reading of a moment in American history, but the
creation of a cross-racial sensibility that had never
existed before and might never quite exist again in
exactly the same form.

Whatever this nation has become since that time,
whatever changes in gender and economics have rendered
the ideals and visions captured in those songs
problematic, at least for our time, the songs capture a
time when people dared to dream that love and loyalty
were possible and that they could dream together across
racial and cultural boundaries in a way that their
parents' generation could never imagine.

---

Mark Naison is a Professor of African American Studies
and History at Fordham University and Director of
Fordham's Urban Studies Program. He is the author of
three books and over 100 articles on African American
History, urban history, and the history of sports. His
most recent book, White Boy: A Memoir, was published in
the spring of 2002.

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