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by Josh Friedberg
Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul by Craig Werner
Craig Werner is one of the most perceptive music historians and critics of the last three decades, and Higher Ground—the follow-up to his highly acclaimed 1998 book, A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America—delves deeply into the work of Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Curtis Mayfield. The book’s analysis appealed to me as a huge fan of music, history, and African American Studies, and with the passing of Aretha, now is an especially useful time to revisit the ideas in this book.
Werner distinguishes his book not only with his musical interpretations and research, but also with his focus on the social, political, and economic contexts surrounding these great artists and their times. From the standpoint of our city, the way Werner highlights different narratives about the Cabrini-Green housing projects as the milieu in which Mayfield grew up should especially interest Chicago readers. Further, his discernment when sifting through myths about all three, but especially Wonder (as Wonder has apparently told plenty of tall tales about his past), is worth commending.
In addition, his analysis of the music and of its connections to their times is especially welcome. Werner shows how the best music criticism and historiography is never politically neutral, and his assessments of different aspects of African American freedom struggles, including in the civil rights and black power eras, raise key questions that may prove especially relevant in the era of #BlackLivesMatter, regardless of whether or not one agrees with Werner. And the way he connects that contextual assessment to the music, including with examples like how Vietnam veterans found joy in Aretha’s “Chain of Fools,” likely will prove the most revelatory to music fans.
Finally, Werner weaves a theme of what he calls the gospel vision of moving to “higher ground” throughout the book and clearly shows its role in the music and times of these three giants of soul music. My one complaint about this book, however, is that the end should have been expanded to include more on “the rise and fall of American soul,” but perhaps an updating of this book with Aretha’s death might be in order to include more of such analysis.
Overall, I highly recommend this book.
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