Curtis Mayfield’s message to America’s black community is a hard one to overstate. As Jerry Butler stated, Mayfield witness the financial exploitation of many an (often illiterate) blues musician in Chicago as he was coming up in the world. He arrived into Record Row in the late 50’s as a teenager-witnessing these “musical sharecroppers” (as Butler referred to it as) basically having to “sing for their supper” by gigging just to earn a living. As the 60’s came in, Curtis Mayfield became one of the first black American musical figures to change that for himself. And as an example for others to come.
Half a century later, America is still in many ways a developing nation. Its still an autocratic nation in many ways. With many marginalized people remaining so in a nation that should have plenty for all of them. For thoughtful people such as myself,this might make Independence Day difficult to celebrate these days. In 1975, Curtis Mayfield released There’s No Place Like America Today-an album that addressed such concerns. Its cover art is based on a photograph of black flood victims in 1937 by Margaret Bourke-White. Here’s my review from a couple of years ago about the album.
From what I’ve heard of the man from the beginning of his solo career onward? Curtis Mayfield’s music focused on sociopolitical matters from the point of view of a storyteller. He’d basically tell the tale in his poetically strong manner, and than make either make passing observations or ask a rhetorical question. Always with the idea of setting things up for positive change.
After the events of Watergate and the ensuing oil crisis in the mid 70’s? Curtis’s thematic focus was beginning to change from one of implied optimism to one of the need to face the harsher realities head on, and as they were. From the cover artwork re-imagine a famous photograph onward? This album exemplified the change of focus in Curtis’s music.
“Billy Jack” is a thick,boiling over the edge yet spare jam defined by melodic wah wah bass-with a crying blues guitar backing it up and carried along rhythmically by conga’s and other percussive elements. “When Seasons Change” keeps the that same sound fully intact with a lot more reverb on this very hollow around the middle,but still beautifully crafted hard funk ballad.
“So In Love” brings in the close horns,organ and pretty orchestral strings for a shuffling mid tempo soul ballad. “Jesus” throws down a tick tocking drum with a high liquid bass and yet more organ for a gospel/soul ballad. “Blue Monday People” is another mid-tempo ballad full of that round,reverbed wah wah sound along with the typically powerful melody.
“Hard Times” brings all the elements of the opener for a hard funk number with a strong blues flavor while “Love To The People” brings in both this heavy echoed rhythm section with the orchestration together for a swelling,horn filled mass of funky soulfulness. Over and over again? This album brings in a spare,very glossy funk sound that stands on near perfect ground with the lyrical focus. And of course it finds Curtis taking a look at the darker side of his one conceptual vision.
He is seeing the inequities of racial privilege for exactly what they are. And makes it clear over and over that the black community will have to turn more and more inward to move forward. And that stands on both creative and social grounds as well. Of course with musicians like Phil Upchurch and Henry Gibson as part of Curtom’s backing band of the day? Curtis Mayfield was in just the right place to take his funk to a musically broader and lyrically less certain place.
The idea that America should celebrate its birthday based on unconditionally positive ideas is probably a destructive one. Every year as knowledge becomes broader, American’s learn not only truths of its history. But the less than savory circumstances on its founding. Yet America is also a nation where its democratically based…messiness (as my friend Henrique said once) allows for a lot of positive things to be accomplished. There’s No Place Like America Today takes this well rounded view of outward and inner human politics and brings it all to the table. And in Curtis’s own funky eloquence too.