'What Is Soul?' New Faces Have Answers Soul may be a full-fledged style of music or just a flavor, but whether you like it straight-up or blended with other music and innovations, there's a sense that soul is always going to be part of the mix. Newcomers Sharon Jones and Eli "Paperboy" Reed share their thoughts.

'What Is Soul?' New Faces Have Answers

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The group Funkadelic posed this musical question back in 1971:

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GEORGE CLINTON (Singer): (Singing) What is soul? I don't know.

MONTAGNE: It's a challenging question.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CLINTON: (Singing) Soul is a ham hock in your cornflakes.

MONTAGNE: Soul is, of course, also a style of music that was born in the 1950s, took over the charts in the '60s, and is back today. Music journalist Ashley Kahn offers this take on the state of soul, 2008.

(Soundbite of music)

ASHLEY KAHN: If you're talking music, soul is easy to define. It's a gritty vocal style with a feeling straight out of the black church. It's gospel, but with a secular outlook.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1 (Singer): (Singing) All the ladies know me, when I go out on the town.

KAHN: Soul can have a horn section, sometimes strings, but it doesn't like to be too dressed up. Soul is more about naked emotion and personal testimony.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1 (Singer): (Singing) 'Cause when I love you, there's no way you're gonna break her down and say I'm the satisfier.

KAHN: The rise of soul signified a major shift in popular musical taste throughout America.

(Soundbite of song, "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman")

Ms. ARETHA FRANKLIN (Singer): (Singing) You make me feel, you make me feel, you make me feel like a natural woman.

Mr. NELSON GEORGE (Writer): By the '60s, soul music was mainstream black pop music and became mainstream American music.

KAHN: Nelson George has been writing about African-American music and culture for more than 30 years.

Mr. GEORGE: Aretha Franklin's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," Otis Redding "Try a Little Tenderness."

(Soundbite of song, "Try a Little Tenderness")

Mr. OTIS REDDING (Singer): (Singing) You've got to hold on, hold on something, baby. Try a little tenderness. Yeah, yeah.

Mr. GEORGE: There's one idea that it's a stereotypical idea with soul, which is a almost archival music, that it's music locked into a certain time and place.

KAHN: Soul music has grown and changed and kept up with the times. Today, it seems to be enjoying a revival.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Hold me down, baby. Here I stand.

Ms. SHARON JONES (Singer): You know what? It's always been here. You're just hearing about it again.

KAHN: Sharon Jones is a gospel-trained singer who started performing soul music in the 1970s.

(Soundbite of song, "100 Days, 100 Nights")

Ms. JONES: (Singing) One hundred days, 100 nights to know a man's heart.

KAHN: With her band, the Dap Kings, Jones recently released a new album, "100 Days, 100 Nights."

(Soundbite of song, "100 Days, 100 Nights")

Ms. JONES: (Singing) One hundred days, 100 nights, to know a man's heart.

Ms. JONES: They say: Well, isn't soul, like, black people? You know, like no. Look at my band: white guys. There's Jewish guys. There's Spanish. You know, you guys are all mixed up there.

(Soundbite of song, "100 Days, 100 Nights")

Ms. JONES: (Singing) Wait a minute. Maybe I need to slow it down just a little and take my time. I had a man tell me things.

KAHN: Jones' voice can be a formidable force, especially when it shifts an entire song into high gear.

(Soundbite of song, "Answer Me")

Ms. JONES: (Singing) Answer me, yeah. Answer me. Answer me. Answer me.

Ms. JONES: And now when I do "Answer Me…"

(Singing) Oh, answer me.

This is soulful.

(Singing) Sweet Jesus, don't you hear?

You're grunting with it, and you know how it come from here? Then another one, you'd just be singing…

(Singing) Don't you hear me calling you? I need your answer.

You know, I don't think it's unsoulful, you know, but it's just…

KAHN: But it's more straight.

Ms. JONES: Yeah, more straight. And I think when you go soul, you have to get the ugly face. Soul is singing with the ugly face, you know.

(Soundbite of music)

KAHN: Eli Paperboy Reed, a new arrival on the soul scene, already knows how to sing ugly. He's only 24.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ELI PAPERBOY REED (Singer): (Singing) It's your chance to show it on the floor. (unintelligible) It's a full moon. Oh, it's a full moon.

I was never, like, thinking about capitalizing on some sort of soul revival. My music sounds the way it does because my influences are - everybody wears their influences on their sleeve. You know, when I was listening to "Drown in My Own Tears" and, you know, or I would listen to "Pain in My Heart" when I was 15 and having to deal with high-school girls, you know, for me, that was relevant.

(Soundbite of song, "Roll With Me")

Mr. REED: (Singing) I'll roll with you.

KAHN: Reed's new album, "Roll With Me," is marked by a passionate precision and raw intensity.

(Soundbite of song, "Roll With Me")

Mr. REED (Singing): Roll with you. (unintelligible)

KAHN: Eli Reed and Sharon Jones are good examples of soul traditionalists, but there's a lot of good soul singing to be found on today's R&B and pop charts, according to writer Nelson George.

Mr. GEORGE: There's a lot of artists today who access soul music as part of what they do. Keyshia Cole, who's only like 23 years old, is a soul singer. Certainly, Usher is a soul singer. Listen to what Amy Winehouse is doing.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. AMY WINEHOUSE (Singer): (Singing) I told you I was trouble. Yeah you know, now I know you know.

Mr. GEORGE: What happened is soul never really died. It was overcome to some degree by changing production styles. It's really interesting how the pendulum is swinging back. Hip-hop's dominance of black pop culture and the de facto huge role in mainstream pop is slowly ebbing away.

(Soundbite of music)

KAHN: So what is soul today? A full-fledged style? Just a flavor? Does it matter? Whether you like it straight-up or blended with other musical innovations, there's a sense that soul is always going to be part of the mix.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JONES: (Singing) Now if you want a girl to come see you, you've got to leave a little room.

It's the root. You can't get rid of the root, as long as you're going to hear music. As long as it's there. You can't get rid of that root.

Ms. JONES: (Singing) (unintelligible)

MONTAGNE: Ashley Kahn is the author of "A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album." To hear more music from Eli Paperboy Reed and Sharon Jones, groove your way to npr.org. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


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