Surrealism and Soul Train

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One weird and downright disturbing bit of propaganda circulating in our national discourse via talk radio, the Internet, and Fox News, says that Black History Month (i.e. February) is actually a socialist plot designed to undermine the meaningful contributions of white people to black history. By perpetuating a culture of guilt over minor incidents like the slave trade, the socialists behind Black History Month are succeeding in channeling your hard earned tax dollars into entitlement programs that support the lifestyles of undeserving, lazy minorities, i.e. "those folks who won't get out of their easy chairs!"

Quite a leap of logic. We would provide you with helpful links in order to show that plenty of your neighbors buy into this "transparent insanity," but you probably already know how to use Google and, in spite of your best effort not to, have overheard the words "tea party anthem" at a family reunion or in the check-out line at Kroger. If you need a moment for some quick research, we'll wait. Then we'll move on to another weird but comparatively saner topic: White musicians' invasion of the groundbreaking '70s television program, Soul Train!

David Bowie on Soul Train

From 1970-2006, this weekly television show offered a window into African American music and culture, and its charismatic host, Don Cornelius, was, along with his many musical guests, responsible for a new era in African American cultural expression. Soul Train featured mostly lip-synced sometimes live performances by the great artists of the 1970s, '80s and '90s, including James Brown, Barry White, Gladys Night and the Pips, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and even hip-hop artists Kurtis Blow and Public Enemy. The Soul Train dancers kept the energy level high matching every song with choreographed moves that are still a part of contemporary club culture.

Historical context is crucial for an understanding of how groundbreaking this show was. Cornelius, in addition to being an extremely astute businessman, understood and took to heart the social and political ramifications of whatever went out on the air. He protected the Soul Train brand by making no concessions to other power brokers in his industry. After his appearance on the show, James Brown famously asked Cornelius: "Don, who's behind this?" Cornelius replied: "I am." So his decision around 1975 to include performances by white musicians on Soul Train was not made without a bit of trepidation. What sort of message does this send out? More importantly, will the audience dig the music?

Well what is there not to dig about the incredibly thin and orange-coiffed David Bowie landing before the Soul Train dancers like a Surrealist's wet dream to lip-sync, with only a few moments of apparent confusion, his 1975 hit "Fame?" In 1925, the French poet André Breton wrote that surrealism rested on the belief in the "higher reality of certain hitherto neglected forms of association." With that in mind, the color scheme we see in the video of Bowie's performance is striking, but somehow it's all one beautifully weird and yes, funky affair. The dancers are jostling each other to get close to Bowie who, just before the tune kicks in, looks happily bewildered.

Elton John as a leprechaun on Soul Train, 1975

"Hey kids, shake it loose together, the spolight´s hitting something that´s been known to change the weather. We´ll kill the fatted calf tonight so stick around..." From "Bennie and the Jets" lyrics by Elton John and Bernie Taupin

The editor of Houston-based Objectif Magazine (one of those socialist periodicals published by the media elite) recently brought to our attention a rare cover by a young and definitely not famous Elton John of Nina Simone's "To Be Young Gifted And Black." In 1970, much to John's delight and surprise, Aretha Franklin (who would record "To Be Young..." in 1972) recorded John's gospel-influenced "Border Song." A few years later, John was again surprised by a phone call from his label informing him that his song "Bennie and the Jets" was the number one record on Detroit's black radio stations. And this was before the track was made available as a single (John immediately told his label: "Release it! Release it!"). Soon after, in 1975, John was a musical guest on Soul Train.

Always a sartorial surrealist, John made his appearance dressed as...well, a leprechaun (why the fuck not?) and delivered a live vocal to the canned track pounding the transparent piano in his own imitable fashion. He definitely goes "off script" toward the end, raising his voice to a ridiculous pitch trying to get some call and response happening from the Soul Train dancers. No question he's having a ball.

Years later, the musical back and forth continues as Mary J. Blige gives props to John on her track "Deep Inside."

Only a few more white (or as Cornelius told Soul Train's first white guest artist Gino Vannelli, "off-white") artists appeared on Soul Train, including Teena Marie, KC and the Sunshine Band, and Average White Band. Each artist stepped up to deliver the goods, but Bowie and Sir Elton probably cinched it when it came to being simultaneously soulful and surreal.

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