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Thursday, April 12, 2012

"Is It Because I'm Black"

Syl Johnson - "Is It Because I'm Black" (1969)

 Short answer: Yes.

This is Chicago blues, an electrified, amplified version of the original Delta blues. That added electric bass also puts it squarely in the Chicago sub-category. Not every Black artist recorded a message song in the late 60s, and not every song that Syl Johnson recorded was a message song, but this was definitely his take on what the Black experience was like. Born in Mississippi, he moved at age 14 to Chicago with his family, following the path of the Great Migration like millions of other African American families. Instead of better times, many found just a different kind of hardship in the inner city. It is from this place that Johnson writes. Syl Johnson always claimed that he wrote the song in response to the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

The song keeps grooving, with the soon to be better known Hodges Brothers playing guitar, bass and organ on the track. About a year after this track was cut, a musician named Willie Mitchell was put in charge of Hi records. He brought The Hodges Brothers, as well as Johnson to work for him on his label. The Hodges Brothers became the backbone of the Hi Rhythm Section that was the house band for the company throughout the 70s, performing with Al Green, Ann Peebles, and other acts. The song lives on today, in November of 2000, the Wu Tang Clan released their third studio album. The third track was called "Hollow Bones", a name taken from the second line of this track, and also the primary sample used on the song. It was sped up, but undeniably harrowing.

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