Pop music’s eternal appeal can be found in one instance out of many: “This Magic Moment,” a 1960 song by The Drifters. “Everything I want I have/Whenever I hold you tight.” The emotion expressed in that line doesn’t simply overlook politics but, through the calm deliberation of personal sentiment, transcends politics. This artistic strategy is itself a political act (even if subconscious). Such transcendence was once commonly understood and implicitly endorsed by the way African-Americans embraced soaring European violins and swirling piano flourishes in the same era in which they waged the civil rights struggle. Amiri Baraka explained what was special–and forceful–in pop when he described how it began to “flow just as many Afro-American artists and intellectuals had reached a more resolute and practical understanding.” Social historians seldom deal with the part of the black experience that transmutes the daily ordeal of segregation, oppression and hardship into salvific forms, but it is a truth that any worthwhile pop-music scholar must confront.
Few have attempted this insight into the paradox of pop, a music that manages to be at once soothing and revolutionary, as well as Arthur Kempton in Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Music. Moving through the history of black pop from the earliest blues recordings to contemporary hip-hop, Kempton’s opening chapters are unusually satisfying as a selective chronology that is also a tribute to artists who struggled with social obstacles more difficult than an elusive muse. There’s romance in Kempton’s tale, but like the gospel and r&b that inspire him, this cultural appreciation is informed by an awareness that even the most intimate feelings can reflect some larger social meaning. His book is distinguished by a fan’s deep understanding, and by an unusual familiarity with the culture’s lingua franca. Even the best white scholars of black pop–Charles Shaar Murray, Peter Guralnick, Gerri Hirshey–have displayed a journalistic formality in their accounts. Kempton, by contrast, has dared inhale the culture’s thought and attitude in authentic dialect and phrases: “upsouth,” “grown children” (aged offspring still under parental authority), “country and uncool,” “stealing from the building fund,” “a rock in a weary land.”
Kempton views black pop history as a self-conscious movement rather than a happy accident with sociological aftershocks, the standard notion of stingy pop critics who present black musicians as unsophisticated folk lacking social awareness. As he points out, black popular music, from blues to gospel, from soul to hip-hop, has consistently drawn upon the experiences, longings and vision of outsiders–or, as he calls them, “outcastes.” Moving in on a restricted, hostile, supposedly democratic society with powerful tales of their innermost feelings, “outcastes” like Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke have not only changed popular perceptions of black folks around the world; they have also transformed our perception of what America could be. Boogaloo is best when Kempton writes about these outcastes, who changed their circumstances and improved the lives of people who bore witness to their struggle.
The story of black music in the twentieth century is, in large part, a story of the Great Migration from the South. The early twentieth-century migrants, Kempton observes, “usually came hopeful, preferring to believe that in their new place social acceptance was a promise social acceptability would guarantee, and so were attracted to the culture of optimism they found in the churches strivers had made.” Politics, music and the church were the pillars of black social progress. The line between the secular and sacred forms of expression was often hard to identify: Many of Kempton’s subjects, from Thomas Dorsey to Sam Cooke, frequently alternated between gospel and blues. Kempton’s description of this ambivalence is a crucial addition to contemporary cultural understanding. He cites the