HAS it got soul? Man, that's the question of the hour. If it has soul, then it's tough, beautiful, out of sight. It passes the test of with-itness. It has the authenticity of collard greens boiling on the stove, the sassy style of the boogaloo in a hip discotheque, the solidarity signified by "Soul Brother" scrawled on a ghetto storefront.
But what is soul? "It's like electricity —we don't really know what it is," says Singer Ray Charles. "But it's a force that can light a room." The force radiates from a sense of selfhood, a sense of knowing where you've been and what it means. Soul is a way of life —but it is always the hard way. Its essence is ingrained in those who suffer and endure to laugh about it later. Soul is happening everywhere, in esthetics and anthropology, history and dietetics, haberdashery and politics—although Hubert Humphrey's recent declaration to college students that he was a "soul brother" was all wrong. Soul is letting others say you're a soul brother. Soul is not needing others to say it.
Where soul is really at today is pop music. It emanates from the rumble of gospel chords and the plaintive cry of the blues. It is compounded of raw emotion, pulsing rhythm and spare, earthy lyrics—all suffused with the sensual, somewhat melancholy vibrations of the Negro idiom. Always the Negro idiom. LeRoi Jones, the militant Negro playwright, says: "Soul music is music coming out of the black spirit." For decades, it only reverberated around the edges of white pop music, injecting its native accent here and there; now it has penetrated to the core, and its tone and beat are triumphant.
No Moon in June. Soul music is sincerity, a homely distillation of everybody's daily portion of pain and joy. "It pulls the cover off," explains Jim Stewart, a former banker and country fiddler who heads Memphis' soul-oriented Stax Records. "It's not the moon in June. It's life. Sometimes it's violence and sex. That's the way it is in this world. Sometimes there's animal in it; but let's face it, we've got a lot of animal in us." The difference between Tin Pan Alley and Soul is not hard to define. A conventional tunesmith might write: "You're still near, my darling, though we're apart/ I'll hold you always in my heart." The soul singer might put it: "Baby, since you split the scene the rent's come due/ Without you or your money it's hard, yeah, hard to be true."
In all its power, lyricism and ecstatic anguish, soul is a chunky, 5-ft. 5-in. girl of 26 named Aretha Franklin singing from the stage of a packed Philharmonic Hall in Manhattan. She leans her head back, forehead gleaming with perspiration, features twisted by her intensity, and her voice—plangent and supple—pierces the hall:
Oh baby, what you done to me . . .
You make me feel, you make me
feel, you make me feel like a
"Tell it like it is," her listeners exhort, on their feet, clapping and cheering. She goes into a "holiness shout"-a writhing dance derived from gospel services, all the while singing over the tumult. This is why her admirers call her Lady Soul.