"The Two Underdogs", Pt. V

 

A WHOLE NEW UNDERDOG

In Blues People, Le Roi Jones points out that Louis Armstrong’s departure from the Oliver Creole Jazz Band in 1927 is a “musical and socio-cultural event of the highest significance” as it signified the “ascendency of the soloist” in jazz:

“The development of the soloist is probably connected to the fact that about this time in the development of jazz, many of the “hot” musicians had to seek employment with larger dance bands of usually dubious quality. The communal, collective improvisatory style of early jazz was impossible in this context....The move North, for instance, had broken down the old communities (the house parties were one manifestation of a regrouping of the newer communities: the Harlems and South Chicagos)....The dance bands or society orchestras of the North replaced the plot of land, for they were the musician’s only means of existence, and the solo, like the holler, was the only link with an earlier, more intense sense of self in its most vital relationship to the world. The solo spoke singly of a collective music... [39]

40 years later, 1967 signifies a similar socio-cultural event in the fields of rock/pop: [40] redevelopment was rendering the r&b communities of the Fillmore (like the Harlems & South Chicagos) into yet another “post-communal black society.” AM Radio, in Sly Stone’s DJ hands, was at least as “collective and communal” as any house party blues, but it too was being broken up by the same forces that broke up Autumn records. Columbia records was the “plot of land” (if not the reparations or the mule) offered to Sly---as his only means of existence. While Columbia, to their credit and in contrast with Atlantic, did not try to break up the Family Stone and force Sly into a dance band of dubious quality, there was still a price; Sly was willing to pay it, but not to deny it. Sly’s vocals on “Underdog,” like the jazz holler, “spoke singly of a collective music.”

If the Brummels’ 1965 “Underdog” is a serious, danceable, joke, the version of “Underdog” that opened The Family Stone’s debut A Whole New Thing is straight-on soul earnestness. It’s like before Sly felt he had to guard his misery, and now he could flaunt it. Sly himself, joined by Freddie and Bill, never sang so expressively and passionately, or unleashed his church upbringing so fully (and sounded so “black”) as on this song. Although now in a minor key, it’s got a driven groove and, in contrast to the sunny summer single ear candy of the 12 string guitar, defiant horns: the sounds of struggle: “‘Radical’ within the context of mainstream America...The New Thing beginning by being free...freed of American white cocktail droop, tinkle, etc. The straitjacket of American expression sans blackness...It screams. It yearns. It pleads. It breaks out (the best of it). But its practitioners sometimes do not. But then the vibrations of a feeling, of a particular place, a conjunction of world spirit, some of everybody can pick up on.” [41]

Even this version is not without some ingenuous “Black Humor” as it’s framed with a minor key version of “Frere Jacques.” Less than a month before the recording of “Underdog,” The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper and the “All You Need Is Love” single; the latter famously begins with a horn section playing The French National Anthem. [42] By contrast to this major key war song, Sly’s quoting of a minor version of a song about someone named John who’s sleeping through the morning bells seems directed at “Brother” Lennon in his “dream weaver” phase, at least as a metonymy (synecdoche) of The Summer Of Love. You may have your Family Dog, but we’re the Family Stone: “Underdog.” Sly’s ‘joke’ is a musical version of now absent lyrics about the guy on a log in a fog going down the river by the go nowhere---fine for the millionaire to complain about being taxed 95%. Even Dylan hated Sgt. Pepper...

This little joke actually enhances the feeling of reality in this song. If Donahue was going to be such an FM-Radio turncoat, it seems to reason, we might as well go even more soul, more black, and see if the older soul people can get down with this prog-soul thing we got. AM isn’t dead. Separatism was in the air; and so was re-segregation. “Underdog” violates every Motown rule of what the pop-hook should be, as if in defiance. When I imagine a video for this song, I see the ghettoes of Oakland the Panthers were starting to patrol, and the Hunter’s Point of the late 66 riots.

Though about half the lyrics are retained from the 1965 version, the Family Stone version is about as race-conscious as one can be without saying “black” or “white” (let alone “Mighty, Mighty, Spade and Whitey”). [43] As an indictment of Bay Area Summer of Love racism, “Underdog” rivals Otis Redding’s¬† “(Sittin On)The Dock Of The Bay.” ¬†While the despondency of Otis’s song contrasts sharply with the myth of his triumphant performance for the hippie Monterey Pop crowd, “Underdog” is more blatant and assertive. It’s at least as working class as the Beau Brummels version, but it does away with the “youth culture” signifiers their version relied on. It sounds more adult; more experienced than Jimi Hendrix at the time, in part because the words are sung slower and can sink in more. Compare, for instance:

I know how it feels to get demoted When it comes time you got promoted
But you might be movin' up too fast, yeah (Yeah, yeah)

to a line in the 1965 version it replaces:

Leave it up to the human race, what a big disgrace, for destroying one
of the human race, you ought to be ashamed of yourself

On the page, the word “demoted” doesn’t seem as desperate as “destroy,” but the vocal and musical delivery tells a different story. [44] It could still allude to Donahue’s abandonment: the Brummels “promotion” to Warners wasn’t working out so well, and Sly wasn’t sure if signing with Columbiawas really a promotion. More broadly, it can recall reconstruction, the “promotion” from 3/5ths of a person, or the ruse of the urban north revealing its ugly side more nakedly in the two years since the earlier version; walls and cops closing in. Almost any example of the man’s double-speak could apply; especially when you know how “inflation” is just a device to make you think you’re getting a pay-raise when you’re really getting a pay cut; and the street in Oakland you used to gig at with Larry Graham is now being “promoted” and renamed Martin Luther King, now that they’re tearing down the nightclubs and the small singles-only r&b labels are going out of business. The other new lines should be self-explanatory:

If you ever loved somebody of a different set I bet the set didn't let you forget
That it just don't go like that (Yeah, yeah)
I know how it feels when you're feelin' down
And you wanna come up but you realize
You're in the wrong part of town, yeah (Yeah, yeah)

I know how it feels to have to go along With people you don't even know
Simply because there happens to be A whole lot more of them, yeah (Yeah, yeah)
You’re the underdog, and you gotta be twice as good (yeah, yeah)

While the 1965 version was an answer song to Dylan, this version comes from musically such a different place that it seems prior to the Dylan song, like Sly had successfully exorcised the white influences. You can compare Dylan’s line about the mystery tramp who’s not selling any alibis when you stare into the vacuum of his eyes with this man in the wrong part of town (that might have been the right part of town only two years earlier), being “racially persecuted” because he’s with a woman from a different set, like the woman in “Are You Sure?” [45] This version could be sung to a rich white woman, but with a vulnerable empathy & tenderness lacking in Dylan’s; when I listen to the way he sings, “but you realize you’re in the wrong part of town,” I hear him talking to the white woman who also has to deal with the black family’s disapproval.

If one doubts that you don’t have to be at least “twice as good” in America 2011, just look at the media’s treatment of half-white President Obama. Of course it doesn’t have to just refer to race. “Underdog” is itself twice as good (with the “white” and “black” versions existing separately, and not blended together into some universal humdrum fusion or blinged-out black power fist). “They get uptight if you get too bright:”

Say, I'm the underdog I'm the underdog
I don't mind, 'cause I can handle it
Underdog, it's gonna be alright I'm the underdog

While Sly always claimed, “the intelligence in my music comes from David Froelich” (his early mentor, a white musicologist at Vallejo Junior College), the Family Stone's “Underdog” was “straight on and from straight back out of traditional Black spirit feeling,” (with the possible exception of “Frere Jacques”). [46]


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