Music scholar Ronald D. Lankford has penned books about Christmas carols, female singer-songwriters of the nineties, and American folk music. Earlier this year, he published Proud, a young-adult biography of James Brown. This week, he chatted with Kidsbiographer about discovering Brown’s music, presenting the icon’s complex political views, and writing for young adults.
Kidsbiographer: Can you discuss your own relationship with James Brown’s music? When did you first become a fan – or, at least, aware of his influence on
R. Lankford: I came to Brown’s music much later in life. I grew up listening to classic rock, and unfortunately, AOR stations included few black artists. Jimi Hendrix may have been the exception. Sure, I knew Brown’s hits, but I’d never dug deeper. I believe I traced Brown backwards, starting with Funkadelic in the ‘70s and then going back to Brown’s classic ‘60s work.
I came to love Brown’s music for a couple of reasons. First, the sheer energy he pours into it makes lots of other music sound milquetoast. He sounds like a man who’s given everything he’s got . . . and then some! The other thing is the high quality of the songs and the musicians backing Brown. Altogether, these factors created a highly authentic music.
Kidsbiographer: What was the most interesting fact or anecdote you uncovered while researching Proud?
R. Lanford: It amazed me that Brown was recording Live at the Apollo—that these live shows were taking place at the Apollo—in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis (October 1962). Some historians say that the crisis is the closest we’ve ever come to nuclear war. People dealt with it in different ways, including blowing off steam at a James Brown concert.
Some folks must have realized—This could be it! I’m sure that a lot of the power poured into Live at the Apollo—from Brown and from the audience—came from fear and nervous energy.
Kidsbiographer: In Proud, you integrate an account of Brown’s life and career with contextual information about American and musical history. What was the most challenging aspect of combining these elements?
R. Lankford: Probably looking at the ‘60s with all the political discontent and trying to understand where Brown—his music and his politics—fit in. He was slow to get involved in politics, ignoring much of the civil rights movement, and when he did get involved, he was often—among African-American liberals—controversial.
For instance, most black activists were highly critical of the established leaders of the time. Brown, on the other hand, worked with Vice President Hubert Humphrey. What really got Brown in hot water, though, was his trip to Vietnam. For him, he was helping out by delivering real soul music to blacks and whites serving in Vietnam. To many activists, however, Brown was seen as supporting a war that drafted a disproportionate number of black soldiers to do the government’s dirty work.
When I described Brown and his music in the ‘60s, I had to keep my eye on two or three things at once: he was of his own time, but he was always his own man.
Kidsbiographer: In the past, you’ve published scholarly books about musical history. Now you’ve made the leap into YA biography! How did it feel to write for a younger, less specialized audience?
R. Lankford: This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Sometimes, when writing for a specialized audience, you’re in danger of losing the bigger picture. For instance, if I had been writing as an academic, I might have taken four or five pages to analyze a song like “I Feel Good.”
Writing for a young adult audience, it’s less a matter of hitting the high points of Brown’s life than touching on central questions: why was Brown’s music so revolutionary during the ‘60s? How did he influence the development of funk and rap? Why is his legacy still so important to us?
Kidsbiographer: What do you hope young adults will take away from Proud?
R. Lankford: The easy answer here would be to say that we could learn a few dos and don’ts from Brown’s behavior. He had incredible drive and talent, but also a self-destructive streak. For anyone wishing to achieve anything, Brown offers both inspiration and a warning.
What I really want young adults to take away is an appreciation of Brown’s music. I think that we, in America, often pay so much attention to whatever’s new, we only manage to remember older songs if they make it onto an oldies program. Brown’s music is too revolutionary and too much fun to fade into the past. I want young adults to read the book and then go out and download a bunch of classic Brown tracks.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?
R. Lankford: I’ve been writing about Christmas music in America (Sleigh Rides, Jingle Bells, & Silent Nights) and I’ve got two holiday ideas that I’m hoping to develop. One is a cultural history of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer; the other, a book about the cultural impact of Elvis’ Christmas Album in 1957. Both should be lots of fun!