Wednesday, November 14, 2018

An Oral History of Houston Rap: #TurnItUP in The Neighborhood

Today is the third day of University Press Week, and this year’s theme is #TurnItUP, signifying the ability of the Association of University Presses (AUP) member publishers to amplify knowledge. November 12-17, 2018 is a week for celebrating university presses and the value of knowledge and expertise. 

As part of University Press Week, our peer presses will be sharing blog posts focusing on various themes. Today's theme is #TurnItUP: The Neighborhood. Writer Lance Scott Walker's book Houston Rap Tapes: An Oral History of Bayou City Hip-Hop tells the story of the artists, DJs, producers, promoters, and record label owners coming out of the neighborhoods of Fifth Ward, Fourth Ward, Third Ward, and the Southside of Houston, Texas. These largely marginalized communities gave birth to Houston rap, a vibrant music scene that has produced globally recognized artists such as Geto Boys, DJ Screw, Pimp C and Bun B of UGK, Fat Pat, Big Moe, Z-Ro, Lil’ Troy, and Paul Wall.

Lance Scott Walker spent a decade interviewing key players in the H-Town scene, and the resulting interviews range from the specifics of making music to the passions, regrets, memories, and hopes that give the music life. In our podcast conversation, we address how police corruption and gentrification have impacted Houston neighborhoods; the complexities of gangsta rap; early rap battles among Raheem, Willie D, and Vanilla Ice; and the impact of the late DJ Screw. As part of the amplified new edition of Houston Rap Tapes, Walker also created custom maps of Houston that highlight major landmarks for the city's hip-hop culture.

As Willie D of Geto Boys writes in the foreword, “Houston Rap Tapes flows more like a bunch of fellows who haven’t seen each other for ages, hanging out on the block reminiscing, rather than a calculated literary guide to Houston’s history.” Join us as we talk Hustle Town.

This interview had been edited and shortened for clarity.



UT Press: So you and documentary photographer Peter Beste spent about ten years documenting a very special but often neglected hip-hop scene in Houston, Texas. Can you give an overview of what was going on when you first started the project, which the legendary Bun B has called the defining book on Houston rap?

Lance Scott Walker: Peter Beste said, "Hey, I'm gonna do this project. I'm coming back to Houston to take photos, but this is way bigger than just photos. You're a writer.” I was writing for the Houston Chronicle, and he said, "You should join me and interview people and then provide the text component to what I'm getting with the photos, because it's way bigger than the photos and the stories need to go with them.” It was right before everything broke in Houston, before Mike Jones, Paul Wall, Slim Thug. All of that was breaking in 2004, or was leaning toward that, and then in 2005, by the time we had the project in full swing, that's when that scene really popped and we were on the front side of that wave. It meant that when everybody else came streaming into Houston to write about what was happening, we'd already been doing it.

UTP: You've done some restructuring of the book, so let's talk about how you decided to structure the book.

LSW: So I broke the book up into five sections. The first section is called Foundation, and that goes all the way back to the ’70s. That's talking to some of the people who were producers and rappers early on before you had rap records in Houston. A lot of the people who were produced in the first rap records in Houston were funk and boogie producers. I wanted to touch on what was there before rap. Rap didn't just materialize out of nowhere; there were people who were making music that was going to become the beats, the backing tracks for rap, and it had a totally different feel.

The second section is called Rhinestone; it's built all around the Rhinestone Wrangler night club, which is really the first scene in Houston, and a lot of the early Rap-A-Lot artists were involved in that scene. They developed in that scene, they flourished in that scene, they became battle rappers in that scene, they became better lyricists in that whole scene. That's all mid-’80s to late ’80s; that takes us all the way up to the ’90s. Then I did a section on the South Side.

It's not that people weren't making records on the North Side; in fact, the North Side started making records first, but the South Side started to really shine in the ’90s, and there are simply more neighborhoods in that part of Houston where rappers are coming from. Then I did a section on The Future.

Some newer artists like Big Gerb, OMB Bloodbath, B L A C K I E, Cal Wayne, and I also interviewed Dr. Robert S. Mohammad in that section, which may be an odd fit, but there's something that makes it fit. So that’s how I broke it up, into sections of town but also eras.

UTP: Talk a little bit more about battle rapping at the Rhinestone Wrangler.



Steve Fournier, University of Houston Special Collections
LSW: So, OK, its rank wrapping. The Rhinestone Wrangler was a nightclub run by a guy named Steve Fournier, who I interview in the book, started right around 1985. So in 1985, 1986, 1987, that scene really flourishes. He only played rap. He was open five nights a week, only playing rap, and on Sunday nights, they would have a rap contest. 

More than battle rapping, it was rank rapping. So it would get really personal, really nasty. And some of the rappers really developed a sharp tongue in that setting. Willie D was one of them, you know; Rick Royal from Royal Flush, who I interview in the book; Raheem, he was part of that whole scene, and was one of the first Houston artists to be signed to a major label; Sire Jukebox from the original Ghetto Boys.

Willy D certainly would win for weeks on end, the Royal Flush, Romeo Poet. Vanilla Ice would drive down from Dallas and get into those battles. So it was deserving of its own section in the book because it was such a hotbed of talent developing and a new art form for so many people.

So there were lots of people who were grabbing on to this new culture, this quickly developing and ever-changing culture. Really right before crack cocaine came around, and what did crack cocaine give us? It gave us gangsta rap. So it's a really unique snapshot of maybe the last little bit of innocence in hip-hop.

UTP: If you feel comfortable, would you mind talking about the concept of gangsta rap and what that represents?

LSW: Well, I don't know that I could say what it represents to those who make gangsta rap, because that's a very internal thing. But suffice to say that in all of my interviews, it comes out as a document of their surroundings. You know, “This is what I was seeing.” And in some cases, “this is what I was a part of.” I think the really beautiful thing about doing these interviews, in some cases fifteen to twenty years after the fact, was that I'm doing interviews with forty and fifty-year-olds in some cases, who look at it very differently and can really, really pull back and tell you, with a very deep and rich perspective: Number one, I'm still alive. And they're grateful for that. Because so many of them will tell me stories about people they know that got involved and stuff and they aren't here anymore. And also, to survive and to be able to orient your life in a different way.

Some of them, when they have kids or when they get married, or when they just grow up, and just go, “Wow, you know, I can't keep doing that. I can't keep being a part of that. I can keep being around that.” It doesn't mean I don't still talk about it in my music.

UTP: Because it’s still the truth. It’s still the truth for a lot of people.

LSW: Right, it’s still the truth. And whether some people might look at it as glorifying it or not, it's still storytelling. It's still biographical for a lot of people, and I would have to imagine, being an artist of any stripe, that it’s cathartic. People tell me some stories in the book that are really tough, really, really rough stories. Wood from the Screwed Up Click told me about his mother becoming addicted to crack, his house burning down. She's addicted to crack for the better part of a decade, maybe longer, and he finally wrestles her out of that life and gets her into a house, and he says in the book, “I got her back, but she's not my same mom.” You can't wash away what drugs do to people, you just can't. But, we're alive.

UTP: Let’s talk about how Houston works. With police corruption, all of that. Do you want to talk a little bit about how thorough a document your book is of how Houston treats these neighborhoods?

LSW: Well, I don't think anything could be thorough. I don't think anything could reflect the conditions in the neighborhoods. I tried to touch on different parts of that. Certainly, corruption is a big part of it. Getting pulled over by the police. The police tell you, "Oh I know you, I know who you are. Let's go to an ATM.” That's a real story. That happens.

You look at the health in the neighborhoods. Let's go the grocery store. There isn’t one. You know, it is deep and it is in some cases very dark, and I don't think that there's any way that you could possibly document everything, or even a fraction of what people go through, what they have experienced in their lives and certainly what police corruption brings to the neighborhoods or the blind eye that the city turns to those neighborhoods, how that manifests and how that affects lives. When you go into a neighborhood and you don't feel like . . . and certainly the residents don't feel like the city cares. I'll go drive through River Oaks, and I won’t find any patches in the streets because they’re new. But I drive through South Park, and “Oh wow! That pipe is still leaking right out into the street.” It’s been three weeks.

UTP:
Your Willie D interview in 2017, he talks about the chemical companies who are
Willie D, photo by Peter Beste
dumping whatever into the Fifth Ward. Unbelievable.

LSW: Yeah. Dr. Robert S. Muhammad and I talk about just the freeway design in Houston. What neighborhoods do they go through? What neighborhood does highway 59 go through? It goes right through Fifth Ward. What about I-45? It goes right through Fourth Ward. As a matter of fact, not only did it go right through Fourth Ward but it separated the church from the community. The church is still there—Antioch. It's right in downtown Houston surrounded by gigantic skyscrapers. But you have to walk across the freeway to get to the neighborhood that it used to serve. And by the way, that neighborhood is mostly gone. Gentrification is certainly a nebulous idea for some, but then for others, it's a very stark reality. “OK, well, I live in a shotgun house that five generations of my family have owned and I'm not selling. There's these beautiful old bricks in the street that have been there for a hundred years in Freedman’s Town, and now there’s this gigantic, three-story silver building next to me with a garage door that opens and a car disappears into it and it closes and I never see the person who lives in there.

People are being bought out or they're being built next to, and then their property taxes go up and they're forced out. How do you control it? I don't know. And I don't think anybody in the book even has a solution for that. I wouldn't expect them to. All I can do is put a light on it, and try to go deeper where I can and talk about those subjects. Well, how much of a reality is this? I know it's a reality. So let's go a little bit deeper; let me keep asking you about it. And you start to unfold all this stuff that couldn't even come out in the music.

UTP: What do you hope people will take from the book?

LSW: The more people understand the perspectives of people that they're listening to, or maybe in some cases not listening to, the more they'll understand about themselves. That's all I tried to do with the books. Say, somebody like your uncle or your dad or your mom or whoever it is that cannot listen to hip-hop to save their lives. OK, well, read this.

You don't have to get past the accent; you don't have to get past what you call the “noise” of the music. Learn something about another person. Then maybe you learn a little something about something that they've experienced or just the trauma they've experienced. Like I said, either the effects of crack cocaine or, you know, syrup? Codeine/promethazine. All those kinds of different things factor into people's lives in a different way. And so that gives them a chance to open up. And all I can hope is that people will read that and that there's some mirror in there somewhere. I would hope that there's something in there that resonates with somebody you maybe couldn't think you had less in common with.

UTP: You and Peter Beste donated a lot of material to the University of Houston Libraries. Do you want to talk about that collection?

LSW: Peter Beste and I donated a huge amount of our archives to them. I donated audio recordings of interviews. I donated transcripts of interviews, plenty of stuff that didn't make it into the book. Peter donated lots of photos. Tons of ephemera, t-shirts, and fliers, and stickers, and CDs. You know I donated tons of records.

UTP: It's an important record, historical record.

LSW: Yeah, it's more important to me for somebody to be able to go into that collection, especially when you have something like a university where young people are coming in all the time. And maybe they're going to school for two or three years before they learn that that's there, but then, “Oh, oh, I wanna go check this out.” Maybe they’re from Memphis or Birmingham, or wherever, and then they go back and say, "Oh, I'm gonna do this for Memphis.” Or Virginia Beach, or Charleston, or West Virginia. It maybe gives people an idea: Dig deeper into your community. Doesn’t have to be about rap. It could be about Cumbia. I think anyone could do a “tapes” book for any kind of scene.

UTP: Let’s talk about DJ Screw and the sound he created that has come to define Houston.

LSW: DJ Screw was a hugely influential, late DJ from Houston. He died eighteen years ago. He made tapes in his house. He had people come over and freestyle on his tapes. The freestylers on his tapes may have been rappers, may not have been rappers. An entire culture began to build around the tapes he was making. He would play two copies of the same record on the turntables, one of them a little behind the other, and he would chop back and forth with his fader between those records to repeat verses. He would wind stuff back to repeat words. Really an incredible DJ.

Screw would record his tapes into an 8-track and then, from that tape, into another tape, and he would slow it down in the process. He slowed the records with the pitch control, but most of his slowing-down process involved slowing it down into the tape deck. If you have ever been to Houston, it's a very hot, slow city. And that sound really, really resonated in Houston, but more so even than that, the culture of Houston came alive on his tapes. Because we're talking about some people who weren't professional rappers, or artists, or lyricists, any of that.

So what were they going to talk about? Maybe in some cases they were talking about what they were doing, legal or illegal, but really a lot of times, they were talking about their neighborhoods. And so, if you're from the neighborhood of Yellowstone and you hear Big Pokey rapping on tapes, talking about Yellowstone, you’re proud of that. You’re talking about this street and that street. South Park, Dead End, Kennedy Heights, Fat Pat, Big Hawk, Big Moe in Third Ward, Yates High School, all these things come in to life on the tapes. Candy paint—that's cars painted with a little bit of metallic flakes in the paint—customized cars. They call them slabs because they’re building it from the ground up. But it's the whole culture coming to life on the tapes, and that really, really hooked the entire culture of Houston together in so many ways. And that's not to say that everything in Houston reflects DJ Screw; it's just a part of it. DJ Screw was so prolific that everything came together in a way that they really brought a lot of people on board and made a lot of people aware of what was going on in Houston.

UTP:
Let's talk about the maps.


LSW: They're sort of a quiet addition. I did a map of the North Side. I did a map of the South Side, which of course doesn’t have everything in there. They're sourced from anybody I could get locations of things from: night clubs, streets, neighborhoods, areas of town. These maps can give you a sense of how the city is laid out, and how one neighborhood might be related to another, or how the North Side is sort of structured and how the South Side is structured or not structured.

UTP: This is a map that people haven't seen before. This is an interpretation of the areas that people haven't seen before, right?

LSW: Exactly, all maps are political. And the political bent that I wanted was to try to represent as much as I could in those maps and maybe drop a few things in there that give people food for thought. I put Moody Park in there. That doesn't have anything to do with rap music, per se, but that was the scene of a riot in the late ’70s that was the product of police brutality. And so that is very relevant to the book. And maybe somebody might look and say, “Well, why is Moody Park in there?” And then they look it up. “Wow, OK, now I know.” And I hope there's a few nuggets like that that people find on the maps. There's a reason for everything that is listed on the maps. There’s a reason the map points to Atascocita and to Rosharon because those are prisons that are referenced in the book. People just got out of prison and I'm interviewing them. “Where have you been?” “Rosharon.” I hope the maps say a lot more than this was here, this was there. I hope the maps enrich the book, and in a way that makes people dig a lot deeper.



Further listening and reading:



This post is part of the University Press Week Blog Tour. For more Day Three posts on the topic of The Neighborhood, head over to Temple University Press, University of Manitoba Press, Syracuse University Press, Fordham University Press, Northwestern University Press, Temple University Press, University of Alberta Press, University of Texas Press, University of Washington Press, Johns Hopkins University Press, Ohio State University Press, University of Illinois Press, Rutgers University Press, Oregon State University Press, Columbia University Press, University of Georgia Press, and University of Toronto Press


www.utexaspress.com

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

"#TurnItUP" is the Theme of University Press Week, November 12-17

Scholarly Publishers Select Theme Emphasizing Role Amplifying Unheard Voices

Happy University Press Week!

Emphasizing the critical role of university presses in providing a voice for authors, ideas, and communities beyond the scope of mainstream publishing, the Association of University Presses (AUPresses) has chosen "#TurnItUP" as the theme for this year's University Press Week, which runs from November 12 through November 17. #TurnItUP was selected to celebrate the work of the UP community to find, publish, and amplify subjects, authors, and stories that might otherwise be overlooked by the book publishing community.

University presses publish approximately 14,000 books each year, including reprints. 146 presses belong to AUPresses, and 20% of that number are university presses based outside the US.

As part of University Press Week, we will be participating in a blog tour. Today, here are the books and topics covered on the tour. Today's theme is Politics.

The book world is groaning under the weight of books about politics. Yet most of them are just dressed up opinion. What university press books on politics have to offer is much better: data and serious analysis. The University of Chicago Press highlights their incredible group of recent books that, taken together, offer far more insight into what's going on with American politics than a thousand pop politics books could ever provide. Georgetown University Press  provides readers with some resources. A post from Teachers College Press will feature a list of books on politics and education. Q&A with Michael Lazzarra, author of Civil Obedience (Critical Human Rights series) about how dictatorships are supported by civilian complicity is posted from the University of Wisconsin PressRutgers University Press highlights three recent politics books: The Politics of Fame by Eric Burns and the reissues of classics Democracy Ancient and Modern by M.I. Finley and Echoes of the Marseillaise by Eric Hobsbawn. UBC Press will describe their new Women’s Suffrage and the Struggle for Democracy series. Over at LSU Press, there’s a post about their new list dealing with contemporary social justice issues, pegged to Jim Crow's Last Stand and the recent state vote to ban non-unanimous criminal jury verdicts. An interview with Dick Simpson and Betty O'Shaughnessy, authors of Winning Elections in the 21st Century can be found courtesy of the University of Kansas Press. Harriet Kim provides a selection of interesting politics titles that she recently brought back into print as part of the Heritage Book Project at the University of Toronto Press. A spotlight on two recent additions to our Politics and Culture in the Twentieth-Century South series that focus on defining the white southern identity through politics can be found at the University of Georgia Press. Last, but not least, The University of Virginia Press is publishing an updated edition of Trump’s First Year in time for second anniversary of inauguration. Their post describes the creation of that book and the preparation of a new edition covering year two, up through the recent midterms. Hope you enjoy all these great #TurnItUP posts!

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Scavenger Hunt at the 2018 Texas Book Festival

This weekend, the University of Texas Press and many of our authors will enjoy the 23rd annual Texas Book Festival on the Capitol grounds in downtown Austin and environs.


The 2018 Texas Book Festival will be extra exciting this year because we have partnered with other Texas university presses and scholarly publishers for a scavenger hunt! Enter to win a big box of books from each participating publisher (listed below), plus discounts and more!


How It Works


Stop by the booth of any of the participating publishers to pick up your scavenger hunt worksheet. Make your way to all of the booths on the form, obtaining a stamp at each one. To gain additional entries to the contest, share your book festival experience on social media, tagging a scholarly publisher above and using the hashtag #TurnItUP. When you have collected all of your stamps and filled out the worksheet, turn it in at the University of Texas Press booth (#304 / 305) to submit your entry for a chance to win! 

Winners will be selected and notified on Monday, October 29th by 5pm.

Mark your calendar for University Press Week 2018—November 12th to November 17th—in celebration of the many ways university presses amplify the voices of scholars and communities, hosted by the Association of University Presses. The theme is #TurnItUP, which was selected to celebrate the work of the scholarly publishing community to find, publish, and amplify subjects, authors, and stories that might otherwise be overlooked by the book publishing community.



The University of Texas Press will be selling great Texas reads at booths #304 and #305 in the exhibitor tents along Colorado Street. We'll have tons of titles for sale at a great discount, so please stop by. There are a lot of wonderful authors in attendance this year, so we’ve distilled our authors' appearances into a single UT Press schedule (browse the full schedule here):


Saturday

2:00 PM - 2:45 PM

More info

An Oral History of Houston Rap
Author: Lance Scott Walker
Location: The Contemporary Austin-Jones Center (700 Congress Avenue)
Booksigning: 3 PM Adult Signing Tent on Congress Avenue

Lance Scott Walker and photographer Peter Beste relate stories and images from a decade spent documenting Houston’s rap scene. Through interviews and photographs with the rappers, DJs, producers, promoters, record label owners, and locations, they show us how Bayou City rap music got its distinctive character.


Follow Lance Scott Walker online: @lanceswalker | Website
 


More info

3:30 PM - 4:15 PM

Author: Kenny Braun and Jay B. Sauceda
LocationThe Contemporary Austin-Jones Center (700 Congress Avenue)
Moderator: Brian Sweaney
Booksigning: 4:30 PM Adult Signing Tent on Congress Avenue

More info
From high above in the seat of a Cessna and down below in a cypress swamp, photographers Jay B. Sauceda (A Mile Above Texas) and Kenny Braun (As Far As You Can See) have journeyed through Texas to document fantastic new takes on our cherished Lone Star State. Join them for a slideshow of the beautiful Texas country, presented by Texas Highways magazine.

Follow Jay B. Sauceda online: @jaybsauceda | Website 

Follow Kenny Braun online: @KennyBraunPhoto | Website 



More info

3:30 PM - 4:15 PM

Texas BBQ, Small Town to Downtown
AuthorsWyatt McSpadden
Moderator: David Courtney
Location: Central Market Cooking Tent Congress and 11th Street
Booksigning: 4:30 PM in Adult Signing Tent, Congress Avenue

Let’s talk Texas barbecue! Photographer Wyatt McSpadden shares crave-inducing images of the barbecue universe in almost every corner of Texas. He’s joined by Franklin Barbecue’s Aaron Franklin to talk about our favorite food—Texas BBQ.

3:30 PM - 4:15 PM

Authors: Amy Gentry and Jessica Hopper
Moderator: Kayleigh Hughes
Location: Capitol Extension Room E2.014
Booksigning: 4:30PM in Adult Signing Tent, Congress Avenue

Writers, music lovers, and critics Amy Gentry (Tori Amos’s Boys for Pele) and Jessica Hopper (Night Moves) pay homage to the forces and songs that shaped them, from Tori Amos’s iconic album Boys for Pele to the clubs and streets of Chicago’s youthful nightlife.



Sunday

More info
11:00 AM - 11:45 AM
AuthorsMaya Perez and Barbara Morgan
Moderator: Jennifer Stayton
Location: Capitol Extension Room E2.010, 1100 Congress Avenue
Booksigning: Adult Signing Tent, Congress Avenue

Based on the popular PBS-affiliated television series, Maya Perez and Wendy Calhoun share On Story: The Golden Ages of Television, a collection of insights from several decades of interviews with some of TV's best creators and writers, including Issa Rae, Garry Shandling, Noah Hawley, and many others. Moderated by Jennifer Stayton.


12:00 PM - 12:45 PM

Author: Seamus McGraw
Moderator: Asher Price
Location: Texas Tent, Congress and 8th Street
Booksigning: Adult Signing Tent, Congress Avenue

Water, and the lack thereof, has shaped Texas agriculture, environment, and culture indelibly. Join authors Hugh Fitzsimmons (A Rock Between Rivers) and Seamus McGraw (A Thirsty Land) as they discuss the impact of water on the past, present, and future of Texas. Our shared reliance on water makes this a timely, and timeless, conversation.

1:00 PM - 1:45 PM

More info
Making History: The Civil Rights Movement In Texas
Author: Virginia Cumberbatch, Leslie Blair, Judge Harriet Murphy
Moderator: Doyin Oyeniyi
Location: Texas Tent (Congress and 8th Street)
Booksigning: 2 PM, Adult Signing Tent on Congress Avenue

More info
The story of the civil rights movement in Texas is complex, momentous and highly relevant to discussions today. Harriet Murphy, the state’s first female African American judge and author of There All Honor Lies, sits down with Virginia Cumberbatch and Leslie Blair, chroniclers of the history of integration at the University of Texas in As We Saw It, to discuss the activism, effort and courage that moved equality forward in Texas.

3:00 PM - 3:45 PM

LocationCapitol Extension Room E2.010 (1100 Congress Avenue)
Booksigning: 4 PM Adult Signing Tent on Congress Avenue


Beyoncé's blockbuster album and video Lemonade became an instant soundtrack for vital new-millennium narratives about race, gender and sexuality. Professor Tinsley, who made headlines with her undergraduate course “Beyoncé Feminism, Rihanna Womanism," discusses how Beyoncé models feminism and femme-inism and how Lemonade created space for non-ciswomen to explore their own identity and feminism.


More info

3:00 PM - 3:45 PM

Authors: Martha Cotera
LocationLatinx Lit Tent 804 Congress Avenue
Booksigning: 4 PM Adult Signing Tent on Congress Avenue

A groundbreaking new anthology brings together generations of Chicana scholars and activists to offer the first wide-ranging account of women’s organizing, activism, and leadership in the Chicano Movement. Join contributors Martha Cotera and Brenda Sendejo for a look at the intellectual and political legacies of early Chicana feminism.


Monday, October 15, 2018

Aretha Franklin, the Beach Boys, and the Lord’s Prayer

More info

By Tom Smucker, author of Why the Beach Boys Matter


Every Sunday at my church we recite the Lord’s Prayer. With minor variations, it’s the most commonly shared liturgy across Christianity and the most familiar direct quote from Jesus in the Bible. It’s also the only lyric recorded by both the greatest vocalist of my generation, Aretha Franklin, and my favorite pop group, the Beach Boys.

Aretha’s voice is such a vast container that her first syllable, “our” sums up all the blues, struggle, faith, and triumph explored in the rest of “The Lord’s Prayer” track from her 1987 live gospel album, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. This is the product of skill and musicianship, of course, but it’s something more. Aretha’s singing voice was unique, and when she chose to she could call upon a richness and depth that could sum up the entire history of American music, and to my ears, the entire history of America itself, in one syllable.


So begins this musical prayer, but Aretha is soon at work pulling the phrases apart, altering pitch, timbre, volume, and phrasing, looking for meanings and building the drama. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” through recitation and repetition, has settled into many a Christian’s consciousness as nothing more than a nicely balanced couplet, but Aretha lands on the word “will” and embellishes and repeats the transitional “as” demonstrating a master class of gospel music improvisations, making the earthly struggle for heavenly righteousness a human desire that cannot be taken for granted or ignored. “As it is in heaven” has been reconfigured from a pleasant reassurance to a desperate—and successful—existential search for transcendence.

A similar drama is built into the debtors/sins/trespasses couplet. Aretha lingers on the transitional “who” in “who trespass against us,” pulling an ongoing confrontation with the demonic into the center of this prayer, and again, to my ears, making this King James translation from the book of Matthew a profoundly African American, and therefore American, prayer.


The tension builds as we get to “deliver,” repeated three times, three different ways, before she sings the whole phrase “deliver us from evil.” It is as if Aretha and the choir are moving us out of Egypt to the edge of the Red Sea. When they get to “glory” and the “for” in “forever,” the waters are parting, and we are crossing to a place beyond goose bumps, maybe beyond words, where faith is an achievement wrestled from despair. Aretha, the choir, the song, and the prayer stay at this mountaintop of emotion and spirituality and musical chops for a while, and then settle us back down to earth at the end, a descent that requires at least two Amens.


The Beach Boys’ version of “The Lord’s Prayer” first appeared on the flip side of their Christmas 1963 hit single, “Little Saint Nick,” but it did not reappear on an album until 1983 and, as far as I know, has never been performed in public. Before the era of the CD box set and internet-connected collectors, it was nearly impossible to locate. Back in 1972, when I wrote a two-part article about the Beach Boys for Creem magazine, I had never heard it. Now easily streamed, it maintains its reputation as the high point of Beach Boys acapella harmony, matched only by the wordless vocals of “Our Prayer” from Smile and their sentimental concert staple “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring.”

Recorded in November 1963 shortly before the JFK assassination, and released with “Saint Nick” shortly after that event, this “The Lord’s Prayer” captures a confident New Frontier piety laced with a wistful Beach Boys suggestion that something might be slipping away. Moving around inside the melody, the harmony explores a sophistication, sincerity, and depth in what might otherwise strike some as smug midcentury Caucasian Christianity.

Here Brian Wilson has arrived as the master composer of complex five-part harmony with the Boys as master singers. Drawing from doo wop, pop jazz, girl groups, and mainstream Protestant congregational hymn singing, the Beach Boys musical vocabulary was in place by the time the “Saint Nick/Lord’s Prayer” single was released. For them, a lyric is emphasized when the highest voice in the harmony, most likely Brian, goes even higher, into an expressive falsetto. That peak is reached on the “forgive” of “forgive us our debts.”

In the later, countercultural 1960s, seeking forgiveness may have sounded like a guilt trip sprung by organized religion, but I prefer to hear their 1963 prayer in the context of Aretha Franklin’s version from 1983, hear the white church of New Frontier, Los Angeles suburbia through the music of African American, Reagan-era Detroit. Same prayer, same lyrics, different emphasis. One on forgiveness, the other on deliverance, to my American ears, two pieces of one social, political, religious, racial, and musical puzzle.

Aretha’s first live gospel album, Amazing Grace, recorded in Los Angeles in 1973, was a concert and a celebration from the peak of her cultural power and sold two million copies. One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, recorded ten years later back in Detroit, post-civil rights, pre-Obama, is a church service and was not a commercial success. A people and a city are under attack, and the long night of de-industrialization is settling across the rust belt, but Aretha celebrates and calls upon the rich legacy and resources of African American spirituality and politics: preachers, politicians, and other gospel singers and musicians.

Unique, it seems to me, among American pop stars, Aretha was able to cross back and forth between secular soul and sacred gospel without incurring the disproval of the saved or the disdain of the defrocked. This says a lot about the breadth of her artistry and the political, religious, and musical pedigree of her family, but it also speaks to the social flexibility inside much of American Black Christianity.

The Beach Boys didn’t inherit a similar institution. The white Protestant Christianity they grew up in proved too brittle to maintain its utility through the turbulence of the next twenty years. But they extracted a valuable resource from this inheritance, the deployment of a wordless vocal chorale that added dignity, maybe even transcendence, maybe love and mercy, to everything from teenage songs about cars to songs about growing old and summer coming to an end. “The Lord’s Prayer” without words, so to speak, would prove to be a piece of white middle-class, midcentury Protestantism applicable to the larger pop culture of the last fifty-plus years, and a recognizable part of the Beach Boys musical signature.

Removed from this religious inheritance, their music, especially their lyrics, can sometimes be misunderstood as simple-minded, shallow, too optimistic. Heard in full, however, they can remind us that an average life contains the sacred and that great art can help us hear that. From different but not disconnected traditions, Aretha Franklin and the Beach Boys draw us towards that wisdom.