Soul Covers

Rhythm and Blues Remakes and the Struggle for Artistic Identity (Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Phoebe Snow)

Soul Covers

Refiguring American Music

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Book Pages: 280 Illustrations: 3 illustrations Published: May 2007

Author: Michael Awkward

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, American Studies, Music > Popular Music

Soul Covers is an engaging look at how three very different rhythm and blues performers—Aretha Franklin, Al Green, and Phoebe Snow—used cover songs to negotiate questions of artistic, racial, and personal authenticity. Through close readings of song lyrics and the performers’ statements about their lives and work, the literary critic Michael Awkward traces how Franklin, Green, and Snow crafted their own musical identities partly by taking up songs associated with artists such as Dinah Washington, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, George Gershwin, Billie Holiday, and the Supremes.

Awkward sees Franklin’s early album Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington, released shortly after Washington’s death in 1964, as an attempt by a struggling young singer to replace her idol as the acknowledged queen of the black female vocal tradition. He contends that Green’s album Call Me (1973) reveals the performer’s attempt to achieve formal coherence by uniting seemingly irreconcilable aspects of his personal history, including his career in popular music and his religious yearnings, as well as his sense of himself as both a cosmopolitan black artist and a forlorn country boy. Turning to Snow’s album Second Childhood (1976), Awkward suggests that through covers of blues and soul songs, Snow, a white Jewish woman from New York, explored what it means for non-black enthusiasts to perform works considered by many to be black cultural productions. The only book-length examination of the role of remakes in American popular music, Soul Covers is itself a refreshing new take on the lives and work of three established soul artists.


Soul Covers is an intriguing book. Awkward’s research and interpretative abilities are above reproach, and his enthusiasm for R&B is matched only by his propensity for insightful comment. Moreover, Awkward should be applauded for shedding light on cover songs, a neglected, yet vitally important, feature of popular music in the twentieth century.” — Jason Reid, NeoAmericanist

“[R]efreshing and informative.” — Clarence V. Reynolds, Black Issues Book Review

“[V]aluable insights into these three albums encourage listeners to pick them up and listen to them again in light of [Awkward’s] examination of them; just what all good music books should do.” — Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Foreword Reviews

“A unique book about three remarkable performers and the music they created, this work is recommended for academic libraries and for public libraries with special music collections.” — Melissa Aho, Multicultural Review

“Awkward has set the coverology ball rolling, it will be interesting to watch its course.” — Kurt Gottschalk, Signal to Noise

“Awkward’s analyses are insightful, exciting even. What helps here is the fact that he goes beyond rehearsing tired tenets of the black musical tradition (that often get repackaged and represented as ‘‘new understandings’’). He also rightfully abandons the convention of reviewing too many familiar folks within the legacies of jazz and the blues. . . . All this makes Awkward’s new book worthwhile personal reading and valuable for studying and teaching professionally.” — Vershawn Ashanti Young, Souls

“Awkward’s considerations of authenticity (what it means, how it’s generated, and how it’s policed) should figure in critical discussion of race and music for some time to come. And, not least, Soul Covers should deepen our appreciation of what ‘cover songs’ are and do.” — Michael Coyle, Journal of Popular Music Studies

“The author first focuses on Franklin, looking at her career in general but in particular at her vital album Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington (1964). He gives equal attention to Green’s Call Me (1973), offering not only a close reading of the album’s songs but also looking more broadly at the singer’s complex life. Most fascinating is the chapter on the less-well-known Snow. . . . Recommended.” — R. D. Cohen, Choice

“Michael Awkward’s Soul Covers signals the beginning of a new era in the critical engagement with African American music of the 1960s and 1970s. Moving beyond the historical overviews and critical biographies that have defined the field, he provides three crucial albums with the kinds of close reading usually reserved for canonical literary texts. His choices are unusual and inspired, offering pathways into a richer understanding of Aretha Franklin, Al Green, and the greatly underappreciated Phoebe Snow. Awkward captures the complex music of the era in writing that, like its subjects, has real soul.” — Craig Werner, author of A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America

“With Soul Covers, Michael Awkward weds his devotion to close reading to his appreciation of rhythm and blues and soul music, creating a book that stands out as unique among the scholarship and criticism on black popular music.” — Mark Anthony Neal, author of Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation


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Price: $26.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Michael Awkward is Gayl A. Jones Collegiate Professor of Afro-American Literature and Culture at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Scenes of Instruction: A Memoir, also published by Duke University Press; Negotiating Difference: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Positionality; and Inspiriting Influences: Tradition, Revision, and Afro-American Women’s Novels.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Preface: "How the Parts Relate to the Whole" xiii

Introduction: "I Live in the Lyrics": On Truth, Intent, Image, Identity, and Song Covers 1

"She's the Next One": Aretha Franklin's Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington and the Black Women's Vocal Legacy 25

"Something like Wholeness": Al Green's Call Me and the Struggle for Thematic Integrity 81

"Miss Snow, Are You Black?": Second Childhood and the Cultural Politics of Musical Style in the Post-Civil Rights Era 137

Coda: "Going Home" 201

Notes 213

Bibliography 225

Index 235
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3997-7 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3980-9
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