The Meaning of Soul

Black Music and Resilience since the 1960s

Book Pages: 232 Illustrations: Published: August 2020

Author: Emily J. Lordi

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

In The Meaning of Soul, Emily J. Lordi proposes a new understanding of this famously elusive concept. In the 1960s, Lordi argues, soul came to signify a cultural belief in black resilience, which was enacted through musical practices—inventive cover versions, falsetto vocals, ad-libs, and false endings. Through these soul techniques, artists such as Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Isaac Hayes, and Minnie Riperton performed virtuosic survivorship and thus helped to galvanize black communities in an era of peril and promise. Their soul legacies were later reanimated by such stars as Prince, Solange Knowles, and Flying Lotus. Breaking with prior understandings of soul as a vague masculinist political formation tethered to the Black Power movement, Lordi offers a vision of soul that foregrounds the intricacies of musical craft, the complex personal and social meanings of the music, the dynamic movement of soul across time, and the leading role played by black women in this musical-intellectual tradition.


“Emily J. Lordi’s The Meaning of Soul will likely be the most important book I'll read this decade. Lordi reminds us that to hear soul, one must actively listen to the winding ways of black folk. Lordi is the greatest listener this nation has created, and this book will remind us that liberation starts with black sound.” — Kiese Laymon

“Emily J. Lordi incisively and insightfully takes up the daunting task of resurrecting, dissecting, and disentangling soul’s wide-ranging legacy, spillage, and overlap in black popular culture, black academia, and radical black politics. Her generation-leaping contrasts of the soul and ‘post-soul’ era’s most spiritualized and radicalized avatars from James Brown to Beyoncé serve up poignant and often piquant musicological reveals about classic, epochal recordings of Civil Rights-era and contemporary vintage. Lordi illuminates the evolutionary artistry that ensures the poetics, production, and ethos of soul kulcha sustain staying power as a haunted (and hainted) arbiter of black resilience, resistance, and embattled maroon futurism. With wit, detail, and ruminative verve Lordi narrates and interrogates how the journey of the soul meme’s movements within musical blackness navigates a crossroads full of split desire for both incendiary grassroots action and an infinity of intimate release.” — Greg Tate

“An exquisite work of sound scholarship, The Meaning of Soul offers a new narrative of soul music that compels us to rethink what we have missed about the genre and the political moment it inhabited. It at last articulates a usable, inclusive definition of soul, filling a critical gap in our understanding of black music and sociopolitical experiences in the United States and across the diaspora." — Zandria F. Robinson

"Lordi’s distinct takes on the genre are refreshing, built on close listening to artists like Riperton and Donny Hathaway and explorations of albums that reside outside the soul canon." — Kirkus Reviews

"The Meaning of Soul is a thoughtful, lively journey through rich musical archives that expands the definition of what it
means to be a soul artist." — Rachel Jagareski, Foreword Reviews

"Lordi vividly illustrates that soul artists offer models of black resistance, joy, and community through their songs. This is a must-read for musicologists, critics, and fans of soul." (Starred Review) — Publishers Weekly

"Lordi’s book is essential reading, for she brilliantly guides us to reconsider the meaning of soul and to redefine it." — Henry Carrigan, No Depression

"A strong choice for libraries supporting African American studies or popular American music programs." — Jeffrey Hastings, Library Journal

"Detailing not only the evolution of the genre but of the criticism surrounding it, The Meaning Of Soul is a heartfelt appreciation as well as a welcome addition to the scholarly soul canon." — Michael A Gonzales, The Wire

"Few cultural theorists listen to music this well or joyfully; few critics place their judgments and pleasures within as persuasive a theoretical framework." — Keith Harris, CityPages

"With caring attention to the un(der)theorized musical innovations of Black women in the Soul era, Lordi’s book is able to tease out the everyday musical practices of Soul without evacuating the concept of its broader political implications in resisting the violence of White Supremacy." — Tyler Bunzey, New Black Man (in Exile)

"With welcoming prose that belies its density, The Meaning of Soul focuses on ostensibly unconventional creative choices: soul singers’ covers of songs written by white artists; ad-libs, improvisations, and mistakes; the uses of falsetto and the 'false endings' that trickle throughout the oeuvres of many Black artists. She is attentive to the significant contributions of the female architects of the genre. . . . Lordi gives a deft, concise accounting of soul music’s political and social milieu." — Danielle A. Jackson, Bookforum


Availability: In stock
Price: $25.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Emily J. Lordi is Associate Professor of English at Vanderbilt University and the author of Black Resonance and Donny Hathaway Live.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction: Keeping On  1
1. From Soul to Post-soul: A Literary and Musical History  19
2. We Shall Overcome, Shelter, and Veil: Soul Covers  46
3. Rescripted Relations: Soul Ad-libs  74
4. Emergent Interiors: Soul Falsettos  101
5. Never Catch Me: False Endings from Soul to Post-soul  126
Conclusion. "I'm Tired of Marvin Asking Me What's Going On": Soul Legacies and the Work of Afropresentism  150
Notes  165
Index  205
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing
Additional InformationBack to Top