Got Soul?

Photo by Start Digital on Unsplash

This summer, I’ve been trying to go to concerts again. It’s one of my favorite things to do, but the pandemic messed it all up. I’ve seen the Tedeschi Trucks Band (TTB), Los Lobos, the Gabe Dixon Band, and Al Foster so far. Every summer, TTB calls their tour “Wheels of Soul”, so I saw Wheels of Soul 2022. But I don’t think most people would describe TTB as a soul band. There are elements of soul, certainly, but I’ll bet most of their fans call them a jam band. That got me thinking, what is soul in a musical sense?

One definition I found is:

a kind of music incorporating elements of rhythm and blues and gospel music, popularized by African-Americans. Characterized by an emphasis on vocals and an impassioned improvisatory delivery, it is associated with performers such as Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Otis Redding.

I think that definition does cover what most people think of as soul music. It doesn’t do it for me, though. I don’t think the emphasis is always on the vocals. That would leave out classic soul bands like Booker T. and the MGs and the entire subgenre of soul jazz. I also don’t think the delivery has to be impassioned. Bill Withers has a low key, almost cool, delivery, but I’d say he’s clearly soulful. The Righteous Brothers are a classic example of blue-eyed soul, but I’m not sure I’d describe their performances as improvisatory. I think we need to back it up and go with a more general definition like:

emotional or intellectual energy or intensity, especially as revealed in a work of art or an artistic performance.

This is a much less precise, but more satisfying definition. Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Otis Redding are still covered, but so are the counterexamples I listed above. The question is whether this definition is too expansive. Are there examples of bands or artists that clearly lack soul but are covered by this definition? It’s really hard to say. I would say that house music and EDM lack soul and are not covered by the definition, but would fans of those musics agree? It seems that this definition leaves a large, amorphous grey area.

This might mean we have to move into family resemblance and “know it when I hear it” territory. I don’t normally like this space. It feels a lot like a philosophical shrug. But I’m not sure we have any choice when dealing with something as subjective as music. I’d probably take Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin as the archetypes of soul and say others have more or less soul as they approach or move away from those two.

The good news is that TTB’s summer tour is aptly titled. They have soul whichever way you want to look at it. I’d say Los Lobos, Gabe Dixon, and Al Foster have soul, too. I might even go so far as to say that all good music is soul music and all bad music lacks soul. What do you think? Who, in your book, has soul?

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