Politics

Curtis Mayfield and ‘we people who are darker than blue’

Josiah Howard, writing for the Library of Congress National Recording Registry, when Mayfield’s “Super Fly” was included, wrote:

Curtis Lee Mayfield was born in Chicago, Illinois, on June 3, 1942. He grew up in the hard knocks CabriniGreen housing projectsthe incendiary backdrop for the blaxploitation favorite Cooley High and the AfricanAmerican TV series “Good Times.” One of five children, his mother encouraged his innate musicality. At 14, Mayfield joined a singing group that would later become the Impressions. He sang, played instrumentsincluding the piano, guitar and bass, and wrote catchy songs. The ImpressionsRock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees (as is Curtis Mayfield as a solo artist)went through several casting changes over the years. The one constant was Mayfield’s masterful songs. “Gypsy Woman” (1962), “It’s All Right” (1963), “Keep on Pushing” (1964),and “People Get Ready” (1965)the latter two of which were embraced by Dr. Martin Luther KingJr. and utilized during the decades’ many freedom rides, elevated Mayfield from soul group member to poet/artist/activist.

The cumulative effect was that his unique talents made him seem larger than the group that brought him fame. Nineteenseventy was the year Curtis Mayfield said goodbye to the Impressions. That years’ “Curtis” and the following years’ “Roots,”released on Curtomhis very own record labelappealed to Mayfield’s already established black audience but took his music and his message a step further. The new song titles said it all: “The Other Side of Town,” “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue,” “Move on Up,” “Miss Black America,” “Get Down,” “Beautiful Brother of Mine,” and “Keep on Keeping On,” made clear that Mayfield was acutely aware of America’s ongoing race and class divideand he wasn’t afraid to discuss it.

Mayfield was profiled by the VH1 Legends series in 1996.

Ethnomusicologist Stephanie Shonekan, a professor of music and associate dean at the University of Missouri, wrote “Epilogue: ‘We People Who Are Darker than Blue’: Black Studies and the Mizzou Movement” for The Journal of Negro Education:

One of my favorite song titles is Curtis Mayfield’s “We People Who Are Darker than Blue” (1970). It connotes the deep and unique physical beauty and painful struggle of Black people all around the world. The song itself is a journey from Africa to the Americas, fusing the hypnotic djembe drum beats of a West African past with the funky improvisational jazzy horns and keyboards of African American R&B. Mayfield includes spoken word and sung lyrics, stories and didactic lessons, varying the tempo and the dynamism, all resulting in an urgent call to Black folks to remain steadfast in the fight against systemic oppression and racism. Although the twenty-first century #BlackLivesMatter generation has gravitated toward hip hop to find an apt soundtrack for their modern movement, this Curtis Mayfield song could serve as the theme song for the movement’s continuum.

In this clip from the 1973 documentary film Save the Children, Curtis performs both “We People Who Are Darker Than Blue” and “Give Me Your Love.”

As a student at Howard University in 1968 and a participant in the student takeover of the administration building, I can testify to this factoid.

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Here’s “Keep on Pushing.” 

Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield, is his 2016 biography, co-written by his son Todd Mayfield and Travis Atria.

Curtis Mayfield was one of the seminal vocalists and most talented guitarists of his era, and his music played a vital role in the civil rights movement: “People Get Ready” was the black anthem of the time. In Traveling Soul, Todd Mayfield tells his famously private father’s story in riveting detail. Born into dire poverty, raised in the slums of Chicago, Curtis became a musical prodigy, not only singing like a dream but growing into a brilliant songwriter. In the 1960s he opened his own label and production company and worked with many other top artists, including the Staple Singers. Curtis’s life was famously cut short by an accident that left him paralyzed, but in his declining health he received the long-awaited recognition of the music industry.

The story of the life-changing accident that left Mayfield paralyzed is detailed in the book. Mayfield was doing a concert at Wingate Field in Brooklyn, New York, on August 13, 1990, for state Sen. Marty Markowitz. The weather forecast was bad that day, but the show went on. Rolling Stone posted this excerpt from the biography, detailing what happened:

It happened in a matter of seconds, starting with the wind that had thrown the first two rows from their seats and razed the speakers. The gust also toppled the cymbals on the drum riser. Drummer Lee Goodness leaned back and caught them with his left arm, keeping the beat with his right. As Markowitz turned with the microphone, another gust heaved the front lighting truss off the ground and sent it tumbling, knocking the back truss off the stage as it fell. Markowitz collapsed in fear, lying on his stomach. The front truss plunged down, down, down, like a freight train dropped from the sky. As it plummeted, stage lights fell from it like raindrops.

One of those falling raindrop lights cracked Curtis on the back of the neck and crumpled him to the ground. Then the falling truss pulverized the tom drums with a mighty crash. If Lee hadn’t leaned back to catch the cymbals, it would have severed his arms, maybe worse. His bass drum stopped the truss before it could squash my father like a bug.

Dad blacked out, came to, and discovered neither his hands nor arms were where he thought they were. He lay splattered on the stage, helpless as an infant. Then it rained. Big drops. Torrents poured from the sky; thunder exploded like shrapnel. Goodness rushed over to his bandleader. “Are you all right?” he yelled into the rain. “I think so, but I can’t move,” my father groaned, sodden in the squall, powerless to take cover. He kept his eyes open, afraid that if he closed them he’d die. Someone covered him with a plastic sheet, and everyone waited without breath until an ambulance arrived.

Doctors at Kings County Hospital would give Mayfield the life-changing news: because he was paralyzed from the neck down he would never walk or play a guitar again.

In 1995, Mayfield was interviewed for the BBC Omnibus series’ documentary retrospective of his life—entitled “Darker Than Blue.

In 1996, three years before his death in 1999, Mayfield produced his last album, New World Order.

The album included a remake of “We People Who Are Darker Than Blue.”

Though Brother Mayfield has passed, his work, his life and his impact lives on. Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theater company mounted a production of It’s All-Right To Have a Good Time: The Story of Curtis Mayfield back in 2013, and I hope they will revive the show again in the post-COVID-19 future. 

Join me in comments for more Mayfield, his music and his impact.




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