University of Wisconsin professor Craig Werner’s first mass-market book, 1999’s A Change Is Gonna Come, was the culmination of 20-plus years of teaching African-American music and cultural history. With notions of blues and gospel “impulses”—sensibilities drawn from the works of Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin—as his signposts, Werner covered 40 years of popular music, racial politics and social change. Like Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train and Dave Marsh’s The Heart of Rock and Soul, Werner’s Change is one of those rare books that forces you to hear familiar music in new ways and to see how this music tells the stories of our lives and our nation.
With Higher Ground, Werner narrows his scope and digs deeper into what happened when the civil rights movement went from Birmingham and Montgomery to Chicago and Detroit: “In the South the enemy was clearly identified; in the North it was hard to tell your friends from your foes.” Focusing on Aretha Franklin as political preacher, Curtis Mayfield as “urban griot” and Stevie Wonder as mystical visionary, Werner tells the stories of these three artists, the democratic art they created, the promises it offered in the ’60s and early ’70s, and the betrayal of those musical and political dreams in the years that followed.
Writing about Franklin’s “Respect,” Werner explores the ways in which slogans like “Black Is Beautiful” and “Power to the People” appealed to people who didn’t necessarily buy into The Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Plan: “‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T’ spelled the same thing to them, without the ideological baggage and with a gospel call to freedom on the backbeat.”
At the book’s end, you can’t help but share Werner’s disillusionment with how the megastar era of the Reagan years diluted his subjects’ message, even while Franklin and Wonder were still enjoying commercial success. But you also come away with Werner’s hope that, having the music as our guide, a change still might come.