1970s weren’t just about evolving black music for “art’s sake” — musicians were tapping into fresh themes of political & social upheaval spreading across the USA. Let’s explore Blues & Funk that goes beyond “abstract” to strike at root of a changing world.
Do you know JW?
I was in a record shop in Austin, TX. A guy behind me in line had a weird look on his face. He kept looking at my album choices, then up at me, then back to the soon-to-be-mine vinyls. Sensing something going on, I nodded my head in the wordless American opening for conversation.
“How do you know about Johnny Watson??” he started, not-so innocently.
“I’ve been a fan for a long time, personally and as a DJ.”
“You’re too young to know him. I saw him live. Twice.”
It seemed we were in a ****-measuring contest…
Between appreciating being called young and feeling good at the prospects of whipping it out to win said measuring, I instead chose to let him talk more about Johnny “Guitar” Watson . While he talked, I started to recognize something:
Here was someone I would not have pegged for a JW fan at first glance.
But the reason Watson’s music connected with such a wide base of fans is that his songs go beyond just great tunes or catchy lyrics, and into speaking to generational concerns affecting every American of the pre- & in-Reagan era.
Watson’s music is like peeking into a time capsule that gives a direct view into the black lives, and indeed, the entire country itself at the time. The heartbeat of the ‘common man’, fluffed up and prettied but also gritty in the way only Blues and Funk can do. The truth, in a nice package, but inside was just…the bare truth.
Give me an example…
The speaking subject, then, is not merely the exploited worker, but the educated and hyperskilled laborer who’s stuck performing menial work for minimum wage. With characteristic humor, he applies the term “poor folks” liberally, both to those who must shop “in the baloney section” as well as to polyglots with several diplomas. His lyrics here allude to the dissolution of the American working class and the myth of the “qualified” worker by manufacturing an absurdly skilled member of the workforce who, despite his ability to code and speak multiple languages, finds the promise of wealth and steady income to be as mythological as Parliament’s “Thumpasorus peoples.” – Dominick Knowles
Did your eyes glaze over a little bit during that? Instead of this being an over-analysis of a basic song, this, folks, is a spot-on summary of Johnny Watson’s “Ain’t That A Bitch” (1976).
A Blues song wrapped in Funk clothing, its lyrics can be over-looked for its punchy Soul horns typical of the 70s, or some fiery Chicago Blues guitar licks that ring like B.B King’s did. But the lyrics sit there ready to be listened to all the same:
Let me tell you about my qualifications
I program computers
I know accounting and psychology
I took a course in business
And I can speak a little Japanese
It’s not the prototypical subject that is hastily assigned to music about under-privileged and marginalized groups. It’s the literal everyman, from all walks of life, coming off the street or out of the university, being marginalized and reduced by society without sympathy for their background or experience.
Cool. Now what?
If this is at all interesting to you —
- as a person who feels similar
- as someone who’s curious what was going through the minds of 1970s Americans
- as an example of how black music consistently tells the story of its surrounding environment
— then here is an excellently researched and documented article that inspired this article:
Dominick Knowles dives in-depth to the major changes ongoing at the time, and how this song spoke to a generation of Americans. It’s why J.W. remains revered today for making music that does more than just entertain … although he always brings plenty of that!