Perhaps the most formative years for rock and roll were from 1945 to 1964. It is evident that the social climate of the time period shaped music. However, the music also shaped the social climate. The musical meaning of the songs of the era is vital to an understanding of the social implications of the music. On a primitive level, the lyrics of a song give some insight into its musical meaning. Often, however, the lyrics paint an incomplete picture of a song’s true social significance. By studying other factors, such as the instruments, the melody, and the artists themselves, one can gain much more insight into a song’s musical meaning. Through this analysis, common themes of sex, drugs, and race relations are usually found.
The 2004 motion picture Ray chronicles the life of Ray Charles. The film takes place from 1948 to 1979 and epitomizes the social impact of the music of Ray Charles. It shows how society shaped the music of Ray Charles, and additionally how Ray Charles and his music shaped society. One clear focus in the film was the importance of music to Ray Charles. The raw passion Ray Charles shows for his music adds to the musical meaning of his work.
One Ray Charles song with an important musical meaning is “What’d I Say.” The lyrics of this song provide a starting point for an analysis into the musical meaning of the song. In the film Ray, after recording “What'd I Say,” the producer says “It is just too damn sexual for kids.” This quote exemplifies an important social aspect surrounding the song “What’d I Say.” It is one that appears throughout rhythm and blues music of the postwar era, the generation gap.
One manner in which fifties teenagers rebelled against their parents was through music. According to Campbell and Brody, rhythm and blues music was at the forefront of this rebellion (50). Sexual lyrics, such as those in “What’d I Say,” were commonplace in many rhythm and blues songs. Although by today’s standards, the lyrics are relatively tame, at the time, the music seemed overly crude and black (Campbell 50).
Another interesting point about the song “What’d I Say,” is that while it uses the verse and refrain form, it doesn’t really tell a story. According to Campbell and Brody, the song instead paints a series of several images (76). Campbell and Brody further point out that the sequence of images changes from the live recording and studio versions (76). As such, it is evident that the lyrics themselves are not vital to the message of the song. Instead, it is the emotion expressed by the song that portrays its musical meaning.
As mentioned previously, adult themes were not unique to “What’d I Say.” In fact, they were especially common in the Chicago Blues. For example, the adult theme is evident simply from the title of the song “Hoochie Coochie Man,” by Muddy...