From a young age, Chicago soul singer Tridia Brown had a passion for listening to records, singing, and playing the congas in church. Tridia’s mother had taken note of her exceptional talent for music; in fact, singing was a passion the two of them shared. And at age twenty-one, Tridia went with her mother to see her estranged father, Arrow, who, by this time, had become a somewhat eccentric producer and writer of soul music.
Her father never really sold enough records to turn a profit. The short version of the story is that he had trouble navigating the notoriously complex network of distributors in Chicago who were capable of getting his music promoted and sent to retail outlets. Nonetheless, at the time, Arrow was managing a home recording studio and a small record label called Bandit Records in a greystone at 4114 S. Martin Luther King Drive in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. When Tridia turned up at his door sometime in the early 1970s, her father welcomed her warmly, and he began to involve her in his latest project, a band he had assembled called the Majestic Arrows (Boyle and Mehr 2013, 24).
Arrow had loosely sketched out ideas for "I’ll Never Cry for Another Boy" on the electric organ but had yet to finish it. Tridia helped him complete the song, in part by adding an extended vamp section in which she improvised repeatedly on the song’s refrain. At some point, with the assistance of one of Arrow’s friends who was a guitarist, Arrow, Tridia, and two backup singers from the Majestic Arrows recorded a run-through of the song on a cassette recorder in the office of her father’s studio-home. This rehearsal recording of "I’ll Never Cry for Another Boy" was first released as a bonus track on the Numero label’s 2004 curated reissue of songs from Bandit’s catalog.
The guitarist’s finger-plucked arpeggios echo the Memphis-based guitar sound of Otis Redding’s ballads.
There are historical coordinates to the form of the song that are worth recounting in brief. It is a down-tempo 6/8 soul ballad reflective of a genre that pervaded much of the rhythm and blues of the 1950s and ‘60s. The guitarist’s finger-plucked arpeggios echo the Memphis-based guitar sound of Otis Redding’s ballads, particularly on numbers like "These Arms of Mine" (featuring Johnny Jenkins, released in 1962), and "That’s What My Heart Needs" (released in 1963 and featuring Steve Cropper). In Tridia’s vocals, one can also hear echoes of Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Gladys Knight, Carla Thomas, and even Curtis Mayfield’s first band, The Impressions, all of whom recorded 6/8 soul ballads in the 1960s. (James’s rendition of "All I Could Do Is Cry" makes for an apt comparison.) There are inter-texts in the lyrics as well. For instance, the phrase "crying on the inside" seems to recall Aretha Franklin’s famous 1963 rendition of the 1946 ballad "Laughing on the Outside (Crying on the Inside)." These historical points of reference suture the recording to a history of style, to social networks of soul music, to radios, church services, jukeboxes, clubs, record players, and to the gradual individuation of a genre that was powerfully mediated by the culture industry.
Given the richness of this moment in Chicago’s cultural history, there is no doubt a great deal more that could be unearthed in the web of inter-textual references and the material connectivity of the social networks. A full-length article could also examine the political economy beneath the song, its marginal relationship to the centers of power in the recording industry. But how might one go about approaching the recording on aesthetic terms? This essay proposes to complement such historical and material lines of inquiry with a set of interpretive questions. It asks: What does the rehearsal recording, as a particular configuration of sound, convey to us? How might we explain its significance and power as an object? I hope to demonstrate that an interpretation driven by the particulars of this recording—an immanent critique, if you will—yields unique philosophical questions that can illuminate its multifaceted texture. Far from a "pure" aesthetics that operates at a remove from social and historical life, I argue that there is a politics to close reading the recording’s forgotten particulars.
Tridia’s recording has four elements: a lead vocal, a guitar line, a kick drum, and a splattering of backup vocals. There are two verses. One is very short and low in register; it is immediately followed by a longer verse that is sung through twice, with a few minor musical differences the second time around. That takes about three minutes. Then, in the vamp Tridia lets loose for another three minutes. She riffs on the main line over and over again, improvises new couplets, and finally arrives at a cathartic climax. Tridia’s vocal is the backbone of the recording; her singing is what makes six minutes feel like four. We could probably do without the drum, backup vocals, and maybe even the guitar, but not the vocal. If Tridia were not there, the recording would collapse. Her vocal leads our ears for nearly six and a half minutes. It seems to have inspired the other musicians too—their playing picks up energy in the course of the run-through.
As a whole the recording is something like the sonic version of a home movie, its periphery rife with accidents. Consequently, it is not a finished work, nor is it an entirely exploratory improvisation. Its tentative fabric engenders the close listening one might do when listening to one’s own rehearsal recordings—when creative decisions need to be made, better or worse outcomes are at stake, the texture of sonic inconsistency is scrutinized for potentials to be elaborated and dead ends to be cut. Listening in on this rehearsal is akin to a sonic paleography, a forensic examination of musical sketches made of inconsistent waves. It elicits a search for the threads of excitement and emergent consistency (and excellence) that unfold in the irregularity of real time.
Though it is just a rehearsal, the song seems to have a coherent form. Tridia, her two backup singers, and the single guitarist play as if they more or less know their way through the song. The vocals may be a bit ragged; the singers are likely just grasping their parts. The guitarist picks up rhythmic energy in the two middle verses as Tridia’s vocals become more urgent and punctuated. Arrow’s kick drum, for example, shifts to double-time during the second time through the main verse. Throughout the song, the guitarist plays as if in a trance beneath Tridia. He vamps a simple alternation between two chords (the tonic and subdominant) ornamented with some delicate sus voicings. A song restricted to just these two chords is rare in a soul ballad of the 1960s and ‘70s; the decision suggests what we are hearing is a loose sketch of what is to come in a fuller arrangement. In any case, on the recording, the two chords are there, however accidentally. That harmonic simplicity of the guitar part is hypnotic, and it stays out of the way of the vocal, framing and supporting the elaborate forms of Tridia’s flaring, circular, vocal gestures.
The specificity of Tridia’s voice elicits attention on its own. She skillfully loosens each of her sustained notes into a vibrato. Her voice has a distinct tinniness, almost a sharp oboe tone that seems to contain a strange amalgam of innocence and empowered resolve. Its brightness is salient, even exaggerated on cassette tape, a medium that saturates middle-range frequencies, while attenuating many of the highs and lows that, if recorded in hi-fi, would have given the voice a much fuller tone. On tape, the voice sounds at once more insistent and more fragile.
Adding our ears to this social scene does not simplify things. It leaves us with the possibility that very little is expressed in the exact sound of the tape, or that as much is withheld, or never gets off the ground. With her sustained tones swelling into colorful vibratos, consider that Tridia might be singing with a composer’s mindset, and mulling over formal questions specific to the medium of her own voice. She might be wondering: Is this part of the song, bequeathed to her from her father, going to work adequately? At the bottom of this melody, there is a charming imperfection: "everybody’s clown" does not fit the declamation as well as the other lyrics. It is an inexpressive awkwardness, a formal wrinkle yet to be resolved, that indexes the provisional quality of the recording. Is the awkwardness of this phrase a good thing? Is it charming or distracting?
With a tape recording in hand, Tridia could mull these questions over later, with the benefit of hindsight, as if the song were a puzzle to be solved. For many years the cassette tape was provisional, its materiality fragile, but still reliable enough to function as a sketchbook that the band could use to prepare for live performances at clubs in Chicago. Now, after its 2004 re-release, it is enshrined in the streaming cloud of Spotify, YouTube, and iTunes by Numero’s curatorial platform, as a copy of space-time that refracts repeatedly, without loss or decay, a room at 4114 S. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in a greystone in Bronzeville. Caught in this paradoxical medium, the intentions animating Tridia’s performance are frozen in an ambiguous space. In the early 1970s her aims for this recording were likely provisional. They have now been repurposed into something potentially greater than what she once imagined.
To hear her expressivity accurately thus presents us with a puzzle: It is not easy to know what Tridia means. She could be marking her lines with a slight sense of absentmindedness, distracted by the self-consciousness of a composer contemplating the form of her own melody. She is the composer, performer, expresser, rehearsal participant, and archaic voice from the past all at once, with a song that is miles away from the transparency of ordinary language, or even from performative, heightened, or ecstatic speech. In the puzzle of its singular waveforms, the recording retains an inconsistent multiplicity of intentions.
Something about the ontology of singing makes it appear slightly absurd that this voice—with its words, movements, and winding impact—has anything in particular to express to us, in the way that someone we converse with might convey something they experienced. Tridia’s voice has historicity, but its form also flies high above any particular romantic or erotic trial. I would suggest that this is Tridia’s covert formalism. Without the legitimacy of an elaborate meta-discourse in institutional journals, her recording is somehow inexhaustible as an object of one’s attention, contemplation, and affective absorption. It stands as high and as permanent as anything within the confines of the work, the song, the album, the picture frame, the exhibition catalog, or the authority of the book that disrupts our senses—even without the polished and abstract purposiveness of a work. Without finality or attention to the last detail, a complex poetics stretches into the fabric of its contingent imperfections, against the 1970s intentions of the artists who never planned to release this version.
From its strange ontology, we can return again to the even stranger manifestation of its content: there is no exact crying being done. Her resolve is an abstracted one, by virtue of the simple fact that repetition is required. Tridia is playing a role, acting a bit, certainly not without some truth from her experience. But there is an exaggeration; a distancing that produces a poetic paradox. To spell out the lyrics and to listen to the wailing excess of her melismatic gestures is to hear Tridia at a moment of resolve and empowerment. And yet, her improvisations in the vamp themselves sound like crying—as if she were transgressing her own resolve in the same gesture with which she expresses it in language. Language cannot be transparently expressive when the signified meaning of a phrase is contradicted by the gesture of its delivery.
Language cannot be transparently expressive when the signified meaning of a phrase is contradicted by the gesture of its delivery.
Things get even more complicated if one takes the backup singers seriously. They sing repeatedly: "Never, never, never, cry." This is puzzling. Are they telling her not to cry? Why would they need to shore up her resolve if Tridia herself is so determined to not cry? Or are they intoning somewhat mechanical echoes that cannot be heard except in some kind of abstracted virtual space of Tridia’s songwriting? Of course, the echoes have a history, one that is defined by genre. They are riffing on a convention in doo-wop, in gospel, and in a vast web of call-and-response practices across the Black Atlantic. Girl groups since the Motown era had been using backup singers to echo the words of the lead singer, and Tridia herself belonged to a Motown-inspired girl group called the Au Naturals as a teenager at Kenwood High School in Hyde Park. And yet, as musically conventional as these lines are, their utterances are also somewhat surreal in their indeterminacy. Tridia’s cathartic pleas are flanked by these falling, even somewhat mechanical, melodic cries, shorn from any particular pain in some infinitely repeatable space, while Tridia, the star, sings out to us from the middle. It is a contradiction that seems to resist explanation.
Congealed within the tape is an elusive and open abstraction. A second reader of the vamp could plausibly have thoughts running in the opposite direction. One could hear consonance, harmony, and ethical resolve, in which the backup singers bolster and mirror the expression forwarded by Tridia’s vocals. Both readings work. What matters is that the form of this song is resolutely dialectical: the historical weight and expressive charges of this ballad are irrevocable, and they project life into the form of the song’s objecthood at the same time they do nothing and mysteriously withhold meaning. Feeling momentarily stunned by this paradox, one may be enjoined to wonder: What is inside Tridia’s voice? Is there something directly linked to hers, ours, and others’ desire and pain? To a feminist protest? To a broader expression of blackness?
If the form of the recording entails abstraction, its significance is not universal; it is a complicated public object. It encapsulates personal heartbreak as much as it refracts a much larger totality—the gravity of what Fred Moten has described so powerfully as the phonographic black scream—an unpresentable shriek of pain and pleasure, a sonic protest amid the structural racism that undergirded the segregated South Side of Chicago. For Moten, there is "a certain personhood within the commodity that can be seen as the commodity’s animation by the material trace of the maternal—a palpable hit or touch, a bodily and visible phonographic inscription" (2003:17–18). Tridia’s voice, what Moten might call "an affirmative force of ruthless negation," exemplifies the form of a non-semantic and specifically musical paradox. Her voice is at once right there as a sensuous particularity, in our headphones, and yet also somehow difficult to comprehend. It is certainly structured by commoditized memories and expectations of what soul music can do. Soul music is a pleasurable commercial genre that brought gospel conventions into the world of rhythm and blues, and exploded in popularity during the 1960s; it was a black discovery of sonic abstraction in the form of phonographic inconsistency. And "I’ll Never Cry for Another Boy" fits securely within the genre. At the same time, the recording refracts W. E. B. Du Bois’s logic of the veil; there is an opacity to Tridia’s mode of address, a blackness that both satisfies and disrupts her white listeners’ desires with an experience and a historicity that retains a measure of difference (Du Bois, 4–5).
Compounding this dialectic is the fact that this song is also an archival fetish, a collector’s document of an ephemeral moment of collaboration that went undervalued by the culture industry. Tridia claimed she co-wrote the song, and that Arrow, her father, who ran the Bandit record label and produced the recordings the label released, deceitfully took all the credit for her songwriting (Mehr 2005). This is significant less for the royalties connected to the album—Arrow’s Bandit label lost money, and the comparatively small royalties connected to Numero’s reissue now go to Tridia. It is significant because Arrow’s studio version, arranged by Benjamin Wright (whose fast-moving career would soon take him to Los Angeles), substantially changes the rhetoric of the song. He transfigures the hypnotic feel of the alternating I-IV chords on the rehearsal recording into a complex harmonic landscape, with elaborate string arrangements, a spoken verse, and colorful overtones of psychedelic soul.
When she handed the cassette of the rehearsal over to the Numero label for the reissue, Tridia told her curators they were recovering something special—something she had a hand in writing. Does retrospective purposiveness—an ephemeral home movie of sound caught by a cassette recorder—still count as purposiveness? How does its ephemerality function to fetishize its status on the periphery of capital? Or to reify it as an exemplum of black "authenticity?" A strategic formalism, an interpretation-driven act of listening, cannot avoid practicing and rehearsing such consumptive gestures.
Amid these dialectical contortions, the sensuous particularity of the recording, in all its inconsistent form, remains and is unleashed when one presses play. The recording will still exist as a relatively open object, ready to be filled with listeners’ unspoken desires, desires that are intertwined with Tridia’s for no particular reason. In the face of such complex and ineffable traffic, I would contend that there is a politics to a close reading that highlights the way this recording refracts and makes vivid these dialectical crosscurrents. It is a formalism that attends to the details of the song and the medium in dialogue with the axes of history and sociality, while remaining responsive to the impact of its affective charges. In this way, a formalist listening can be a politically engaged act, particularly when its poetics—a black woman’s collaborative poetics—too often do not count as form, and often only as peripheral culture.
In close reading any sound recording, one cannot sustain that level of listening attention without ending up occasionally transfixed by the flux of time. In the twenty-first century, surely, dismemberment through sampling is always an option, and it need not result in death—the music can be brought to life anew (Piekut and Stanyek 2010, 14–38). But, in its sensuous particularity, the recording can come across as almost too alive. In her 1982 performance art work, "Funk Lessons," Adrian Piper describes the impact of funk music on a group of white intellectuals who are ironically being "taught" to dance to funk (a kind of music that, hilariously, shouldn’t require a formalized pedagogy). She describes the flood of funk music as an "undeniable experience" (Piper 2006, 134). To me, these minimal words are apt for describing the specificity of the recorded musical object. The song is a ride, an undeniable ride that takes you along in its wake. In the case of Tridia’s song, it is a hushed ride in a delicate social space. A strange ride, because it brings us up against a no-longer-existing room in the South Side of Chicago, filled with the rich atmospheres of rooms in this greystone that we have not felt. But it is not a statement, a proposition, a message, or a representation. It is an acoustic transduction of a room that carries the listener through an inconsistent and opaque web of sounds.
The intermedial humanities propose to work across the boundaries of word, image, and sound.
The intermedial humanities propose to work across the boundaries of word, image, and sound. Many with intermedial interests, by virtue of the way the humanities are organized, work in the fields of literature, art history, performance studies, or film and media. Others work with some kind of mixture, particularly those who are interested in sound. Critical theory is, for some, a lingua franca that allows humanities scholars from different fields to converse with one another regardless of medium, period, cultural locale, or geographic area. But beyond the mastery of various theories and methods, scholars are increasingly called upon to describe, defend, and even reformulate the core methods of humanities disciplines.
Scholars in sound studies have done an excellent job of detailing its cultural and media history, and begun to formulate rich theoretical approaches to the ontology and philosophy of sound, music, and the voice. What still seems to be developing, in my view, are methods and critical debates about how to interpret sound recordings with a close level of attention to detail. Given the interdisciplinary ambition of sound studies, one’s technical vocabulary for interpretations of music is often limited by comparison with the scholarly methods of musical analysis. But a close reading of a sound recording can benefit from non-systematic approaches to its objects. It can readily assimilate vernacular observations and analyses of music, something increasingly of interest to music theorists. Moreover, new media formats, time codes, and the ease of editing a digital snippet or loops also make it easier to point to sonic details. Digital recordings allow those with expertise in sound recording and production techniques to point to such details through a poetics that is specific to the recording studio. A multitude of analytical vocabularies can link specified sounds to interpretive gestures.
Guiding the outlines of the close reading are some of the basics that have long been native to the practice of critical interpretation: the language of paradox, of irony, of small details in form, and their relationship to the organization of the whole. I add to this the materialist imperative about the weight of social content and the potential for resistance. It is all steadied by a sober sense of what the recording can handle, and what brings it to life for the listener. It gets at an illuminating explanation of all that it means, and all that it might disrupt.
- Many thanks to Emily Ruth Capper, Berthold Hoeckner, Travis Jackson, Andy Flory, Tsitsi Ella Jaji, Timothy Brennan, Jairo Moreno, Steven Rings, James Chandler, and the participants at Duke University’s Humanities Futures seminar, the University of Chicago Society of Fellows text seminar participants, and the attendees of the Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature Colloquium at the University of Minnesota for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this essay. I am indebted to Clare Koury for first bringing this inspiring recording of the Majestic Arrows to my attention. A larger thanks goes to her and to the other students of my two quarters of Media Aesthetics: Sound in the Humanities Core at the University of Chicago who inspired many of the questions I began to pursue in this piece. Two other key sources of motivation were Charles Kronengold’s (2005) article,"Accidents, Hooks, and Theory," and Carolyn Abbate’s (2011) "Overlooking the Ephemeral." Also see Cook, et. al. (2009).
- In order to clearly distinguish Tridia Brown from Arrow Brown in this essay, I will refer to them by their first names.
- See Eccentric Soul: The Bandit Label (Numero Group, 2004). From 2011–12, Numero staff members Ryan Boyle and Bob Mehr (2013) wrote an in-depth narrative documentation of the Bandit label, now included as an insert to a new 3-LP edition, released in January 2013. Also see Robert Sevier’s comments on Arrow’s difficulties with distributors in Mehr (2005). On the complexity of record distribution in Chicago soul, see Pruter (1992, 4–8). Note that Mehr and Boyle report that Tridia wrote "I’ll Never Cry for Another Boy." When I interviewed Tridia on January 29, 2016, she reported that she had co-written the song with her father.
- Thanks to Andy Flory who remarked over email that other Memphis-based guitarists like Teenie Hodges played similarly, and that Marvin Tarplin, a Motown-based guitarist, might be a second point of reference, since he preferred plucking on the three lower strings. With regard to lyrics, Steven Rings has remarked that Tridia’s line, "I’ll always walk in the rain" might refer to the sorrow of the 1964 Ronnettes’ ballad "Walking in the Rain." Likewise the phrases "I’ve been everybody’s clown" and "tears of a baby" echo the memorable title of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ 1967 hit, "The Tears of a Clown."
- On a detailed history of the labels and social networks that supported the 1960s’ and ‘70s’ boom of soul music in Chicago, see Pruter (1992). For a broader history of soul music, see Hirshey (1984). For a set of interpretive essays on cover songs in soul music, see Awkward (2007).
- On the call-and-response trope in music of the African diaspora, see Floyd’s chapter on "The Object of Call–Response: The Signifyin(g) Symbol" (1995, 226–66).
- On Tridia’s musical biography, see Boyle and Mehr (2013, 24).
- At midcentury, Monroe Beardsley and William K. Wimsatt famously argued for a formalist view of literature that did not take account of the author’s intent or of affective and emotional registers of meaning. See Beardsley and Wimsatt (1987; 1971).
- On Arrow Brown’s studio collaborators, see Boyle and Mehr (2013, 10–11, 30).
- Such an approach has affinities with the "strategic formalism" developed by English (2007, 31–2).
- Vernacular sources for musical analysis are particularly interesting in cases where there is an ambiguity in the musical structure that engenders debate and disagreement. Steven Rings (2016) discusses online debates about the ambiguous tonal center of Daft Punk’s 2013 single "Get Lucky." Nathan D. Hesselink similarly discusses metrical ambiguity in Radiohead’s 2001 "Pyramid Song" (2013).
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