MABLE JOHN, THE COMPLETE STAX/VOLT SINGLES 1959-1968, 1967
My lifelong love affair with soul music began early, with a christmas present from my parents at age ten of Motown's Greatest Hits. It was a five album set they ordered off the TV, and I think it had 50 tracks . It made for a great antidote to the Kiss albums, and I had found The Beatles by then, and hearing the originals of some of their covers ("You've Really Got A Hold On Me," especially) knocked me out. When I was 15, I saved up and bought the Atlantic Records 1947-1974 box set (14 LPs!), and that stayed with me through college. The day I left college, I bought this box set for the drive across the country with my girlfriend to the new job in California (where I still am). I don't think we broke up because I listened to this box set all the way from Philadelphia to San Francisco, but it couldn't have helped. Somewhere around Nebraska, she made me listen to the Cabaret soundtrack as punishment. I could have listened to these Stax tunes nonstop, and I still could.
I don't think there's a rhythm section I admire more than this one, and track after track, Booker T. and the MG's turn these little songs into slabs of drama. There's so much tension and release in a Stax/Volt track, so much more than in Motown or the Muscle Shoals guys. It's some of the most restrained, virtuoso playing I've ever heard. Some people think all these songs sound the same, and I can see their point, but it's a sound I can't get enough of.
Of all the soul songs for my pod to fling up, what a place to start. I don't quite understand why Mable John didn't have a better career. She isn't mentioned in the same breath as many of her contemporaries, and it's a shame. Maybe it was her material, or that she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. After failing as a Motown artist in 1961-62, she was a Raelette for a few years before getting another shot in 1966 as a solo act with Stax. This single is, in my opinion, her great achievement, one of the most moving songs of the era. It's the kind of track that justifies a box set.
The band here, even after thousands of performances together, sounds thrilled to be playing. Al Jackson's snare in particular is crucial here-- his drum breaks build all the tension. The horn line is amazingly simple, but a perfect counterpoint to the vocal, which is fairly complex. Steve Cropper's rhythm part is kept really tight at first, and as the track moves along, the band seems caught up in John's intensity. In the verse coming out of the bridge, you can feel the band loosen up and get excited; Cropper starts doing a call and response with the vocal, and Jackson introduces the final choruses with three of his loudest snare hits on record. It's as great a track as any of the Otis Redding or Sam & Dave sides.
Lots of controversy surrounds this song-- a lot of websites refer to it as the "politically incorrect" single, and on the youtube link below, comments are negative, saying the song doesn't take a strong stand and condones domestic violence. It is certainly not a simplified version of the issue, but I think it's a misreading to understand this song as a period piece that condones abhorrent behavior. Instead, I think it's an example of a pop song trying to tell a real story instead of an idealized one-- a soul/folk song, perhaps...
"I'm so sorry you had to slap me / Cause you never done that before
But I'm so glad that man made a pass at me / I used to wonder if you loved me
Now that I know... Don't you hit me no more, Don't hit me no more
Cause the next time you hit me, be ready to quit me
I'm your woman, and don't you hit me no more."
I think too many people read that first line wrong-- she's not sorry that she did something to earn a slapping, but sorry that he felt the need to do it. I'm so sorry for you that all you can think of to do in this moment is hit me. We're also reminded that this man is not a repeat offender. This relationship is not already marred by violence. It's the first time. John has a moment here to try to teach and establish some rules. She's "glad" in two ways that "man made a pass at me;" first, now she know her man loves her, and second, she has the chance to tell him that if he ever does that again, it's over.
There's a direct parallel to Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, a novel written by an African-American woman about men and women that does not shy from violence (see Song #2 entry-- apparently I have this novel on the brain these days). After her second husband Joe Starks dies, the heroine Janie takes up with Tea Cake, a much younger drifter, who takes her to the muck of Lake Okeechobee to do seasonal farming. While there, Janie earns the attention of another man, and Tea Cake beats Janie. "Not because her behavior justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him. Being able to whip her reassured him in possession. No brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss. Everybody talked about it next day in the fields. It aroused a sort of envy in both men and women. The way he petted and pampered her as if those two or three face slaps had nearly killed her made the women see visions and the helpless way she hung on to him made men dream dreams" (140). Tea Cake uses violence to show his love. That's the same impulse John acknowledges here in verse one. However, she takes the step that Hurston's character doesn't in 1937; she calls an end to it. And why? Because she'll leave, and "I'm your woman." That line really moves me. Why would you hit me when I'm with you? Her declaration of fidelity and commitment immediately after his transgression is really powerful. Regardless of what society and hegemony tells him manhood should look like, "I'm your woman," so "don't hit me no more" because you don't have to.
There then occurs a fascinating conflation of African and European imagery:
"A woman wasn't taken from a man's hambone / That means she wasn't made to be beat on."
The hambone is a traditional African percussion instrument, and was used by slaves to try to hold on to some African musical and storytelling traditions. It had symbolic meaning of African roots, like cowry shells. But the reference to the story of Adam and Eve (it was his rib) embraces European, Christian iconography and is a reminder that African and European cultures have become African-American culture. And John sings these lines in a musical style that is the hybrid of slave field chants and Western tonal harmonies. We have here ten seconds where John reveals what American culture is: the collision point of myriad cultures, rhythms, sounds, and beliefs. How appropriate, then, to choose this medium to try to find the middle ground between male and female, conquerer and conquered, master and servant, victimizer and victim.
And there's still another astonishing verse to go:
"I'm not a hardheaded woman who don't understand / So talk to me with your mouth and not with your hands
I'll do what you tell me the best that I can / You don't have to beat on me, so daddy, watch your hands and don't you hit me no more!"
In the first line, John acknowledges the pressure her man is under, the difficulty of being black in 1967. We're a year away from King's assassination, escalation in Vietnam, the rise of the Black Panthers, the controversy at the Mexico City Olympics. John isn't excusing his rage, but she's acknowledging his tension. Finally, the performance on the words "daddy, watch your hands" is the signature moment of John's career, so filled with emotion. Go listen to it. I'll wait. (Pause). Right?
I can see why this song didn't make the top 40, but I don't understand why it hasn't been reclaimed as the other side of the coin to Franklin's utopian anthem "Respect," which also came out in 1967. Aretha's "Respect" was the soul anthem of the year. That's the song that people seem to want "Don't Hit Me No More" to be. In the song, Franklin is a strong woman who demands to be treated with respect while still sexualizing herself ("What you want / Baby I got it"). It's a song that becomes an anthem for both black power and the women's movement. But-- it's a cover of an Otis Redding song, from the Stax/Volt studios, recorded by the same band that records with Mable John. Otis' version is a little different-- he demands respect, and she better have it when he gets home. It's the voice of traditional black masculinity: Otis is Joe Starks, Janie's second husband from Their Eyes Were Watching God; "I God, Janie!" He is willing to treat her "right" if she earns it. Franklin turned the pronouns around, and America cheered, but it's not as if all social values and standards changed overnight. A working class black woman (or white woman, for that matter) in 1967 did not exactly have the keys to the kingdom. Instead, she faced limited employment at lower wages and sexist expectations built into the culture from its inception. Mable John was up against not just her man, but Frederick Douglass (who downplays the role of women in his autobiography), Booker T. Washington (who does the same), Richard Wright (whose work is misogynist at times and who personally tried to destroy the career of Zora Neale Hurston) and, in the coming years, the throwback philosophy of the Black Panthers, the glorification of pimp culture in Shaft and other blaxploitation films, and so on. I think she can be forgiven for trying to find middle ground instead of assuming that she can torch that bridge and move on to better things. And let's remember-- he's not given a third chance. It's still an ultimatum, just a realistic one.
So you can tell me that Mable John should have had a no tolerance policy, and that she's weak in this song, but I don't buy it. Tina Turner, who took decades of abuse from Ike Turner, was praised for her liberation in her hit single "Better Be Good To Me." That song was from the album Private Dancer, in which Turner admitted in the title track that she was still "a dancer for money / do what you want me to do." I'm reading praise for Rihanna's latest album Rated R for its bold stance against Chris Brown. Is it when she says "I lick the gun when I'm done / Cause I know that revenge is sweet so sweet?" Really? That's the response we're looking for to domestic violence? Violent, murderous revenge? That's the way to escape to a better situation and move forward to a more advanced society? Before you call Mable John weak, ask yourself how hard it is to have the real conversation with someone about his or her behavior. This song is an intervention, not acquiescence. Finally, the most important difference for me between Mable John and Rihanna comes in this line from Rated R; "what you did to me was a crime." Rihanna is protected by wealth and fame. Not so Mable John-- it's not a crime if her man slaps her in a bar. You think in 1967 she could get the law on him? No chance. I don't think she could now. Cops hate domestic disturbance calls, and for one slap, I'm not sure they'd file a report. John has to solve her own dilemma here, for herself, and he's not a man who has, for Mable, proven himself unforgivable.
This Mable John song is real and honest and about the everyday, not a utopian future or a cartoon revenge fantasy. She is going home with this man, and rather than just tell him to r-e-s-p-e-c-t her, she tells him how to do it. I think it's brilliant and brave and disturbing all at once, something great art tends to be, and I'd argue that it's more likely to stop domestic violence from happening than cause more of it.