The story of Billy-Rae, the preacher's son, and the singer of 'Son of a Preacher Man', stealing away from their parents to discover love in the back yard is contained in one of the most familiar and enduringly popular songs of the 1960s. The scene Dusty Springfield paints with such flair is one of the deep American South, so it might come as a surprise to learn that she was born Mary O'Brien in Enfield, north London, with Catholic parents originally from County Kerry. How - and why - did Springfield choose such a distant musical culture to inhabit in this celebrated song about sexual discovery? I look at the role the 'blues style' plays in the song, as well as the songwriters' brilliant use of song structure, in order to address questions of race and sexuality in blues-influenced pop music of the era.
You can listen to the original recording of 'Son of a Preacher Man' here. If you've enjoyed the episode please leave a review on Apple podcasts! Thank you :)
Son of a Preacher Man
Hello and welcome to the Secret Life of Songs - a podcast on what happens in pop songs and why they mean so much to us. I’m Anthony, a musician who writes and performs music under the name sky coloured and this week I’m going to be looking at the 1968 Dusty Springfield single, ‘Son of a Preacher Man’.
Dusty Springfield was born Mary Isobel O’Brien, in Enfield, on the outer northern ring of London, in 1939. Her parents were Catholic, originally from County Kerry, and both loved music, introducing her to jazz and the blues from an early age. Her immersion in the work of singers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey was to leave an enduring trace on her singing style and in the entire ‘Dusty’ persona she developed through the 1960s, reaching its culmination in her 1969 album, Dusty in Memphis, from which ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ was released as the lead single.
In Dusty in Memphis, Springfield gave us her most thorough-going version of her particular idea of the culture of the American South. The music writer Warren Zanes wrote about the album as part of the 33⅓ series, saying that ‘Dusty … best demonstrates the manner in which the South is a stage set’. I want to look specifically at what this might mean in musical terms - what we mean by the ‘blues style’, how that relates to the world of the South that the song conjures up, and what her particular take on all this does to our sense of the meaning of the song. I also want to use this episode to talk about song structure, which is handled expertly in the song, and which combines brilliantly with Springfield’s blues-inflected voice and persona, to produce a powerful drama of awakening sexuality.
Before talking about the blues as a musical style, it’s worth bearing in mind the words of musicologist and composer Guthrie P. Ramsay, in his book Race Music:
'meaning is always contingent and extremely fluid; it is never essential to a musical figuration. Real people negotiate and eventually agree on what cultural expressions such as a musical gesture mean.'
There’s always a danger in saying that a particular musical feature means this, or that a musical style is simply the sum of a set of techniques, as if all a musician does is select from a menu of musical items and a perfectly faithful example of a style is produced. No element of music is static - it's always affected and evolved by the manner and context of its use in a particular musical moment.
Nevertheless, it’s also true that recognisable elements of a musical style - the trills and turns in Baroque keyboard music, or the off-beat rhythm guitar chords in reggae, or ‘the drop’ in electronic dance music - are part of how we make and listen to music of any kind: they’re adaptable and flexible but using them - even subconsciously - is practically inevitable. They produce the expectations and associations in the listener which provide the basis for any sort of communication between artist and audience.
So when the first thing we hear in ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ is this figure - which starts on a minor third and flattened fifth and moves up to a major triad, it’s obvious that a certain musical universe is being indicated: the blues. It combines several important elements of blues music: firstly, sliding between two versions of a note is such a distinctive part of blues music that these notes are referred to as blue notes, the flattened versions of the seventh, the fifth, and the third, although possibly more important than the notes themselves is the whole approach to pitch, which is characterised by tonal ambiguity, exploiting the spaces between semitones for emphasis and expression.
Springfield's understanding of this element of the music of the blues can be heard throughout her vocal performance. At almost every opportunity to do so, she slides between notes in exactly that recognisably ‘bluesy’ way. On the ‘long’ of ‘come along’, for example, she slips down from the tonic note to the dominant seventh - one of the ‘blue notes’ I mentioned. In each of the last syllables of the lines in the first verse - she uses a slide from the dominant seventh to the tonic like a riff: on ‘talk-in’, both times on ‘walk-in’, and on ‘eyes’. And there’s a similar ambiguity between major and minor thirds on ‘ev-er’ in the chorus - most sheet music versions I’ve seen of this song give that simply as a G# (making it the major third over the E major triad underneath it) but the note Springfield actually sings at that point seems to traverse the space in between G natural (which would be the minor third) and a pure G#.
And it’s not just the melody which points the listener towards the idea of the blues. The harmony bears a close resemblance to a typical blues chord sequence, possibly the most widely-held preconception of what blues ‘is’. It’s almost the first thing you learn in GCSE music - the 12-bar blues - the chord sequence that underpins much of the blues-inspired music of the 1950s, like rock n roll, although in fact less characteristic of blues music itself, which was always much more varied and flexible than the 12-bar formula might suggest.
The blues chord sequence, in its conventional form, sticks closely to the three fundamental chords of western music: the tonic, sub-dominant and dominant, or 1, 4 and 5, and they’re usually heard with the dominant seventh added to each, so a blues in E will consist of the chords E7, A7 and B7, which is exactly what happens in the verses and chorus of ‘Son of a Preacher Man'. What’s more, the handling of these chords echoes the order of a classic 12-bar blues sequence: the verse starts on the tonic, moves up to the sub-dominant, back to the tonic before moving up to the dominant in the manner of a blues ‘turnaround’.
But 'Son of a Preacher Man' is not a blues: it's a pop song, commissioned by Jerry Wexler, possibly the most powerful record executive of the era, and written by professional industry songwriters John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins. It has all the hallmarks of a carefully crafted hit single and I want to look specifically at Hurley and Wilkins' approach to structure, which departs from the blues form in a number of telling ways. Firstly, the verse length isn't 12 bars: it's 7 in the first verse, then 6 in the second, and although the harmony moves between tonic and sub-dominant, in blues fashion, the shifts are quicker than in a conventional blues: the harmony rushes towards the dominant, arriving at it after three bars. It then sits on that dominant seventh chord - which, if you remember from the first episode, is the chord which typically anticipates the return back to the tonic, the home chord - for a full four bars, over half the verse form. You can feel that sense of growing eagerness, as Springfield repeats almost the same melodic phrase over it, and the horns rise. Then in verse two, they repeat the same sequence but cut the verse short by one bar, which has a subtle hastening effect - we reach the chorus one bar earlier, which is a brilliant way of combining the sense of suspense building within the verses with a sense of it building across the whole of the song .
The song's drama is built on a classic pop template, known as 'verse/chorus', where verses and choruses alternate before a middle-eight section and a final chorus. It’s used in countless pop songs but there aren't many that use the inherent dynamic of the form to such brilliant purpose. We've already seen how the initial verse-chorus combination establishes a feeling of rising excitement but it's in the bridge, which starts when Dusty sings 'How well I remember the look that was in his eyes', that the real moment of songwriting genius takes place. The conventional role of the middle-eight is to provide a variation on the main material of the song, both musically and lyrically, before the final return to the chorus. What's special about the bridge in 'Son of a Preacher Man' is that it achieves all this whilst enacting another classic pop device - a key change - almost without the listener noticing.
In the last bar of the second chorus we’re given a brand new chord - D major - a chord outside the home key of E, which is what gives that moment its sense of something new happening. We get a chord every two bars - D takes us to A, and it's not clear whether that’s the new key or still counts as the sub-dominant of the original, but when it moves up to B7, the feeling of rising upwards suggests a cadence is coming that’ll land us somewhere new - and sure enough, via a perfect cadence on E7, we end up in the key of A to coincide with the return of the chorus.
We’re given all the lift of a key change without consciously noticing it; it’s also a much larger jump upwards than key changes usually involve - typically they're a tone or a half-tone. The key change in 'Preacher Man' is a fourth, which allows Dusty to sing the final chorus in a completely different part of her voice - the 'belting' range. Most of all, the bridge allows us to feel this sense of rising excitement as a process. It’s not a sudden jump but an expansion developed across eight bars of musical time, and as we consider the lyrical content of the song, we can see how apt a musical strategy this is.
Why is the song about the son of a preacher man? Well, partly, it's a joke - that the boy who'd be expected to be 'brought up in the right way' is the one who brings about the singer's sexual awakening. It's part of the song’s brilliance that it’s not played for laughs - and Billy-Ray isn’t characterised as a rogue, or a womaniser; the implication throughout is that the sex they have is good, desired by both. Think of the way the song is told both in the present and past tenses - ‘can I get away again tonight’ and ‘how well I remember’ - communicating both the excitement of their encounters and the significance of it in the memory of the narrator.
Along with the many idiomatically southern phrases that Springfield sings in an American accent - 'takin time to make time', 'learnin from each other's knowin' - the character of Billy-Ray, the preacher's son, also plays a key role in establishing a social context: that this is the conservative, religious Deep South. It's suggested that both Billy-Ray - the son of the preacher man - and the singer - whose parents apparently often host the local preacher - come from devout families. This provides the necessary basis for the music to express fully the potential of sexual desire to overcome restrictive social conservatism.
Jerry Wexler, speaking on Springfield’s death in 1999, said that ‘her particular hallmark was a haunting sexual vulnerability in her voice’, a description which in its very awkwardness tells us something about the particularly hard-to-pin-down quality of her vocal performances. To me there’s very little that’s vulnerable in ‘Son of a Preacher Man’; there’s no sense the narrator of the song is put-upon or nervous or victimised. Billy-Ray might be the initiator but there is in Springfield’s rendition only joy - pride even - at the thought of what they did together.
What then is it we hear in Springfield's voice, that combination of coolness and passion, innocence and knowingness?
Like almost all white musicians of the era, Springfield's engagement with the music of Black America was primarily - if not entirely - through the medium of the record, as opposed to live performance, let alone as a daily feature of her community’s musical life. The music she would have heard in church, for example, or would have been taught at school, would have been utterly - indeed deliberately and consciously - different from the music being made in African-American communities across the United States.
Discourse around race and music through the 20th century served to divide music of the European classical tradition and music of the African-American tradition, at various points indicating rag-time, swing, blues, rock n roll, or any other incarnation of the blues continuum. They were, for the most part, understood as mutually exclusive, and cultural gatekeepers were keen to keep it that way. In the minds of many white people on both sides of the Atlantic, the blues and all music related to it, was not just inferior to European music - although this was taken for granted - it was a threat. Writer Craig Werner, in his sweeping history of American pop music, A Change is Gonna Come, writes of the early furious reaction to electric blues and rock n roll in the 1950s:
'mainstream politicians painted any challenge to American ‘normalcy’ as part of an all-encompassing communist plot … In this political climate, any agitation on social issues, including any challenge to conventional racial or sexual roles, drew sustained fire. In the South, where most whites colored [Martin Luther] King’s movement dark red, that wasn’t a metaphor … The new ‘mongrel music’ provided an inviting target. In the mid-fifties, rock and roll rattled a staid McCarthy-era America with disconcerting images of unfettered sexual energy.'
As indicated in that last sentence, it’s impossible to address what this music must have meant to white audiences of the time without also considering the era’s attitudes around sexuality, and how closely the idea of sexual freedom became bound up with notions of what black music was doing. It crops up again and again. Consider novelist Norman Mailer in a 1957 essay: ‘Jazz is orgasm, it is the music of orgasm’, or Jerry Leiber, who with Mike Stoller wrote ‘Hound Dog’ and many other famous hits of the rock and roll era, writing of his younger self: ‘I wanted to be black for lots of reasons. They were better musicians, they were better athletes, they were not uptight about sex, and they knew how to enjoy life better than most people’.
This theme of white envy for an apparently liberated state of being, encountered in the music of R&B records, also applies, in a very pronounced way, to Springfield herself, who said, ‘I have a real bond with the music of coloured artists in the States. I feel more at ease with them than I do with many white people. We talk the same language … I wish I’d been born coloured. When it comes to singing and feeling, I just want to be one of them and not me’. It’s now apparent how this sort of thinking is justifiably open to the criticism that, regardless of how passionate she felt about the music, in a statement such as this she demonstrated ignorance of the social conditions that gave rise to the ‘language’ of African Americans - far from liberated - and that what we are dealing with here is a classic example of what is now known as cultural appropriation.
Springfield's adoption of the blues style, and her promotion by record executives who must have been conscious of the commercial appeal of a white woman who, in the crass judgment of the era, ‘sounded black’ is one chapter in the long story, which goes well beyond the scope of this episode, of the economic exploitation of the music of oppressed people by members of the colonising group, in a world shaped by centuries of racism and empire. Sound recording and the mass global distribution of records enabled an unprecedented spread of artistic influence across geographical and cultural borders, but in ways which inevitably confirmed and reproduced existing structural injustices, benefitting white imitators far more than the musicians of colour who originated the style.
What I want to dwell on here, in thinking about an artist like Dusty Springfield is the question of what it was in the music which appealed to her so deeply. Her particular relationship to her influences seemed to be profoundly marked by a feeling of self-contempt, of not feeling at ease except through this music, of wanting to be ‘one of them and not me’. White artists who imitated blues music often talked about the sense of freedom it gave them - of escape from the drudgery of post-war Britain, for example - Springfield went much further, seeming to desire total self-obliteration through it.
Early in her career, Springfield realised she was attracted to women, and though eventually she came out as bisexual, lived most of her life in difficult, clandestine relationships with women. This was always an acutely uncomfortable fact for Springfield, who not only felt the pressure to stay in the closet, as all gay performers of the era did, but also felt a deep rift with her family and upbringing as a result of it. Bob Gulla, one of her biographers, writes:
'Until she understood her fondness for women Dusty would frequently go to confession, a vestige from her Catholic schooling. Oftentimes on the road with the Lana Sisters or the Springfields Dusty would ask to pull over at a church so she could do her penance.//Her lesbian discovery, however, obviated any relationship she had with the church. Her sexual preference was contrary to everything she understood the church to stand for and in 1963, during her first affair with a woman, she thought it best to part ways with Catholicism. The split hurt Dusty deeply and racked her with guilt for the rest of her life'
If you compare Springfield’s singing with other American-influenced British female singers of the time - Cilla Black, say, or Petula Clark - it’s clear that her grasp of jazz and the blues was on a completely different level. She learned the blues style inside-out, from a young age, and was able to reference the idiom intuitively, inhabiting a liminal space, where she represents both the white, middle-class, British woman she clearly was, while channelling almost seamlessly a very different musical tradition - that of the African American South. The result was not, as many at the time apparently believed, that she sounded ‘black’, but that she sounded neither white nor black; creating an ambiguous vocal identity that allowed her to express a socially transgressive sexual identity without ever doing so directly or explicitly. What it allowed her to do in ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ was go beyond the staple sexual coyness of 60s pop and make us, the listeners, feel it all at once - innocence and sexual expression - until it’s clear the point is that there’s no necessary contradiction between the two.
Whether or not music of the blues tradition involves a more honest, open attitude towards physicality and sex than that of the European classical tradition - and of course it’s right to be wary of such generalisations - there’s little doubt that young, white musicians in Britain and America heard it as such. That perhaps pop’s most famous song about a sexual awakening should be placed so deliberately in the blues idiom is evidence of this long-standing association and can be seen as one of its defining expressions.