Since I first started listening to pop music, I've wondered about what's really going on in songs about love. Something seems to haunt expressions of romantic affection or loss, something that often seems to go beyond the strict meaning of the words. How can we explain the power of apparently simple songs about heartbreak and devotion? This episode looks into the history of American popular song to seek an answer to the question of meaning in songs about love, and to wonder what a classic love song - Curtis Mayfield's 'The Makings of You' - might be saying to us, if we could take into account the reverberations that echo from its musical histories.
All the songs discussed in this episode, including the original recording of 'The Makings of You' can be heard here. The version of 'Steal Away' heard in the episode is based on a performance by McHenry Boatwright, which isn’t on Spotify but can be found - at the time of publication - on YouTube.
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The Makings of You
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, with me, Anthony, a musician who writes and performs music under the name sky coloured. When I was first thinking about what to call this series, one of the first ideas I had was ‘What We Sing About When We Sing About Love’. All the songs I’ve looked at have been love songs, and the phrase seemed to touch on one of my most deeply-felt instincts about pop music: that the dismissive attitude certain writers and musicians have had towards it over the years has centred on the idea that pop songs are trivial because they ‘only’ concern romantic relationships; that they indulge in adolescent narcissism, overstating the significance of sexual love at the expense of more important matters, even that they sugarcoat reality to make it palatable to the bourgeois consumer, such that the drama of life is reduced to the sole question of whether, One Fine Day, you’re going to want me for your girl.
It’s a question that’s been a part of my engagement with pop music from the very beginning, even as I instinctively rejected its premise, without really knowing why. It seemed to me that when I heard people sing about love, or came to do so myself, much more was in the air than could be gleaned from just the lyric sheet. How could I explain the power of Billie Holiday singing a line as apparently simple as ‘My man don’t love me, treats me awful mean?’ The simple answer is that in addition to words, the listener simultaneously receives music - its melody, harmony, its arrangement and the particular delivery of its performers - and that it’s through all these different parts of a record working in tandem that the meaning of a song is yielded.
But what, then, was that meaning? If the effect of pop music is somehow intrinsically multilayered, what might be contained within it? It took me a lot longer to start to understand what pop music might be expressing, rather than simply how it expresses it, and it's what took me into the history of the music. I think of what happens in songs the way Seamus Heaney thought of language in poems when he wrote of ‘the cultural depth-charges latent in certain words and rhythms … the energies beating in and between words … the word as etymological occurrence, a symptom of human history, memory and attachments’. History plays an unavoidable role in how we hear; it helps form the mind’s inner ear; it dictates the terms on which a musician expresses anything at all to a listener. What happens when we think of a song such as Curtis Mayfield’s ‘The Makings of You’ as etymological occurrence, a symptom of history, memory and attachments?
[music - ‘The Makings of You’]
The first words we hear Mayfield sing - ‘add a little sugar, honeysuckle’ - are a play on the nursery rhyme line, ‘sugar and spice and all things nice, that’s what little girls are made of’: with honeysuckle a shorthand for sweetness. Mayfield might also have had the Fats Waller tune, ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ in mind, which contains the lines, ‘You’re my sugar … you’re my honeysuckle rose’. These are familiar, popular phrases of affection, to which Mayfield adds the more idiosyncratic ‘a great big expression of happiness’. There’s a pleasing ambiguity in this - the ‘expression of happiness’ makes us think both of his lover’s face but also, more conceptually, that the happiness is inherent in them, that their whole being is itself an expression of happiness. Either way, the significance is in the fact that the happiness is not simply internal but is expressed outwards. It radiates beyond them, which explains, a few lines later, ‘the joy of children laughing around you’; the happiness this love creates is not just a personal feeling but is communally shared, a social happiness.
In between, we get the lines ‘Boy, you couldn’t miss with a dozen roses / Such would astound you’ which is the first of a series of lines in the song which consist of two or more mini-phrases attached in loose sequence, where meaning is ambiguous and depends on how you hear it. Is it ‘a great, big expression of happiness, boy, you couldn’t miss’, as in: their happiness is so clear, it’d be impossible to miss it? Or is it ‘Boy you couldn’t miss with a dozen roses’, as in: a dozen roses would be the perfect gesture of love towards this person? Or is it continuing the list started in the first line - the sugar and honeysuckle - of things that symbolically constitute this person, i.e. ‘the makings of you’?
Like the ‘expression of happiness’, it’s a semantically fruitful ambiguity, rather than evidence of muddled thinking on Mayfield’s part. All the meanings co-exist, and it quickly becomes apparent that this is a deliberate strategy. Woven throughout the song are statements that suggest the impossibility of articulating exactly how great this person is. In literature, this is sometimes called the ‘inexpressibility topos’, as in, ‘I love you more than words can say’. ‘Such would astound you’ is the first of these: it can be heard as ‘if I were able to accurately describe this person it would astonish you’, but the inexpressibility trope is clearer in the closing lines of the second verse, ‘Of these words I've tried to recite / They are close, but not quite / Almost impossible to do / Reciting the makings of you’. Mayfield’s skilful deployment of grammatical ambiguity allows him both a greater range of possible meanings but also puts across the song’s overarching point that words alone simply cannot capture the sense of this person.
The music displays a similarly skilful use of ambiguity - the song’s in F major but the harmony for most of the verses centres around the minor chords of the scale: the most common harmonic movement in the song - practically its riff - is a quick transition from A minor to D minor to G minor, and then there’s a rapid series of changes, none of which correspond to a standard tonal cadence. In fact the first time we get either the tonic or dominant is at the very end of the form, and only in the second verse do we hear the tonic: the first time the cadence at the end of the verse simply resolves onto that repeating minor-chord loop.
Rhythmically, it’s irregular: there’s no way of transcribing it without using bars of differing lengths: there are 2/4 bars, 4/4 bars, and arguably 6/4 bars pushed up against each other. The musical structure is designed to emphasise the twists and turns of the melody, as well as the fragmentary phrases of the lyrics. The melody seems to lead the other aspects of the music: we hear the singer patiently, you might say lovingly, leading the listener through the darker regions of the major scale until its final resolution to the tonic.
Mayfield’s songwriting demonstrates what happens when a songwriter has thoroughly internalised chord/melody relationships. The melody, apparently effortlessly and organically, leads the structure of bars and distribution of harmonic changes. But it’s also reminiscent of a moment in Mayfield’s biography when he’s talking about being a backing musician for the blues singer Jimmy Reed in the late 1950s: “Everybody had to circle him like he was the fire and we was circling around him to get warm … We all watched his mouth and watched his guitar because he was one of those guys that bars meant nothing to. He may change right in the middle, he may get back to the one and then back to the bass. But you had to watch him and keep tempo and change when he changed.” Reed’s song had to be followed according to what the voice did. Mayfield’s expert handling of melody and harmony is on one level a return to that older type of ‘lead’ vocals - one in which the melodic line literally leads the other musical elements, with harmony and arrangement falling into line behind it.
This approach to melody was part of the reason Mayfield felt the need to go solo at the end of the 1960s, an incredibly prolific and successful period during which he wrote dozens of hit songs for his band, the Impressions, as well as others. His son, Todd, in his recent biography of Mayfield, Traveling Soul, wrote of his father’s decision: ‘Having to account for three voices didn’t give him room to do much but sing on the beat. He couldn’t deliver lines in idiosyncratic ways that came to him spontaneously’. ‘The Makings of You’ is the third song on his first solo album, released in 1970, simply called Curtis. The album as a whole demonstrates how leaving the Impressions allowed him that freedom, and also allowed him a freer rein to compose arrangements and conceptualise the album’s sound-world more coherently and adventurously than he’d ever done.
The album opens with the incendiary ‘If There’s A Hell Below We’re All Going to Go’, a searing protest song which takes aim at the whole structure of American power, from the police to the criminal justice system to President Nixon himself. Mayfield places his community’s descent into disintegration and despair firmly in the context of wholesale neglect by the ruling class, sounding a vicious warning note: ‘but they don’t know/there can be no show/and if there’s a hell below/we’re all going to go’. The sonic setting directly reflects this: a grizzly, growling bass, chaotic, disorienting, semi-comprehensible chatter that seems to mock the Biblical notion of justice - the idea that the evil will go to hell and the good will be saved - and a scream, signalling not just Mayfield’s profound disappointment in his nation but a clear break with his musical past in the Impressions, which had been characterised by sweet-sounding harmony, delicate, lush arrangements, and lyrics which embodied the gospel vision of the long arc of the moral universe bending towards justice.
The track which follows it, ‘The Other Side of Town’, expresses even deeper dejection. From the same era, Marvin Gaye’s amazing ‘Inner City Blues’ and Stevie Wonder’s ‘Living for the City’ are comparable portrayals of what was going on in Black communities in American cities in the early ‘70s. But Mayfield committed more than anyone to depicting with scrupulous honesty the situation facing communities like the one he had grown up in, the Cabrini-Green Project in Chicago. When he writes in verse two, ‘Ghetto blues is showed on the news / All is aware … You across the track/Completely relaxed’, he demonstrated an awareness of the way the problems of urban poverty were framed and ignored, as well as the dilemmas facing men and women trying to live through it. A year later, Mayfield would compose the famous soundtrack to the film, Super Fly, which tells the story of Youngblood Prince, a powerful drug dealer and pimp in Harlem. Arguably Mayfield’s music demonstrates a greater depth of understanding than the film itself, capturing not only Youngblood’s outlaw glamour but also the desperation and damage of which he is both symptom and cause.
He hadn’t written any at this stage of his career but something of a ‘soundtrack mentality’ is present in his debut album - there’s the ambient, non-musical sounds of chatter he uses at the start of ‘Hell Below’, and he uses soundtrack-like orchestral devices such as the schmaltzy harp glissandi at the beginning of both ‘Other Side of Town’ and ‘The Makings of You’. They might be intended to reference the slow dissolve effect used in TV drama to indicate a daydream or flashback. Mayfield is sonically whisking us away in order to tell us a story - in ‘Other Side of Town’, it’s the grim reality of the inner city he’s detailing, in ‘Makings of You’, it’s an expression of love. By using the same framing device in both songs he places these expressions on equal footing: they say, these are both real and powerful aspects of my life. In all the writing I’ve managed to find about this song and this album it’s only ever been assumed that ‘The Makings of You’ simply represents a break from the serious matters of the rest of the album. It’s politics, then it’s love, then it’s back to politics again. Todd Mayfield, for instance, writes ‘the mood lightens briefly on the gorgeous ballad “The Makings of You” … one of my father’s most beautiful love songs … But the focus goes back to the message on [the track that follows it] “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue”’.
This is the point, however, where to grasp the full extent of what Mayfield was expressing in these songs we need to consider the deeper history of his music: what energies might be beating between its lines, what memories and attachments it might be carrying. Remember those thoughts of James Baldwin I mentioned in episode three, from his 1962 essay The Fire Next Time, when he’s talking about the bittersweet quality of blues songs, the way they can contain sadness in an apparently happy song, and vice versa: ‘In all jazz, and especially in the blues, there is something tart and ironic, authoritative and double-edged.’ He goes on: ‘White Americans seem to feel that happy songs are happy and sad songs are sad … White Americans do not understand the depths out of which such an ironic tenacity comes’
We’re back at the idea of layers of meaning: irony, after all, is the conscious presence of meaning behind what is being stated - meaning which is indicated by the speaker for the listener, or at least, the particular listener who can understand the irony at play. Baldwin makes it clear that, with jazz and blues music, plenty do not understand. Baldwin knew how much in Black music, and in Black American language generally, was specifically intended not to be understood by a white listener. There’s a clip of him answering a question from a white student at Berkeley University in 1974, on some aspect of African American language use, and he responds by gesturing at his host, also an African American man, and saying that 'there was a time when I needed to talk to him without being understood by someone like you...'.
Baldwin would also have been aware of the analysis of meaning and language in a book written decades earlier, by WEB DuBois, in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk. This seminal book, which famously opens with the sentence, 'The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line', evokes the experience of racism in the United States in the period following the failure of Reconstruction. Tellingly, each chapter has, as an epigraph, a musical quotation, a fragment of musical notation of songs derived from slave communities, what DuBois called the Sorrow Songs, many of which are still familiar to us, songs like Go Down Moses, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, and Steal Away.
[music - ‘Steal Away’]
The book culminates in a final essay entitled, 'The Sorrow Songs'. DuBois, in a characteristically visionary passage, writes about the ‘veiled’ meaning of such songs:
'What are these songs, and what do they mean? I know little of music and can say nothing in technical phrase, but I know something of men, and knowing them, I know that these songs are the articulate message of the slave to the world ... They are the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world'
This passage in turn echoes an episode from the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, the writer and ex-slave who became a figurehead for the pre-Civil War abolition movement. DuBois, when asserting that these songs, in a veiled but undeniable way, were ‘the articulate message of the slave to the world’, may well have been thinking of this moment, when Douglass is describing the one day in the month - 'allowance-day' - when the slaves would be allowed a day off and the chance to occupy themselves:
'they would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness ... They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone ... I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs ... They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension ... If any one wishes to be impressed with the soul-killing effects of slavery, let him go to Colonel Lloyd’s plantation, and, on allowance-day, place himself in the deep pine woods, and there let him, in silence, analyze the sounds that shall pass through the chambers of his soul ... I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.'
This extraordinary passage contains in microcosm so much of what is crucial to the whole history of American song that follows from it, including the way white listeners, who Douglass alludes to as the ‘persons’ he encountered after escaping to the North, in generation after generation, have consistently misheard and sterilised this music. To a white musician like myself, who draws deeply on African American musical traditions, these texts serve as a bracing reminder that not only will I have missed much of what’s important in music like the blues but that to a great extent it has its origins in a language which came into being precisely in order to disguise its true meaning from someone like me.
And of course, when Douglass describes the slaves expressing 'the most pathetic [which here means sad or tragic] sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone', he grasps at once the tendency of African American song towards a deliberate disjunct between tone and meaning: it’s close to the double-edged, authoritative 'something' Baldwin heard in the blues, a willed ambiguity, a deeply-embedded irony, which relies on the artist and audience's mutual understanding that much more is being said than what is strictly stated.
We see it at work in gospel music of the 1950s, which became the musical counterpart to the civil rights movement. Mahalia Jackson, who performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial directly before Martin Luther King gave his 'I have a dream' speech, became this music's most prominent figure. As music historian Craig Werner writes:
'When Mahalia sings that she’s going to make heaven her home, she’s most certainly singing about saving her soul. When she moves on up, her destination is a place by the side of Jesus. But she’s also, and without any sense of contradiction, singing about freedom, moving up to full participation in American society.'
It's into this tradition that a young Curtis Mayfield steps when he starts writing songs at the end of the 1950s, though by that point, thanks chiefly to Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, gospel music had merged with secular rhythm & blues, so he writes not gospel but soul, and writes explicitly and repeatedly of exactly this 'moving on up'. In songs like 'Keep on Pushing', 'Amen' and most famously, 'People Get Ready', Mayfield was able to address the theme of racial injustice and connect with the movement in his music far earlier than most, because he kept his commentary within the tradition of politically-charged gospel. Black audiences understood the symbolic significance of the train to Jordan, the need to be ready, to move on up. That this was indeed the only means of him making any kind of political comment is illustrated by the fact that his song 'We're a Winner' was banned from radio in 1967 as it contained a rare explicit reference to Martin Luther King.
[music - ‘The Makings of You’]
What then, might Mayfield be speaking of in the second verse of ‘Makings of You’ when he talks of ‘the righteous way to go’? His memory of growing up in the Cabrini-Green project might give a clue: ‘I learned through the streets and through the wise old people. I used to love to listen to old folks … I got my learning talking to elderly people who’d had to do the same because of the times … that was the only way to get a learning’. Mayfield, in this song, is positioning himself as just such an elder, addressing a younger person, leading them towards the ‘righteous way’, via that melody which leads the music through the minor chords of the scale towards a final resolution into the home chord of F major. This notion of Curtis as an elder, lovingly offering support and encouragement to a community he knows is in pain, is even clearer in the famous ‘Move On Up’, the opening track on the second side of this album, which begins with the words, ‘Hush now child / and don’t you cry’. He’s careful not to be hectoring though - when he sings ‘or believe if I told them so, you’re second to none’ in ‘Makings of You’, he shows an understanding of the self-doubt that poverty and discrimination produced in the people raised in communities like his. The line, ‘you’re second to none’, which can be heard as an expression of romantic appreciation, is surely also an affirmation of the value of Black life, a rejection of second-class status.
Finally, the culmination of the song - ‘the love of all mankind / should reflect some sign / of these words I’ve tried to recite’ - makes it clear that his lyrics - the ‘words’ he’s trying to recite - involve something broader than just a pledge to one person, they concern ‘all mankind’, but I think what’s going on here is more substantial than simply revealing a ‘hidden meaning’. Just as with the ambiguities in the first verse, we’re meant to hear all these possible meanings simultaneously. It amounts to a comment on the nature of love: that romantic and social love are not as distinct as they may appear to be, that the love someone has for his or her partner may in some way be a microcosm of the love they feel for his community, and is not separate from it. In the way that soul recordings which concern conflict between men and women have often been read as relating to social strife - think of Stevie Wonder’s version of ‘We Can Work It Out’ for instance - Mayfield’s song combines romantic devotion with a conception of idealised social harmony: a righteous, universal America, one in which no one is second to anyone else.
What’s so brilliant about this is how, very delicately, the song simultaneously acknowledges how implausible that vision might be: the inexpressibility topos in ‘these words I’ve tried to recite, they are close but not quite’ becomes ‘it’s almost impossible to conceive of such a world’ and, in the song’s context on the album, where it’s sandwiched between unflinching portrayals of the desperation and anguish of his community, it’s clear Mayfield knows just how far the world falls short of his vision. But consider contemporary American poet Kevin Young on the use of allegory in Black culture, what he calls ‘storying’:
‘We are the ones on the plantation speaking and singing to each other in code, to let others know our intent - such art and artfulness precede what sets us free, and more often than not, are the code by which that freedom is achieved. If we cannot first imagine freedom, we cannot actually achieve it.’
Curtis Mayfield, this most subtle and profound of political songwriters, was able to do just this, and with his music to offer an embodied symbol of ideal leadership: one characterised by a frank appraisal of the world as it is, a vision of what it should be, and hope, that in the love we have for the people we’re closest to, there might be the seeds of a wider, more generous love, one that would extend to the whole community, and indeed beyond it.