James Brown and the American Dream of the ‘60s
The American Dream is defined in the Random House dictionary as “the ideals of freedom, equality, and opportunity traditionally held to be available to every American” (Random House 1). However, most Americans strive towards the American Dream without knowing this definition. That is because you cannot give the American Dream a clear definition, it has an ever changing meaning. The American Dream of today is certainly not the same as what it was fifty years ago. In fact, fifty years ago in the 1960s the American Dream was simply peace, freedom and equality. During this time, the Civil Rights Movement was taking place in which African Americans were fighting for their freedom. There were many men and women who emerged as extremely influential people in the movement; one of them being James Brown. James Brown grew up in hard times and somehow managed to make a name for himself in times where it was almost impossible for African Americans to get any recognition. Throughout his life James Brown struggled with everything from personal tragedy to addiction to crime. Despite all of this, James Brown achieved the American Dream of the 1960s by prospering in the music industry during a time of segregation while fighting for his beliefs through his music. The “Godfather of Soul”, the “Inventor of Funk”, James Brown was an extremely popular and influential artist of the 1960s (“James Joe Brown Jr.” 1). Yet his fame was unequivocally not handed to him. He put his blood, sweat and tears into his music and his career. James Brown was born into extreme privation in rural South Carolina. He was so poor he was sent home from school once because of “insufficient clothing” (“James Joe Brown Jr.” 1). Nevertheless, Brown overcame the obstacles in his life and became one of the most successful men in the entertainment industry during the 1960s. At this point in time, this was a very arduous thing to accomplish.
The 1960s was saturated with important events; enough things occurred in this decade to fill an entire century. Music, of course, played a significant role in the 1960s; Rock n’ Roll was born. Along with the new music came hippies, drugs and a sexual revolution. In addition, there was the Vietnam War which caused major protests all around the country. Above all, the most defining characteristic of the sixties was the Civil Rights Movement (O’Neil ix). Of course there was also JFK’s assassination, women’s liberation and the first man to walk on the moon (Brokaw xi).
With all of these affairs manifesting, the American Dream of the sixties was clearly established. To put it as simplistic as possible, Americans wanted change. They strove for peace and love; they dreamt of security, of equal rights and of prosperity. To make this dream come true, there were thousands of protests and demonstrations. The start of all these demonstrations can be traced back to one woman (Neary 110).
This brave African American woman, Rosa Parks, decided one day that she would not give up her seat on the bus to a white person. Due to her actions, she was arrested. Even though she was brought to jail, her efforts sparked a revolution. Both African Americans and whites began protesting in a myriad of ways. There were sit-ins in which African Americans would go to a restaurant and when they were refused service, they would simply sit there all day taking up space. Then there was also the “freedom riders”. Additionally, there was a March on Washington where MLK gave his famous “I have a dream...” speech (Neary 110). All of these protests show that Americans were fighting for equality.
Then, when the Vietnam War was occurring, most Americans opposed the war. They didn’t see the need for countless lives to be lost. Therefore, antiwar demonstrators held many protests in which they yelled their motto, “Hell, no, we won’t go”. They dressed as skeletons or carried coffins to commemorate all of the valiant soldiers who lost their lives in the war. Some even dressed as Nixon and Johnson to mock them. Furthermore, groups would gather to burn their draft cards to show just how much they opposed the war (Neary 110). These protests depict America’s wanting for peace and love.
Now that the American Dream of the 1960s has been established, it is clear that James Brown achieved and even surpassed this dream. In the sixties there was racism and discrimination virtually everywhere. Brown grew up in segregated South Carolina (“James Joe Brown Jr.” 1). Despite all of this, Brown achieved equality, freedom and peace. By the end of his career he had as many white fans as he did black (Otfinoski 2). His fans did not care what color he was, all they cared about was the music he played; that is a clear depiction of equality.
James Brown did not just draw crowds based on his music; people came to see him perform. Brown was the original Elvis with his “wild wailing, athletic gyrations and hysterical dramatics” (Otfinoski 2). Eventually white people became interested in his music and by 1964 he had gained the attention of the white population (Otfinoski 2). It may not seem like a big deal, but during this time white people liking African American music was indeed a very big deal. James Brown offers the argument that “In many ways, the entire Civil Rights Movement began when a white kid in the audience stood up and cheered for a black performer." (Brown 48). James Brown "toured relentlessly" and worked diligently (“James Joe Brown Jr.” 3). In the end, his hard work paid off and was nationally recognized. He won his first Grammy for his breakout song "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" for best R&B song (Pareles 3). Then he received a second Grammy for best R&B recording with his song "Living in America" that appeared in the film Rocky IV. Lastly he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement award (Pareles 4). Brown received numerous other awards and was one of the “very first musicians inducted into the Rock n’ Roll hall of fame” (“James Joe Brown Jr.” 5). Receiving all of this recognition and fame was genuinely remarkable when only ten years ago it was nearly impossible for African American artists to be acknowledged. James Brown knew that he had achieved equality; he points out that, “Others may have followed in my wake, but I was the one who turned racist minstrelsy into black soul-and by doing so, became a cultural force” (qtd in “James Joe Brown Jr.” 6).
James Brown also played a vital role himself in the Civil Rights Movement. He stood up for his beliefs through both his music and actions. To begin his participation in the Civil Rights Movement, Brown made a song titled “Don’t Be a Dropout” (“James Joe Brown Jr.” 4). His goal was to influence African American children to stay in school. Brown wanted to instill the importance of education. Moreover, he wanted kids to stay in school to keep them off streets and out of trouble. In the words of James Brown, “I tell them to get an education, and I don’t talk down to them. I come from the ghetto and I still have my shoeshine box in my hand” (qtd in Otfinoski 2). Throughout his life James Brown donated a substantial amount of money to “black communities” (Otfinoski 2).
Then, Brown wrote another song, "Say it Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" (“James Joe Brown Jr.”). This song was so inspiring that it became a “protest anthem that has unified and inspired generations.” His lyrics depicted a clear message: Brown did not want anyone to be ashamed that they were black. Being black was something to be proud of and he used this song to prove it (Shmoop Editorial Team 1). His song was released when there were extreme adjustments being made throughout the Civil Rights Movement. African Americans no longer only wanted the right to vote, they wanted complete equality. In the song James Brown emphasizes this; his song “calls for blacks to become more economically self-sufficient” (Shmoop Editorial Team 2). Also, in the lyrics James Brown sings “We’d rather die on our feet than be living on our knees” (qtd in Shmoop Editorial Team 2). This is such an assertive line; it sends the message to all African Americans to stand up for their freedom rather than suffering as they were.
Lastly, when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, many African Americans were outraged (Pareles 3). MLK believed in peaceful protesting so it was completely unfair for him to be killed in such a violent way. Therefore, when he was assassinated riots and violent protesting broke out all over the country (Pareles 3). That weekend James Brown had a concert in Boston; rather than cancelling like most artists because of the dangerous conditions Brown not only performed the concert, but made it televised in an attempt to subdue the riots. His efforts worked since most either went to the concert or stayed home to watch it on television. Brown encouraged nonviolence during his performance by telling everyone this: “Don’t just react in a way that is going to destroy your community” (Pareles 3).
James Brown inevitably achieved the American Dream of the 1960’s even though he had to face numerous adversities that almost prevented him from doing so. As a child, James Brown was born into immeasurable poverty. He grew up with his Aunt who owned a brothel. Brown did anything he could to make money; he shined shoes, picked cotton, danced for soldiers and washed cars. At 16, Brown was arrested for stealing a car and sentenced to 3 years in jail (“James Joe Brown Jr.” 1). He was incarcerated once again for fifteen months at the age of 55 for leading police in a car chase (“James Joe Brown Jr.” 5). Additionally, later on in his career he generated financial troubles; the IRS wanted millions back in taxes and his three radio stations failed (Otfinoski 2). Due to this James fell into a depression and developed an addiction. However, after attending rehab James Brown returned to his old self, made a comeback and began touring again (“James Joe Brown Jr.” 5). James Brown may have started from the bottom and he may have made mistakes, but he worked hard to get to the top of the industry. James Brown once said, “I’m the hardest working man in show business, and I’m not going to let them down.” (qtd in Pareles 1).
In conclusion, the American Dream is an ever changing reality. In reviewing the American Dream of the 60’s, standout personalities are recognized in the likes of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and of course James Brown. Nevertheless, James Brown epitomized the ‘60s dream of freedom, equality and peace by rising out of poverty, achieving financial success and becoming a role model to both African Americans and whites. James Brown, through his actions and music, inevitably achieved the American Dream of the 1960’s. Brown once said, “As I always said, if people wanted to know who James Brown is, all they have to do is listen to my music.” (qtd in “James Joe Brown Jr.” 6).
Works Cited "American Dream." Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 02 Apr. 2013. . Brokaw, Tom, and John Neary. Life: The ‘60s. Ed. Doris C. O’Neil. Chicago: Bulfinch, 1989. Print. Brown, James. I Feel Good: A Memoir of a Life of Soul. New York: Penguin Group, 2008. Print. "James Joe Brown Jr." 2013. The Biography Channel website. Apr 02 2013, 08:53 . Jon, Pareles. “James Brown, the ‘Godfather of Soul’ Dies at 73.” New York Times [New York] 26 Dec. 2006: n. pag. New York Times. Web. 26 Feb. 2013. Otfinoski, Steven. African Americans in the Performing Arts. N.p. 2003. Facts on File. Web. 26 Feb. 2013. Shmoop Editorial Team. "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud) Meaning" Shmoop.com. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 7 Apr. 2013.