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Be Thankful For What You Got.

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Posted this last Thanksgiving but thought it’d be appropriate again, so I drastically rewrote it and here it is. Have a good holiday.-b

Like What’s Going On? or all those Sly and Curtis albums, William DeVaughn’s 1974 album Be Thankful For What You Got is politically-minded soul–but it’s also quieter than those message music classics. Less concerned with tackling the big picture head-on, DeVaughn’s record is fascinated with all the smaller things that made Marvin wanna holler and made Curtis confident that if there’s a hell below, we were all gonna go. It’s a minor soul masterpiece tinted with a “the people’s history” approach.

Be Thankful For What You Got’s focus is less the world’s problems than those directly affected by those problems. Opening track, “Give the Little Man a Great Big Hand” celebrates the guy behind the desk or the dude who picks up your trash without reducing the titular “little man” to a symbol of this or that. The less explicit point of the song though is, “no one else is paying attention to regular-ass people” and that’s particularly true in times of historical turbulence and change, which was the climate of 1974–when the country was coming out of Vietnam, the boiling over of Watergate, when Patty Hearst was kidnapped, when Hank Aaron beat Babe Ruth’s homerun record, when the “Rumble in the Jungle” took place, when Beverly Johnson smiled proudly from the cover of Vogue.

That’s to say, in an attempt to bottle-up all the socio-political insight and outrage and even joy roving around, the piece of art that’s “political” often loses track of the people really being twisted and turned by that history. So, when DeVaughn’s album begins with a polite guitar and the sound effects of a room applauding, it’s a gift to the people often skimmed over for that broader, sweeping message about the state of the nation.

And on “Something’s Being Done”, the album’s sorta reassuring closer, DeVaughn assures listeners that change will come and stuff will get better. The fact that stuff’s not currently all that good–the focus of most political music–sits around in the background: He wouldn’t have to tell listeners things will be better if they weren’t bad right now. That DeVaughn looks ahead with a little less cynicism than other political soulsters and rockers probably has a lot to do with DeVaughn still being “the little man” himself.

DeVaughn’s sensitive to “the little man”, so he knows that hearing how bad everything is, all the time, is a little unnecessary, even obnoxious, because “the little man” knows it, sees it, and lives it, day in and day out. When a big star get political, it’s noble, but it’s decadent too; rarely do the the concerns of the singer/artist affect that artist on a palpable, daily basis. And it’s this disinterest in trying to be a voice of the generation musician and just being a thinking, affected-by-shit singer instead that makes Be Thankful… so humane and wisely closed-off from giant statements.

“We Are His Children” is a simple celebration of God. “You Can Do It” takes on vice and kindly urges people to stop drinking too much at parties. “Kiss and Make Up” encourages reconciliation, getting over the little stuff and moving on. There’s a brilliant, teasing aspect to the chorus, where DeVaughn coos “Let’s kiss…and make up” and that “make” plays on the tens of thousands of love songs heard and you expect it to be, “Let’s kiss and make love”.

But it isn’t. For now, DeVaughn’s concerned with the very immediate present of just not arguing or “taking off our rings”. It’s like that scene in Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep where works-in-a-slaughterhouse Stan embraces a dance with his wife but quietly rejects her increasingly feverish advances for sex–because shit’s just too heavy on his mind, body, and soul. “Kiss and Make Up” has that kind of world-weary, wordly-wise sensitivity inside of it. 70’s soul merged with political let’s get-alongs bumping into let’s get it ons.

Another reason for DeVaughn’s specific form of modest social protest meets “it could be worse” appreciation may be his roots in Washington, DC. Marvin Gaye too, was from DC, but Marvin was already a celebrity by the 70s, no longer as closely connected to the city. DeVaughn sang on the side and worked for the government until he stumbled upon the soon-to-be-classic “Be Thankful For What You Got”. Gaye addressed the politics with a question, DeVaughn answers with a sincere but simple statement. This is common for people from or residing in the District. They’re way closer to politricks than the rest of us, and are more apt to digest the bullshit and come up with a pithy answer, and skip over the self-righteous indignation stage.

Musically too, it resides somewhere between comfort and ready-to-break-out ennui. Quite a few songs kick-off with a memorable slam of drums or stab of strings (“We Are His Children”, “Sing a Love Song”) before politely slipping into a groove, like that first moment of knee-jerk frustration with something on CNN followed by the point where you get your head around it a little more and actually process the reality of it all. Take the title track, which is all slow-burn atmospheric organ, with some plucked funk guitar that all just sits back and supports DeVaughn’s brilliant chorus that lays out what “you may not have” (“Diamond in the back, sun roof top, diggin’ the scene with a gangsta lean”) all the while assuring you that it’s okay to not have it and that you can “still stand tall”.

Though DeVaughn’s answer isn’t as attractive as Marvin’s rhetorical question, it’s not as simple or besides the point as one might think. DeVaughn’s not so much telling you not to freak, or to just chill-out–indeed, you don’t sing this much about how we don’t have to worry if you’re not worried–as he is adding some right-minded moderation to Marvin’s message from the year before, eschewing the get-with-it cynicism for minor victory appreciation.

further reading/viewing:

-Funk My Soul on Be Thankful…
-Killer of Sheep Trailer
-Beverly Johnson on her Vogue Cover

Written by Brandon

November 26th, 2009 at 12:26 am

Posted in William Devaughn, soul

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