On 11 February 2019 I set myself the challenging of reading 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die by Robert Dimery (ed.) and following the book’s advice to the letter. I’ve previously read 1001 Films… and started 1001 Albums… but felt 1001 Songs… would be a sensible place to start for what I have in mind here.
My challenge is to read about one song per day and listen to it (YouTube and Spotify, I need you tonight!) before sharing my own thoughts. Some songs I will love, others I’ll hate, and I’m sure there will be those that leave me perplexed but listen to them I shall.
I’ll also try, and most likely fail, to pinpoint the best song from the 1001 on offer but I’m nothing if not foolhardy. Instead of one song, I’m predicting I’ll have about 100 favourites by the end and may have to resort to a Top 10 so far to maintain any semblance of sanity.
So long as I post everyday (including Christmas) then this challenge should come to an end on Wednesday 8 November 2021. Staying with the Barney Stinson theme I am hoping that the whole experience will prove to be…
Syl Johnson – Is It Because I’m Black? (1969)
Having cooled off from the UK-French collaboration yesterday, it’s back to the US today, dear reader. Our artist today comes from Mississippi and his areas of expertise are soul and the blues. Starting his career in the late 1960s, Syl Johnson could turn his hand to many a hit but 1001 Songs has opted for a song that, although a hit also, is more notable for its commentary on American society at this time – Is It Because I’m Black?
In Is It Because I’m Black? Syl Johnson takes us through more than 7 minutes of heart-rending blues. The lyrics take a long hard look at America, and probably the world to be honest, and recognises the disparity between white people and black people. Johnson laments that he hasn’t achieved the things he wanted to do and wonders if it is because of the colour of his skin. His mother worked hard and had little reward for her effort. Johnson calls on brothers and sisters to unite and to not accept this injustice anymore. He wants black people to be treated the same, to have the same opportunities at white people that are holding back the black community from thriving. This intolerance of black people is resulting in tragic tales of innocent people turning to crime to get by. Johnson hopes for a better future than the present he writes and sings about.
I was not familiar with Syl Johnson prior to this 1001 Songs Challenge but was blown away by Is It Because I’m Black? I consider myself an open-minded person and I abhor racism. I’ve never understood automatic hatred of a person due to the colour of their skin. Johnson writes here of a very real injustice in history that has affected black people and, sadly, it still does to this day with tragic headlines coming from the US of innocent black Americans being shot and killed. I wonder what Johnson thinks of it all, now a man in his 80s and 50 years on from this song? For a track that is seven minutes long, it feels like only two minutes to be honest. I would have happily listened to a track double the length but what is here is sincere and very relevant, sadly still so in the 21st century.
Favourite songs so far:
The Animals – House of the Rising Sun (1964)
Simon & Garfunkel – The Sounds of Silence (1965)
The Who – Substitute (1966)
The Rolling Stones – Paint It Black (1966)
The Beach Boys – God Only Knows (1966)
The Doors – The End (1967)
The Beatles – A Day in the Life (1967)
Procol Harum – A Whiter Shade of Pale (1967)
The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Voodoo Child (Slight Return) (1968)
The Kinks – Days (1968)