This week I found out that Booker T. and the M.G.s have more than one song.
I suppose, intellectually, I knew that must be the case, but I’d only ever knowingly heard one of them. You’ve heard it, too. I can’t give you any words to help you recognize it. This being print, I can’t hum it for you — actually, I probably couldn’t hum it, anyway — but I know you know it. You might not have heard of Booker T. and the M.G.s, and you might not know that the song is called Green Onions. I promise, though, you would only have to hear the first two chords — the very first second of the song — and you would know exactly what song this is. It’s been on something like 40 film soundtracks and I have no idea how many TV shows or movie trailers. It’s the song that comes on in the movie trailer when the guy who’s been stepped on one too many times puts on his wayfarer sunglasses or his leather jacket, and he walks out into the sun or through the bar, and he means business.
I can’t tell you whether or not that scene has ever literally happened on screen, but that’s the moment Green Onions evokes. It’s an underground club with a low stage, where smoke hangs in the air for weeks at a time. It’s the Technicolor shot of a woman leaning against a classic car on a hot dusty road at a time when the car was far too new to be a classic. It’s Booker T. on an oozing Hammond organ and Steve Cropper with a spiky Fender sound. It’s cool. It’s cool in the way that only 1962 can ever be cool. There’s other kinds of “cool,” of course, but there’s something particularly smooth about that 1962 kind.
There’s another kind of cool that comes with Green Onions, though. Booker T. and the M.G.s are probably best known for this particular song, but you’re just as likely to have heard them backing the likes of Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, or Eddie Floyd. They were the house band for the Stax/Volt label: the punchier, grooving Southern soul counterpart to the lushly orchestrated Motown soul coming out of Detroit.
More than just the music, though, the very fact of the band’s existence is pretty exceptional. In Jim Crow-era Memphis, half the band members were white, and half of them were black. Booker T. and the M.G.s were one of the first modern racially integrated bands in the United States. So, besides sounding cool and writing good music, they were part of a movement, intentionally or not. As it did so many times in the 20th century, music became a symbol of and a source for change, normalizing difference and challenging prejudice simply by existing as it was.
I don’t know about you, but in some ways these days have been feeling like the 1960s. Ferguson and Baltimore in 2014 and 2015 feel a little bit like Detroit and, well, Baltimore in 1967 and 1968. The bubbling unrest bred of poverty, oppression, and violence is erupting. Watching these things unfold, I’ve got the voices of Doctors West and King in my head: “the capacity to create social chaos is the last resort of desperate people,” and “a riot is the language of the unheard,” respectively. At home in Canada, we are being called to account for our own failures when it comes to how we have disenfranchised people and communities, and our government is largely ignoring that call. Are things better than they were back in the 1960s? In some ways, yeah. But right now, I’m not sure I want to commit to saying they’re much better. Some things are just too wrong in too many ways, and as communities, we have been too complacent for too long.
It’s a bit like the song, and I don’t think it’s disrespectful to compare them, because I honestly believe music is that important. However cool Green Onions is, when a song becomes as ubiquitous as it has, it’s easy to forget the feeling it evoked the first time you heard it. It ranges into a cliché it never should have been, only too many people used it too many times, and it loses the feel that made it so loved in the first place.
But then, you hear Soul Dressing by the same band for the first time, and anything Green Onions ever made you feel comes flooding back. And you’re very close to phoning the person who gave you this album to thank him for bringing that feeling back into your life. Then you realize it’s quite late where you are, and with the time difference between you, that would really just be cruel. So you tell yourself you’ll phone him tomorrow. But tonight, the song — it wakes you up. It makes you feel something.
I just hope we wake up and we feel something. Soon.
Ward is a Saskatoon-based freelance writer who spends her days (and most nights) working at a small Catholic college. Her less eloquent thoughts can be found at www.twitter.com/newsetofstrings