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Great covers: Curtis Mayfield 1975

September 1st, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

The message of the cover of Curtis Mayfield’s 1975 album There’s No Place Like America Today is unambiguously direct: the American dream is a lie when there is so great a disparity in the experience of comforts among Americans. The happy, white middle-class family is symbolically running over the (mostly black) poor on their way to a promising future. Curtis Mayfield, always the most eloquent political spokesman among the soul men, is calling bullshit on the great American delusion. Note also how the billboard serves as a front — a physical barrier as well as a tool of propaganda — for the capitalist palaces and at the same time shields them from the poor in the welfare queue. It’s also striking that the Rockwellian billboard image recalls the 1950s, while the welfare line evokes the Great Depression, communicating the notion that the great lie and the divide between American affluence and poverty transcends generations.

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The cover illustration was by the artist Peter Palombi, whose striking airbrush art decorated many living room walls, magazines — including a 1974 cover of the Rolling Stone (right) — and album covers (such as Eddie Harris’ This is Why You’re Overweight, George Benson’s Breezin’, The Ventures’ 10th Annversary Album, I.O.B.’s Impact Of Brass) in the 1970s and ’80s. It was based on a photo by Margaret Bourke-White taken in 1937 in the aftermath of the Louisville floods (see the photo here; thanks to Colin and Stephan for referring me to the pic). Note how the mother in the photo is smiling; in the cover art she looks positively pissed off; at American male chauvinism perhaps?

Released in 1975, There’s No Place Like America Today coincided with the winter of exhausted inner city discontent that followed the hot, heady days of the civil rights era, Malcolm X and Black Panthers. Like his more freestyling contemporary Gil Scott-Heron, Mayfield articulated the frustrations and doubts of African-Americans, liberated from American apartheid but not from prejudice and racism and economic oppression. But the album is not a political tract; rather, it delivers potent social commentary – the fate of Superfly gangster Billy Jack in the set’s funkiest track, the triumph of egotism over communal aspirations in Hard Times (written in 1969 and first recorded by Baby Huey, but prophetic in its anticipation of the 1980s mindset), the lingering pain of oppression in the melodically lovely When The Seasons Change, a call for (black) solidarity in Love To The People, the exhausted sorrow in Blue Monday People…

Even when Mayfield seems to leaven things with a gospel number, it is within the context of social anguish which Mayfield proposes can be redeemed only through Jesus. The solitary love song, the beautiful So In Love, is an oasis of tranquillity in this wasteland of despondency. It may seem a random inclusion, but it isn’t — love, honest and faithful, offers relief from and sustenance in an unjust society. In the context of There’s No Place Like America Today, the love song is not an exercise in banality (with Curtis, it rarely was anyway) but a profound statement.

Curtis Mayfield –  So In Love.mp3
Curtis Mayfield –  Billy Jack.mp3

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  1. Colin
    September 1st, 2009 at 19:14 | #1

    The cover is actually derived from a WPA-era photo by Margaret Bourke-White – see original here: http://billysothern.blogspot.com/2009/07/margaret-bourke-white.html
    Fantastic site – love all your special features, especially the album covers and originals series.

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