Episode 8: There's No Place Like America Today (Curtis Mayfield, 1975)
Curtis Mayfield's 1975 album, There’s No Place Like America Today, opens with “Billy Jack,” a song depressingly au courant in its subject matter, detailing as it does the almost matter-of-fact gunning down of a black man. "Don't get me wrong, the man is gone," we hear Mayfield sing plaintively, "but it's a wonder he lived this long."
Hard times indeed.
Mayfield details the harsh inequities of American life through funky melancholy. "Seasons Change," which follows "Billy Jack," and begins with nearly 20 seconds of a lone, funereal church bell, bespeaks the arrival of political and social winter that brings with it "scars that scare you to remember" and asks how anyone can survive, so weak and vulnerable, in such conditions. The message he advances here, and throughout the album, is to take strength and comfort in yourself; look inward, "'cause the world is cold and everybody's bold, and there's no one else."
The spare production and understated arrangements, like Mayfield's airy falsetto delivery itself, are deceptive. There are multitudes contained within these album walls and relistens reveal and reward. “I try to choose a lyric that is understood by all," Mayfield said, "but hip enough for those who want to get into something a little deeper.”
The album's cover art depicts, in muted colors, a line of individuals on a city sidewalk, each wearing a heavy coat and most toting bag, basket, or bucket, presumably in line for a handout. All of them are black.
The picture’s resonance is fully felt when one takes in the ironically situated, massive, full-color billboard directly behind the line of people, proclaiming, in an exuberant brush script font, the album’s title, “There’s No Place Like America Today,” accompanied by an image of a smiling and self-satisfied white family riding along in their shiny blue car.
The painted image was adapted from a near identical Margaret Bourke-White photograph taken in 1937 in Kentucky, in the aftermath of the Great Ohio River Flood.
Bourke-White would later say, "Sometimes I come away from what I am photographing sick at heart, with the faces of people in pain etched as sharply in my mind as my negatives. But I go back because I feel it is my place to make such pictures. Utter truth is essential, and that is what stirs me when I look through the camera."
Viewed without its original context, in 1975, this album's cover art told a contemporary tale of two cities that was pithy, clear-eyed and, in the end, one that was just as utterly true as Bourke-White's original photograph, taken nearly four decade earlier. So too is Curtis Mayfield's music eerily current and true 40 years after its release, easily mapped onto America Today.
I'm Josh Rutner, and that's your album of the week.