“money blues (parts 1, 2, & 3) – archie shepp (1971)


There is a lot of power in music.  At its most basic level, the sounds make human beings gyrate and sway in time with the rhythm.  Driving percussive beats and harmonizing chants appeal to a ritualistic part of our brain that evoke movement.  It is as if we feel the music.  The form has evolved over generations and serves as a kind of spiritual means of expressing one’s self.

Another aspect of that power comes from the message.  What is being said can be as impactful as how it is being said.  Sometimes, it isn’t enough to be drawn by the music itself.  Some of the allure comes connecting with the vocals.  At that point, the music just because the medium that is part of the great human tradition of oral history.  Sharing our stories and passing down our beliefs and background from one group to the next.  From one generation to the next.

You can’t find a more winning combo than if you’ve got a groove that moves you and a statement that makes you think.  That’s a moment when a song can be greater than the sum of its parts.  Though, can music change the world? Probably not.  At least, not on its own.  However, it is what we choose to do with such a great gift that makes us realize our truest potential and defining ourselves.

While Archie Shepp is not as famous as some of the other artists signed to Impulse! Records such as John Coltrane, he is undoubtedly a pioneer in both jazz music and civil rights.  A powerful saxophonist, Shepp expanded the breadth of Afrocentric music and its social consciousness.

Shepp played on the early sessions of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme but would not make the final cut.  However, that is not a bad place to start honing your talent under the direction of jazz’s most famous and influential saxophonist.  In 1965, Shepp was influenced by African music and incorporated that into his studio recordings.  He also paid homage to civil rights leaders in his music including reading an elegy for Malcolm X on his album Fire Music.

As other jazz musicians were being influenced by African music traditions, Shepp was leading the way in developing the form and incorporating avant-garde musical elements into his recordings.  His work would become a political musical force raising awareness for a variety of social issues.

In 1971, Shepp released one his finest studio albums Things Have Got to Change.  Side two contains a tribute to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. entitled “Dr. King, The Peaceful Warrior” and closes out with a free-form two-part avant garde piece “Things Have Got to Change;” a track filled with social commentary about the African-American civil rights struggle.

It is side one, however, that contains the record’s jewel track.  “Money Blues,” arranged in three parts, is a monster of a song running at nearly 18 and a half minutes.  This radical track features a large ensemble of blues and jazz musicians and a stellar vocal choir.  Throughout the song, Shepp is talking about his money and demanding that it be given to him.  The choir in the backgrounds chants throughout about them working all day and repeating the word “money” as if they are participating in some great ritual.

Shepp doesn’t think that exploitation of the African-American community is not funny as he chants his demand through the song.  His vision and message and clear simple.  Give him his money.  This desire for respect in the form of financial contribution evokes a lot of emotion, anger, and exhaustion.  Shepp is tired of all this and wants to go in.  The energy, heard in the driving percussion, frenetic saxophone, and choir chants is palpable.

There’s a lot of injustice in the world today as our leaders continue to assume all the wealth and create divisiveness within the most vulnerable communities.  This must change and I wish it was as simple as just snapping your fingers.  But, that isn’t the case.  People are angry and fighting against their oppressors.  Shepp sings that he hopes he doesn’t have to get angry to get his money.  But, he should and so do the other people who struggle along with him.  “Money Blues” is a great track that evokes a powerful message and offers motivation to seek justice in a world where such a concept is so rare.  While the people in power take away, the only solution is to demand what is yours and to fight for everything because everything is what is at stake.