It is hardly surprising that most people today associate the word “funk” with such virtuoso performers as James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Labelle, Chaka Khan, Earth, Wind & Fire, Betty Davis, the Ohio Players, Prince, and many other R&B artists. Such was the power of funk music as such. But the actual concept of funk—what blues artists often called stank—was developed long before R&B singers and musicians created the genre of funk during the late 1960s and early 1970s. For instance, when New Orleans musician Pops Foster was asked about the legendary trumpeter Buddy Bolden (no relation), who dominated the music scene in New Orleans during the years immediately before and after 1900, Foster replied, “He played nothing but the blues and all that stink music, and he played it very loud.” Known as a preeminent crowd pleaser, Bolden called his theme song “Funky Butt,” which may have inspired the popular Funky Butt dance during this period.
The inimitable blues singer Bessie Smith also used the word “funk” in a manner that is virtually indistinguishable from its usage today. After performing in her hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1925, Smith was invited to an after-party in her honor in a predominantly black section of town. The party featured a live pianist, which was not especially noteworthy at the time. Pianists performed often at rent parties and other festive events, but there was something about the music that evening that immediately captured Smith’s attention. As she entered the party with a few of her girlfriends, Smith remarked in classic fashion, “The funk is flyin’.”
Conversely, many funk musicians have acknowledged the blues as the foundations of their aesthetics. Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner who was the lead singer and guitarist for the Ohio Players, one of the most influential bands in funk, was enthralled by Delta blues during his formative years. “That’s how I got started is copying [blues singer] Jimmy Reed,” says Bonner. Born in Hamilton, Ohio, in 1943, Bonner and his much younger friend, Roger Troutman, snuck into blues venues in Dayton to watch blues singer and guitarist Robert Ward who led a band named the Ohio Untouchables. And as luck would have it, Bonner eventually replaced Ward, and that group became the Ohio Players. The funk diva Betty Mabry Davis, a considerable influence on her husband, trumpeter Miles Davis, has also emphasized the influence of the blues on her aesthetic. And though the Godfather of Soul was unequivocal about his utter distaste for the blues, stating flatly, “I still don’t like the blues,” he has nonetheless acknowledged being influenced by saxophonist Louis Jordan who pioneered a style of rhythm and blues that was often called jump blues during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Moreover, while Brown thought of his 1965 recording “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” as his first funk song, Brown’s former saxophonist, Maceo Parker, has said that “New Bag” is “a simple blues.” And, finally, Troutman, who prefigured hip hop artists such as T-Pain’s and Kanye West’s experiments with the Auto-Tune with his performances with the talkbox, once described his music as “blues for the eighties.”
“Funk” predates other words such as “hot,” “soul,” “swing,” and, according to one etymology, existed in some form before African Americans arrived in the New World.
Funk music can therefore be interpreted as an updated expression of the blue aesthetic—what George Clinton calls “speeded-up blues.” Poet Kalamu ya Salaam corroborates this point when he references P-Funk as an exemplar of the blues aesthetic: “as parliament/funkadelic as cogently stated, the beautiful thing abt our blues based fantasies is that they are alternative visions to what exists in our world.” As reflected in Bessie Smith’s comment, funkiness represented the ultimate manifestation of artistic excellence in blues-oriented music. “Funk” is the oldest word in American English that denotes the sudden surge of emotions that Bessie Smith referenced. “Funk” predates other words such as “hot,” “soul,” “swing,” and, according to one etymology, existed in some form before African Americans arrived in the New World.
During the blues era, “funk” signified the pinnacle of the pleasure principle. The funk/spirit—or more simply, the funk—is really an impulse generated by the dynamic interplay between bodily motion and emotion. As such, funk is the secular counterpart of “the spirit” in black church worship. It means honesty at one’s deepest emotions. Perhaps the easiest way to understand funk is to think about the happiness people feel when they listen to their favorite songs: people snap their fingers, tap their feet, and they get on the dance floor and turn-up! This is what Bessie Smith meant when she said, “The funk is flyin’.”
Blues dancers and musicians began using the word “funk” near the turn of the 20th century. One of the earliest known uses of the term in blues culture was associated with the funkmaster Bolden. During the 1890s in New Orleans, Bolden began experimenting with a new style of music that fused ragtime, blues, and church hymns. He called his theme song “Funky Butt.” Bolden’s pivotal role as an innovator in blues tradition and his association with the song “Funky Butty” have been topics of considerable discussion. According to a newspaper account, several band members complained about a foul odor during a performance one evening, and either Bolden or his trombonist Willie Cornish went home and wrote the song. The next night the band played it, and the crowd went wild, so “Funky Butt” became a staple thereafter. But even though Bolden did not write his theme song, he exemplified many of the trademarks that became associated with (blue) funk. Born in 1877, Charles Joseph “Buddy” Bolden grew up in the Baptist church where preachers were expected to instantiate the “Frenzy” in their congregations. Donald M. Marquis quotes musician Harrison Barnes’s recollection of Baptist churches in New Orleans: “Sometimes the sisters would begin to shout. … They’d be shouting, it wasn’t dancing, but it was so near dancing.” The trombonist Kid Ory also remembered watching Bolden leaving church with his wife, Nora, and said, “They were swinging.” This atmosphere proved to be a rich reservoir for Bolden. The youngster once known as Kid Bolden, the proverbial church boy, became known as King Bolden, a purveyor of lowdown dirty blues.
Like countless black musicians who came after him, Bolden transmuted the artistic methods he witnessed as a child into an ultimate expression of the holy-profane. Bolden’s apprenticeship as a young musician who played for dancers is also notable, because it facilitated his ability to enthrall audiences in much the same way that preachers and singers did when he went to church as a child. Moreover, Bolden’s showmanship prefigured the styles of notable blues singers like Charley Patton and Howlin’ Wolf as well as James Brown and the funk diva Betty Davis. And Bolden’s sheer delight in defying social conventions and taboos anticipated the iconoclastic rebellions of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. In brief, the salient characteristics of Bolden’s aesthetic became trademark features in the genres of blues and funk.
As is common in the blues tradition, “Funky Butt” expressed paradoxical meanings. According to Albert Murray, “Even when what the instrumentation represents is the all but literal effect of the most miserable moaning and groaning, the most excruciating screaming and howling, the most pathetic sighing, sobbing, and whimpering[,]” the irony is that “… the more lowdown, dirty, and mean the music, the more instantaneously and pervasively sensual the dance gestures it engenders.” So while the lyrics lamented putrid working conditions (“Open up the windows and let the foul air out” and “Funky butt, take it away”), the tonal import of the band’s instrumentation seemed to signify something else entirely. In all probability, the vocal effects that Bolden and his sidemen expressed were erotic to some degree. They were almost certainly sensual. According to Dude Bottley, who knew Bolden personally, “Funky Butt” was the last song the band would play during a gig. The “tune would last about forty minutes and if you had your woman with you, you and her was supposed to do that last dance.” Furthermore, given the audience’s enthusiastic response, not to mention the emergence of the Funky Butt dance and the close proximity between “funk” and “f—k,” it is also possible that the lyrics may have also connoted more than their literal meaning.
What is indisputable is that the Funky Butt dance achieved wide popularity during this period. Blues singer and guitarist Coot Grant, who was born in 1893 and began performing in professional dance acts in 1901, recalls watching it through a peep-hole as a child in the her father’s honky-tonk in Birmingham, Alabama. When asked to describe the dance, Grant initially hesitated; then said that “women sometimes pulled up their dresses and showed their petticoats.” At which point, Grant remembered a woman who was known for her performances of the dance, and she said:
I remember a tall, powerful woman who worked in the mills pulling coke from a
furnance—a man’s job. And I can call her name, too. It was Sue, and she loved men.
When Sue arrived at my father’s tonk, people would yell “Here come Big Sue! Do
the Funky Butt, Baby!” As soon as she got high and happy, that’s what she’d do,
pulling up her skirts and grinding her rear end like an alligator crawling up a bank.
It is clear from Grant’s initial hesitation, her reference to women pulling up their dresses, and the fact that Big Sue performed the dance after she “got high and happy” that, in this context, “funky” denoted motion and connoted sexuality—what funk scholar L.H. Stallings calls “funky erotixxx,” that is, ‘“sacredly profane sexuality’” that “ritualizes and makes sacred what is libidinous and blasphemous in Western humanism …” The unabashed sensuality associated with “funk” constituted the ultimate manifestation of the blues aesthetic, which helps to explain why blues music was so controversial and why “funk” was such “a bad word” as Funkadelic put it in its 1975 album Let’s Take It to the Stage. That Bolden’s theme song later became known mostly by the euphemistic title “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” would seem to corroborate this point.
The proscription of the word “funky,” which was considered an impolite reference to bodily fluids, was analogous to church authorities’ castigation of blues music as lewd, lascivious, sinful, ignorant, uncouth, uncivil, and so on. The late blues musician B.B. King’s remembrance serves as a prime example. He says, “[W]e’d never even use the word ‘sex.’ Even ‘funky’ was far too crude an expression. Church kept us in line.” King’s statement is revealing for several reasons. By linking “funky” with “sex,” he implies that there was a clear association between the two words, and that the proscription of the term was therefore related to church authorities’ racialized notions of what L.H. Stallings calls “funky erotixxx.” Hence James Brown’s statement: “[M]ost people who liked gospel wouldn’t have anything to do with the blues, which were considered dirty and lowdown.”
Consequently, most references to funkiness in the early 20th century were euphemistically subtle. Blues artists preferred to use less controversial terms such as “low down,” “dirty,” “stink,” etc. Recall Pops Foster’s statement that Buddy Bolden “played all that stink music.” Even a half-century after Bolden’s heyday, “funk” was still associated with racialized shame and stigmatization. For instance, the producer, arranger, and trumpeter Quincy Jones won acclaim for writing funk/jazz tunes, but said that he avoids using the word “funk.” “The word ‘funky’ always embarrasses me,” Jones said. “For me, it means a form of sincerity. But it’s extremely difficult to define … I prefer to say ‘soulful.’” Other synonyms include: “swing,” “soul,” “crunk,” “hype,” and the like. Jones suggests that while funk and soul are names for two distinct genres of music, the two words are virtually synonymous in regards to emotional reference. Another common metaphor in blues-oriented parlance is electricity. In his autobiography Father of the Blues, the legendary W.C. Handy provides an example when he describes the moment when realized that his famous composition “St. Louis Blues” would become a hit. He writes,
[T]he tango was in vogue. I tricked the dancers by arranging a tango introduction,
breaking abruptly into a low-down blues. My eyes swept the floor anxiously, then
suddenly I saw the lightning strike. The dancers seemed electrified. Something
within them suddenly came to life.
Note that “the lightning strike[s]” the second that the music gets “lowdown.” Which is to say, the moment that dancers sensed the feeling of the groove—what Bessie Smith called the funk—they “suddenly came to life,” and broke out on the dance floor.
Handy’s scene is also instructive because it contextualizes the sundry synonyms that blacks have created as euphemisms for funkiness. In his classic book Stompin’ the Blues (1976), for instance, Albert Murray examines the aesthetics of the swing era of the 1930s. The book is a magnificently detailed treatment of the artistic ideas and cultural values that were reflected in blues-based, big-band jazz. One of Murray’s terms for the interplay between motion and emotion is “the swing principle,” and in his reading of Handy’s passage, Murray interprets the lightning-metaphor as a beautiful expression of swing. For Murray, Handy’s recollection is irrefutable proof that Duke Ellington’s famous credo “‘it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing’ was an operating principle long before the so-called Swing Era” of the 1930s. Yet Murray’s concept of the swing principle is nearly identical to Craig Werner’s notion of the funk principle. Werner states that “it really doesn’t matter whether you call it jazz or blues,” gospel or soul, jazz or funk. “As long as the bass holds the groove (present or implied), maintains a heartbeat … and keep[s] the spirits on the dance floor moving, you can layer anything on top of it” because “funk speaks in all possible tongues …” Both Murray and Werner are examining what musicians call the groove, but where Murray uses the word “swing,” Werner uses “funk.” That two different thinkers have used dissimilar terms associated with distinct genres of music while simultaneously referencing similar phenomena suggests that various types of black music have been informed by what pianist Herbie Hancock calls “the projection of emotions,” which is Hancock’s characterization of funkiness.
So while Handy recalls a song that he recorded in 1914, his description of the quasi-electric effect of his music is virtually identical to the way that funk musicians described the impact of their music many years later. When James Brown sang, “I got ants in my pants and I need to dance” in his 1971 recording “I Got Ants in My Pants,” he was describing the exhilarating, subcutaneous sensation that he referred to as funk. Similarly, in Parliament’s 1977 song-narrative “Flashlight,” a conflict ensues between a character named Starchild and his nemesis Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk who dwells in the zone of zero funkativity. In the story of the song, Sir Nose represents a self-loathing attitude toward sensuality in black expressive culture. People who refused to dance at house parties during the 1970s were often called “wallflowers,” a derisive term that novelist Ishmael Reed uses in his 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo, which pokes fun at the erroneous idea that dancing is synonymous with unintelligence.
Werner states that “it really doesn’t matter whether you call it jazz or blues,” gospel or soul, jazz or funk. “As long as the bass holds the groove (present or implied), maintains a heartbeat … and keep[s] the spirits on the dance floor moving, you can layer anything on top of it” because “funk speaks in all possible tongues …”
As such, Sir Nose is determined to repress the pleasure principle that is expressed in the rhythms and melodies of the song. But Starchild is both strategic and resolute in his conflict with Sir Nose; he zaps Sir Nose with the electric rays of the flashlight, causing Nose to enjoy the music and dance in spite of himself. So even as musical genres, technology, tastes, and instrumentation change and fluctuate according to historical periods, regions, and/or individual talents and sensibilities, funkiness in black music is inextricably related to dancing—and blues music was infinitely dance-beat oriented. Murray argues,
[W]hat is at issue is the primordial cultural conditioning of the people for whom blues music was created in the first place. They are dance-beat oriented people. They refine all movement in the direction of dance-beat elegance. Their work movements become dance movements and so do their play movements; and so, indeed, do all the movements they use every day, including the way they walk, stand, turn, wave, shake hands, reach, or make any gesture at all. So, if the preponderance of their most talented musicians has been almost exclusively preoccupied with the composition and performance of dance music, it is altogether consistent with their most fundamental conceptions of and responses to existence itself.
Interestingly enough, though, Murray’s correlation between blues and dancing is almost identical to George Clinton’s belief that funk is expressed in improvised choreography—what he calls funkentelechy. Clinton states, “If it makes you shake your rump, it’s the funk.” So if we recall Clinton’s statement that funk is “speeded-up blues,” Murray’s elegant commentary can be interpreted as a sort of (blue) funk manifesto. Herein lies one of the pointed ironies of African American musical studies. Murray and Clinton share very similar views regarding the interplay between motion and emotion. As with our comparison between Murray and Werner, while Clinton prefers the term “funk,” Murray uses “swing.” In doing so, Murray offers a brilliant blend of the theory and practice of funk as it was understood in the big band era, and yet he expresses an unequivocal distaste for the term “funk.” Writing during the height of the funk era 1976, Murray suggests that the only people who use the word “funky” as an apt description of black music are uninformed “outsiders” who understand little about the aesthetics and meaning of black music itself. Regarding “[t]he use of the word funky to mean earthy and soulful[,]” he says, “[t]he insider’s traditional use is synonymous with foul body odor and connotes the pungent smell of sweat-saturated clothes …” Needless to say, the fact that Murray’s cultural hero, Bessie Smith, used “funk” in its figurative sense suggests that blues “insider[s]” embraced the term more often than Murray realized. For instance, during the early 1940s in the backwoods of Mississippi, the state that produced such extraordinary blues artists as Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Koko Taylor there was a jook joint called the Funky Fives.
Black musicians began making explicit references to funkiness in the mid-20th century. In New Orleans, during the late 1940s and early 1950s, the pianist Henry Roeland Byrd, created a new approach to boogie-woogie. Byrd adopted the stage name Professor Longhair, and described his music as “deep-down funk.” Jazz musicians began to embrace the term “funk” publicly in the 1950s, although it was still considered a relatively impolite word. Dismayed by the trend in jazz toward a style known as cool jazz, many musicians began to experiment with blues and gospel music, and the term “funk” was their metaphor for the blues. After the pianist Horace Silver recorded his composition “Opus de Funk” in 1953, several other legendary jazz musicians recorded tunes that included the word “funk,” including Ray Charles and Cannonball Adderly whose compositions were titled “Blue Funk” in 1957 and 1958, respectively. According to Dizzy Gillespie, funk “reasserted the primacy of rhythm and blues in our music and made you get funky with sweat to play it … ”
Contrary to popular opinion, then, James Brown’s brand new bag of funk and George Clinton’s pure, uncut funk did not comprise the whole of funk in the historical sense of the term. Rather, the music of Sly and the Family Stone, Labelle, Ike and Tina Turner, War, and other funk bands expressed a distinct phase of funkativity. Even the virtuoso guitar player Jimi Hendrix, who created a blues-rock variation of funk music with his short-lived Band of Gypsys, associated funkiness with the blues. The combination of unfulfilled hopes and an unprecedented emphasis on pride in black culture during the 1970s prompted many black youth to embrace “funk” openly and jettison such euphemisms as “lowdown” and “dirty.” As Rickey Vincent has pointed out, funk is not simply a style; it is a numinous “means to a style” (my italics, Funk 4) in various genres of African-American music.