For Greg Kot, music is a complicated puzzle and the highest form of expression.
“I love music because you’re sort of decoding these languages, and you’re learning about the way somebody thinks, their logic,” says Kot, co-host of “Sound Opinions” on WBEZ and pop music critic at the Chicago Tribune.
In his new book, “I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers and the March Up Freedom’s Highway,” Kot chronicles the history of the first family of gospel crossover music from early stardom, through the civil rights era to present day.
But at its core, the book is not only a work of American history — its also an examination of how music moves and shapes culture.
In this episode of “The Big Questions” podcast, we ask: “What Does Our Music Say About Us?”
Below is an excerpt of our talk, but the entire conversation — in which we talk about Bob Dylan’s proposal to Mavis Staples, the prickliness of Lou Reed and the films of Roman Polanski — can be downloaded via SoundCloud or streamed via YouTube. “The Big Questions” is part of the Sun-Times Media Local Podcast Network.
Q: You’ve done something really amazing with this book—you’ve not only managed to tell Mavis Staples’ story, but it’s also about the African-American move north and the struggle for civil rights … What does music tells us about ourselves and our culture?
Kot: To me, the music is part of the culture, part of the fabric of who we are as people. And so music bio is one aspect of the book … there’s a richer story informed by the music.
This family, the Staples Singers: They had a front row seat in a lot of these events that were life-changing … The Martin Luther King era, the civil rights era, they had a huge run of hits at Stax [Records] and defined the soul and message music era in the ’70s. And then this comeback by Mavis – here she is in her 70s making some of the best music of her life. Through that, she’s experienced basically the story of the African-American community as seen through this family. That’s what I try to tell in this book.
Q: For a lot of people, music is rebellion. And for Mavis, her grandmother did not want the family to sing anything but church music.
Kot: Right. Church music was a defining line between spirituals, gospel and blues …What was interesting about Pops [Mavis’ father], is that he saw both sides. So he learned the blues, but at the same time he was in gospel groups. That was what his family sang. And later on in life he was able to meld those things.
What was interesting to me about this group is how they sort of fell outside these genre tags. People were constantly trying to pigeonhole them. They were being decried as backsliders by some members of the gospel community, because they weren’t gospel enough.
And Pops was kind of like, “Well maybe so, but I’m not here to send some illicit message ... I’m here to empower people, and I’m here to spread this message to as many people as want to hear it. So I’m not discriminating against who needs to hear this music or who doesn’t want to hear it. I want to reach a lot of people.”
Q: Changing topics: Is there a need to separate the art from the artist? Whether it’s a Justin Bieber or R. Kelly or Led Zeppelin ... Is there a need to separate bad, sometimes illegal behavior from the art itself?
Kot: Yeah, I believe you have to. You and I have probably read enough about these legendary figures to know that they weren’t always nice people: Picasso, Miles Davis, James Brown ...
All my artistic heroes had some really dark sides to their personalities. These weren’t stellar human beings necessarily all the time or admirable human beings. They did things that we don’t think are very cool, and in some cases just downright despicable. So yeah, you do have to separate the art from the artist. There is no doubt about it. If we judged our artists strictly by how nice they are, we would have very little art to appreciate.
I don’t believe in insulating yourself from the bad things that people do when you’re judging a work of art. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that even a monster can create something beautiful.
Q: What, ultimately, is the function of music?
Kot: It is one of the reasons for living. I really believe that. It is one of the highest forms of human expression if not the highest form.
What I think is beautiful about music is the intangibility of it. I do not know quite how to express it ... but in terms of the senses that we have, the visual is one of the strongest impressions that can be made on us.
It is so ephemeral ... it floats in and out of our lives. It can be background, it can be foreground, it can be inside our head between our ears. There is just something beautiful about that and I think it really is a metaphor for life itself in a lot of ways.
Q: But is it a connection thing at its base? Is it really that we’re a community and we’re not alone? Is that a primary function of music?
Kot: It brings us together as people. There is no doubt about it. Even when we don’t realize it. It does make you feel like there’s one other being out there that understands something about your psyche. It’s like, “Oh, that really spoke to me. This person has no idea who I am. [The artist] who made this piece of music is something really beautiful that I can relate to.
And it may be for a completely opposite reason than the person creating it intended. But at the same time, that is the beauty of it too, is that it is so abstract. And it allows for so many readings of what it really means.
This excerpt was edited for length and context. Visit Greg Kot online at GregKot.com.