Brown Sugar--Mick...what were you thinking?

At a recent carnival event at my six year old's day school a band of mostly fellow dads in their 40s and 50s got up to do a set of classic rock, and the second song up in their set was Brown Sugar by the Rolling Stones! I went "What? They're doing this song for the kiddies?" Cuz you know I've always had a somewhat troubled inner discussion about this song. On the one hand it is a brilliant, can't-sit-still-unless-you're-dead rock n roll masterpiece.  On the other hand it's about women being sold in the market down in New Orleans and a scarred old slaver doin' alright, whipping the women just around midnight.  I mean really, what was Mick Jagger thinking when he wrote this?  Give it a listen on this exellent youtube post and then we'll talk...

Brown Sugar © Mick Jagger and Keith Richards 

Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields,
Sold in a market down in new orleans.
Scarred old slaver know hes doin alright.
Hear him whip the women just around midnight.
Ah brown sugar how come you taste so good
(a-ha) brown sugar, just like a young girl should

Drums beating, cold english blood runs hot,
Lady of the house wondrin where its gonna stop.
House boy knows that hes doin alright.
You should a heard him just around midnight.
Ah brown sugar how come you taste so good
(a-ha) brown sugar, just like a black girl should

I bet your mama was a tent show queen, and all her boy
Friends were sweet sixteen.
Im no schoolboy but I know what I like,
You should have heard me just around midnight.

Ah brown sugar how come you taste so good
(a-ha) brown sugar, just like a young girl should.

I said yeah, I said yeah, I said yeah, I said
Oh just like a, just like a black girl should.

I said yeah, I said yeah, I said yeah, I said
Oh just like, just like a black girl should.

Okay, first of all let me say that I think Mick and Keith get way too little credit as songwriters.  So much attention is paid to their showmanship, their carousing, their blood transfusions and drug use and sexcapades, that very little thought is put to their songwriting.  But they're up there with the best, and part of their brilliance is that they have hidden excellent songwriting inside and behind "the greatest rock band in the world."   Rolling Stones songs roll by like big party machines and you barely notice the poetry, and the astounding chordal and melodic and rhythmic mastery. They are among the masters of an art form, and people who say the Stones are too old and ought to stop touring are idiots.

So, back to this song. Described by rock critic Robert Christgau as "a rocker so compelling that it discourages exegesis"--well, I know what he means, but I think Brown Sugar deserves a little exegesis.  I reject totally the idea that Mick and Keith, who glorified and idolized black musicians and black culture, and went out of their way to revitalize the stature of such American masters as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf could possibly be simplistic racist, sadomasochistic sex maniacs, which would be one interpretation of the song. I also reject the notion that it's about a kind of heroin, or a DJ, or even that it's "about" a black backup singer Mick had an affair with. Instead, I think this song reveals and revels in the secret awe that whites have felt for blacks throughout the tragic history of Africans in America.  The fulcrum line for me is Drums beating, cold English blood runs hot, lady of the house wondrin where it's gonna stop.  Yeah.  That's it right there.  We kidnapped dark-skinned Africans and used them like beasts, to build our empire, plow our fields, create our economy. But even then those scarred old slavers recognized the power their chattel held. The answer, for the lady of the house, was: It wasn't going to stop. Blacks became the center, the beating heart  of our culture--particularly musical culture. (Combined, interestingly enough, with the mournful wail and classical sophistication of the Eastern European Jews...two cultures with slavery as a central part of their history.)

So when Mick, speculating on the ancestry of his modern black lover, sings I bet your mama was a tent show queen he is musing about how the heck this incredible woman he just made love to came to be there. Thomas Jefferson felt the same thing Mick is singing about, and sired children with the slave Sally Hemmings, and this song could be about him.  Gives the whole idea of "founding fathers" a new meaning, no?  I remember once talking to Suzy Williams about this subject--what the heck was going on in the lyrics of Brown Sugar?  And Suzy said "I think it's just the Stones tellin' it like it is."  Yup. Telling it like it is, like nobody else would ever dream of doing.  Slavery--it's got a good beat, and you can dance to it. And haven't we all been dancing to it for all these years?  Thank god at last, in the age of Obama, we can see the end of slavery, and the beginning of real equality.

By the way, in the second version of the song in the above youtube, check out the use of spoons as a rhythm instrument!  It's during I think the first solo.  Very prominent spoons on one side of the stereo.  What an amazing arrangement choice.