The revelation was a gradual one. I first heard Solomon Burke sing Up to the Mountain, written by Patty Griffin, on Richard Haslop’s riveting, greatly missed Roots to Fruits show one Wednesday just before midnight. I can remember it captured my attention, but not so much that I rushed out next day to buy the record it came from.
About a year later I was sitting in Dave Ferguson’s car after one of our first gigs together when he put one of Burke’s albums in the CD player. The sound was warm and reassuring – you could tell that Burke wanted to give pleasure. That might sound obvious, but it isn’t really: much contemporary music is born from and feeds on ambivalence towards its audience.
Burke is a soul singer, and that means that he combines vocal range and technique with a kind of generosity that’s hard to describe. I could say that he always puts his heart into the song he’s singing, but that’s already a metaphor. To understand what I mean, you would have to hear him.
Up to the Mountain, the song I first heard on Richard’s show, is subtitled “The MLK Song”, and is, among other things, a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. Its title refers to a speech he delivered the day before his assassination. As such it has a political resonance, particularly when sung by a man like Burke, who knew King personally. But that is only part of the story.
Burke begins: “I went up to the mountain / Because you asked me to.” The biblical language in places suggests that the other party referred to could be God, but in others the sensuous voices of Burke and Griffin (who sings backing vocals) suggest a much more secular context. That is the way of soul music – reinvigorating popular music with the style and passionate energy of gospel.
In the end Up to the Mountain makes nonsense of such opposites. It is a song about someone who has seen everything: “I’ve seen all around me / Everywhere / I’ve seen all around me / Everywhere.” His voice lingers over the word “everywhere” in a way that suggests all the effort it has cost him to do so.
Then he hits the chorus: “Sometimes I feel / Afraid I might fall / And though the sun shines / I see nothing at all.” I know nothing in music more profoundly moving than this. It’s not so much the words, though these are beautiful in themselves. It is the conviction in the voice that carries, and something like generosity: you know he wants you to hear every note, every nuance of feeling that he has inside him.
But in writing about Burke, or any other great soul singer for that matter, you quickly fall back on metaphors and clichés. Language at its best is once removed from the immediacy and passionate energy of this music. In the end you have to experience it for yourself.