“Local draft board No. 4 in a district surrounding State and 35th streets, containing 30,000 persons, of whom 90 per cent are colored, registered upward of 9,000 and sent 1,850 colored men to cantonments. Of these 1,850 there were only 125 rejections. On Nov. 11, when the armistice was declared, this district had 7,832 men passed by examiners and ready for the call to the colors. So it is clear that in one neighborhood are thousands of strong young men who have been talking to each other on topics more or less intimately related to the questions, ‘What are we ready to die for? Why do we live? What is democracy? What is the meaning of freedom; of self-determination?’”
— Carl Sandburg, The Chicago Race Riots, July 1919
I drive by soul music legend Sam Cooke’s elementary school every morning on my way to work. James R. Doolittle, Jr. Elementary sits at the corner of E. 35th St. and S. Cottage Grove Ave. on Chicago’s South Side. Just to the south of Doolittle, the city named a stretch of E. 36th St. “Honorary Sam Cooke Way.” This spot is just east of the neighborhood Sandburg mentions above, in what is now called Bronzeville. For a long time, it was “The Black Belt.” Cooke’s family arrived there when he was two years old, about 14 years after the events Sandburg reports above.
At the height of the Black Belt, population density there was 84,000 people per square mile. This was roughly twice the density in adjoining South Side neighborhoods such as Hyde Park and Kenwood. Restrictive real estate practices kept newly arrived African American immigrants from Mississippi, Arkansas, and other Southern states from settling in other neighborhoods. Many adjoining neighborhoods were themselves predominantly populated by European immigrant communities.
Unjust as this practice was, it fostered a host of black-owned businesses and community institutions. Art and music thrived as well. After I pass Doolittle Elementary on my commute, I drive by Meyers Hardware, formerly the Sunset Café, a “Black and Tan” nightclub in which integrated audiences enjoyed jazz music from Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Sarah Vaughan, and Earl “Fatha” Hines, among others. Nat “King” Cole was a local resident. Chess Records made its headquarters in the neighborhood, sending Chicago blues and Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” out to the listening world. Northeast from my office building, I can see the ruins of Pilgrim Baptist Church, a landmark of gospel music, at the corner of E. 33rd and S. Indiana.
One other important landmark on my morning commute is the Victory Monument on S. Martin Luther King Blvd. This monument commemorates the soldiers at the time of Sandburg’s writing who did go to war in Europe on behalf of the causes of democracy, freedom, and self-determination. Chicago’s African American doughboys who answered that call returned to this segregated city. Our focus today, Marvin Gaye’s landmark album What’s Going On, is a meditation on the experience of a returning Vietnam vet. It echoes many returning soldiers’ stories across the decades.
Cooke was “The King of Soul.” Marvin Gaye was its prince. Cooke’s family took one path of the Great Migration, from Mississippi to Chicago. Gaye’s family took another, from Kentucky to Washington, D.C. With “A Change is Gonna Come,” Cooke was just beginning to create socially conscious soul music right before he died in 1964. Seven years later, What’s Going On became a fulfillment of that kind of socially-conscious soul music dream.
This video of Marvin Gaye performing the title track of What’s Going On includes clips of life in Chicago in the early 1970s. Some things have changed, but it still resembles the broader South Side around my home and work.
The connections between Sam Cooke and Chicago on the one hand, and Marvin Gaye and What’s Going On on the other may be indirect or distant, but my experience of the city and its history informs my experience of this album. Nelson Algren once wrote of Chicago, “…once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.” I’ve come to love this city, despite its difficulties. One of the things I love about the South Side is that so many meaningful parts of the American story transpired here–especially the story of American music. Gaye’s album is not specifically about Chicago, but it is in part about American urban life, and about bridging the very divides that formed many of Chicago’s past and ongoing challenges.
Today’s post will explore how Gaye takes a world immersed in violence and creates a monumental work of art. What’s Going On emerged in the tumult of the Vietnam War, but its relevance remains and grows. Its title serves as both query and declaration—not just asking, but telling us what’s going on. It laments seemingly intractable problems, and offers ongoing hope in the face of them. At 45 years old, it still helps us “find a way to bring some understanding here today.”