When I discovered that two of the greatest pop songwriters of all time, Nick Ashford (of the duo Ashford and Simpson) and Jerry Leiber (of Leiber and Stoller) both died yesterday, August 22, my first impulse was to go into mourning. As someone who grew up in Brooklyn in the 1950s and came of age as a civil rights and anti-war activist at Columbia University in the 1960s, I looked to songs that they had written (from “Hound Dog” and “Stand By Me” to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Solid as a Rock”) as part of the soundtrack of my life and markers of my personal and political evolution.
But after thinking about their music—not only on its impact on tens of millions of people of my generation, but on the cultural politics their songwriting reflected—I think it’s important to understand that they were figures who, in their own way, helped redefine race in the United States by creating a sonic universe in which people of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds could find joy and meaning.
It is easy to forget how unique this multiracial sonic universe, which evolved with the popularity of rock and roll in the middle 1950s and lasted through the late ‘60s, was in its historic moment. There are certain songs—most, but not all of them performed by black artists—which involved themes of love and loyalty, and which young people in every single part of the country, regardless of racial or cultural background, adopted as their own personal anthems.
At a time of unprecedented economic growth, when unions were strong, wealth was far more evenly distributed than it is now, and working class people of all racial backgrounds strode through America with a confidence and optimism that would be unimaginable today, songwriters, record producers, radio DJs and singers managed to capture that optimistic spirit by adapting rhythm and blues—a music forged in postwar urban black communities to a broader youth market. And while the driving impulse here was commerce, the music that resulted had a joyous spirit that cut across racial boundaries more than anything the nation had ever seen.
But it could only work because some of those boundaries were being crossed in daily life. In cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Detroit, young blacks and whites not only found themselves working in the same factories, they sometimes attended the same high schools and lived in the same housing projects. And if the majority of people who moved through these integrated settings kept to their own cohort, there were enough people who crossed those boundaries in friendship, and occasionally in love, to understand that there were some very real commonalities in material aspirations and cultural values. Young people in those times, irrespective of their racial backgrounds, wanted cars and houses, good jobs and good times, and hoped, at some point after they had their fun, to find love and marriage.
Songwriters like Nick Ashford and Jerry Leiber knew this. They were part of a generation of young people who believed in “love” (however gendered their definition of that was) and who believed that their economic prospects were promising enough to imagine love leading to marriage. That deindustrialization, war, and stubbornly persistent racism might undermine that possibility—and that women’s empowerment would render the ideal problematic—goes without saying, but for a good ten-year period, a whole generation raised in those heady times was emotionally entranced by the vision of love and loyalty put forward in songs like” Stand By Me” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
Look at the lyrics of each of these songs:
When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we see
Oh I won’t be afraid, no I won’t be afraid
Just as long as you stand by me
If you need me, no matter where you are
No matter how far, don’t worry baby
Just call my name, I’ll be there in a hurry
You don’t have to worry
Cause ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley
Low enough, ain’t no river wide enough, to keep me
From getting to you baby
These heroic visions of devotion and loyalty might elicit laughter today, but they were as much part of what it meant to be young in the early and mid-60s as the draft, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Star Spangled Banner. Wherever you go, whether it be the Deep South, the Pacific Northwest, New England or the Great Plains or the Mesabi Range, you put these songs on for a sixty-and-over group, irrespective of race, and it will be a moment of reverence, not just for lost youth, but for broken ideals, and for passions that emerge when you live life to the fullest.
That these two songwriters, one black, one white, could capture those feelings with such perfect pitch and startling universality, reflected not just as astute reading of a moment in American history, but the creation of a cross-racial sensibility that had never existed before and might never quite exist again in exactly the same form.
Whatever this nation has become since that time, whatever changes in gender and economics have rendered the ideals and visions captured in those songs problematic, at least for our time, the songs capture a time when people dared to dream that love and loyalty were possible and that they could dream together across racial and cultural boundaries in a way that their parents’ generation could never imagine.
Mark Naison is a Professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham's Urban Studies Program. He is the author of three books and over 100 articles on African American History, urban history, and the history of sports. His most recent book, White Boy: A Memoir, was published in the spring of 2002.