Curtis Mayfield: “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go”
From the album Curtis (Curtom)
Listen: “Sisters, Niggers, Whiteys, Jews, Crackers… Don’t worry: if there’s Hell below, we’re all going to go!” The closest thing popular music had to a biblical prophet was Curtis Mayfield, the man who delivered stern moral messages with the voice of an angel. His sweet falsetto and musical arrangements (harp, flute, and fuzzed-out wah-wah guitar blend together in unimaginable and still incomparable fashion) had their apotheosis in his out-and-out masterpiece, the soundtrack to Superfly, but it’s the first song of his first solo outing that stands as his abiding message. He had already made history with the Impressions, and more than a few of the civil rights anthems of the ‘60s ("Keep on Pushing”, “People Get Ready") were written and sung by Mayfield. It is no coincidence that as the next decade commenced, not enough had changed, and both the music and the message assumed an unfamiliar, but necessary edge. It’s not a new Mayfield so much as the same singer tired of having to tell the same sad story. No one here escapes unscathed: his outrage is, appropriately, aimed at the powers that be (mostly white, then as now), but importantly, he also calls on the carpet the slackers, apathy-ridden hippies, and religious hypocrites. “Everybody’s praying and everybody’s saying / But when come time to do, everybody’s laying.” This has everything art could ask for: a savage indignation delivered by a voice steeped in soul and history, shouting a message that grows more urgent, more loud, to make certain we’re listening.