Sin & Soul
Oscar Brown, Jr.
The Best from the Thinking Person's Hipster
The gavel falls, and Oscar Brown Jr., playing the role of slave auctioneer, begins "selling" a fifteen-year-old girl from the Dahomey region of Africa. In brisk and businesslike patter, the Chicago-born singer, songwriter, and playwright reels off her attributes like a car salesman touting the latest features. The a cappella "Bid 'Em In" is coarse and crass, and impossible to forget. Certainly Brown, an African American, is repulsed by this chapter in history—yet throughout the "auction," which lasts a minute and twenty-eight seconds, he never breaks character. He comports himself the way slave owners did, not bothering to examine his actions. Or their implications.
The Chicago-based Brown (1926–2005) was a master of this kind of theatrical role play—elsewhere on his instant classic debut Sin and Soul he imagines himself toiling on a chain gang ("Work Song," the Nat Adderley composition for which Brown wrote lyrics), and plays a loser trying to remain suave while the world crumbles around him ("But I Was Cool"). Too much of an entertainer to dwell forever on the tragic, Brown leavens his commentary with more playful songs, including the amazing "Dat Dere," which celebrates the endless questioning curiosity of children.
Sin and Soul was one of two albums involving Brown released in 1960. The other was Max Roach's We Insist! Freedom Now Suite. These works established Brown as a visionary, one of a handful of African American artists whose bold work set the tone for the Afrocentrism that erupted later in the decade. What makes Brown so effective is that his message is strong but never merely confrontational: When he sings his original "Brown Baby" (which was famously covered by Mahalia Jackson), it's a lullaby, driven by a father's resolute hope for the child he holds, and really all children: "When out of men's hearts all the hate is hurled," he sings, "you're gonna live in a better world."
Genre: Jazz, Vocals
Released: 1960, Columbia (Reissued 1996 as Sin and Soul . . . and Then Some)
Key Tracks: "Work Song," "Bid 'Em In," "Signifyin' Monkey," "Dat Dere"
Collector's Note: The reissue includes five tracks Brown wrote for his short-lived Broadway musical Kicks and Co.
Catalog Choice: Mr. Oscar Brown Jr. Goes to Washington
Next Stop: Nina Simone: Anthology
After That: Public Enemy: Fear of a Black Planet
Book Pages: 122–123
#1 from John, Springfield IL - 08/16/2009 10:32
Superbly produced album with thoughtful, soulful, and humorous songs wonderfully interpreted. I’ve loved this album since its first issue. Catch all the words and inflections, it will enrich your life.