Donny Hathaway’s “Little Ghetto Boy” is the centerpiece of Come Back, Charleston Blue

by Andrew Chan

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There’s a difference between having the voice of an angel and having the voice of God. Take a certain richness of timbre, give it stentorian power and expansive range, and you’ve got something close to what spiritual authority sounds like in human form. You need only listen to the way Donny Hathaway bellows and belts on the song “Little Ghetto Boy” to appreciate how this distinction plays out in the tradition of gospel-rooted soul.

The year was 1972, and Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield were laying their wispy falsettos on top of menacingly funky blaxploitation beats (Trouble Man and Superfly), their sinuous exhalations evoking the thick smog of racial unrest. Alongside their vivid portraits of inner-city crime, Hathaway was laying down another kind of message, delivered in a voice so passionately resonant it sounded like the sonic equivalent of sanctified fire.

 

The socially conscious centerpiece of Hathaway’s soundtrack for the little-seen film Come Back, Charleston Blue, “Little Ghetto Boy” trades in Gaye’s self-justifying first-person (“I come up hard / I’ve had to fight”) and Mayfield’s eerily detached third-person (“Freddie’s Dead”) for a tone that verges on hectoring. The song is an exhortation addressed to a young black male “you” of the singer’s acquaintance, referred to at one point as “brother” and at another as “son.” And unlike many of the most famous songs about the ghetto from the late ’60s and early ’70s—“In the Ghetto,” for instance, or “Living for the City”—narrative detail takes a back seat to the sustained drama of one character directly calling out another. As Hathaway’s voice slowly climbs out of the Robeson-like depths of the verses and into the exclamatory heights of the climax, one gets the sense that this “you” is being addressed by someone wholly holy, someone floating above the fray.

That a song as heavy as “Little Ghetto Boy” could originate within a genre movie as lighthearted as Come Back, Charleston Blue is only part of its slipperiness as a cultural artifact. Hathaway was an unapologetically aspirational Howard University graduate with a scholar’s command of Western music history (and, according to Emily J. Lordi’s excellent new 33 1/3 book on the singer, a pedantic streak to match). Hints of the class divide he straddled—both in his own community and in the nationwide audience he commanded—make their way onto the track, most notably when he doles out presumably unsolicited tough love to his protagonist, imploring him to figure out what he’ll do when he grows up and has to “face responsibility.” This mix of condescension and sincere concern was not uncommon for the period (the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself,” also released in 1972, remains the ultimate soul scold), but it’s hard to listen to the lyrics now and not recognize a strain of respectability politics that has since become verboten among anti-racist progressives.

Amid the complex societal transformations that were affecting urban communities in the 1970s, who would have been so bold as to demand a young black child find the keys to his own uplift, as Hathaway does here? Even as the black middle class—of which Hathaway served, for many, as a pop-culture avatar—began to grow, the African American population in Hathaway’s own Chicago was reeling from sky-high unemployment rates, and businesses were fleeing from the inner city to suburbs that were kept predominantly White through zoning ordinances. By the early ’70s, the word “ghetto” had taken a turn for the pejorative, as Black communities became increasingly associated in the national consciousness with crime and economic degradation. Still, Hathaway’s own discography evinces a conflicted attitude toward the insularity such living conditions engendered. His ambitious, mostly instrumental opus “The Ghetto,” recorded in 1969, serves as a stark contrast to “Little Ghetto Boy,” celebrating the cultural vibrancy that Black people have achieved and maintained in isolation.

Ultimately, it’s the disjuncture between Hathaway’s otherworldly vocals and the all-too-human contradictions found in the lyrics that has allowed “Little Ghetto Boy” to outlive its own outdated moralism. Reversals and tonal shifts continually undercut his superiority as narrator. When Hathaway recalls, in one brutally concise couplet in the second verse, how the young man’s father was “blown away/he robbed that grocery store/don’t you know that was a sad old day,” the memory draws blood, momentarily eliminating the singer’s God-like remove. By the time we get to the outro, when Hathaway starts chanting “everything has got to get better,” it’s clear that only a mortal man—one without the prophetic foresight to anticipate our current state of emergency—could think to sell us such an irrationally upbeat refrain, just minutes after claiming that “the world is a cruel place and it ain’t gonna change.”

Propelled by a percolating conga rhythm courtesy of Earl DeRouen, who had contributed to Gaye’s What’s Going On a year earlier, the song has all the trappings of an anthem—which may explain why it’s been covered twice in the past decade (by John Legend, and by Hathaway’s own daughter, Lalah) and even serves as the foundation for a track on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. But what “Little Ghetto Boy” gives us is more powerful than any slogan could be. Instead of offering a useful rallying cry for a movement, it holds up a mirror to the ways in which racism has us running around in a never-ending circle, unsure of where to turn, what to believe, and who to be. Perhaps this is the key lesson that the history of protest music has to impart: our apprehension of the political forces that shape our lives is forever unfinished business, as contingent and mercurial as our feelings. Few singers have ever been as equal to the task of expressing that eternal flux as Donny Hathaway, whose majestic yet exquisitely vulnerable tenor had the power to complicate the very ideologies he peddled.

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