Melvin Van Peebles (aka Brer Soul) w/ Earth, Wind & Fire: Sweetback’s Theme
From Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Stax 1971)
“Sweetback’s Theme” doesn’t sound much like how you think a blaxploitation song would but then again, before “Sweetback,” there were no blaxploitation songs. This comes from the soundtrack of Melvin Van Peebles’ seminal Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, his cinematic missive of Black Power politics and urban rage that heralded the coming of blaxploitation into the American imagination.
What is strange about “Sweetback’s Theme,” is how sweet it is. For a movie about a Black hustler turned revolutionary, who kills corrupt cops and escapes into the desert with hound dogs on his trail, his theme betrays none of that darkness, rage or violence. In the movie, Sweetback and others sing over the main melodic hook: “you bled my momma! You bled my daddy!” (but you won’t bleed ME!) and there is a tension between the visceral imagery of those words and the simple, cheery swing of the Earth, Wind & Fire’s electric piano riff and the resonant sax that hollers in step.
“Sweetback’s Theme” is not in the same league as something as cinematically dense and rich as Issac Hayes’ “Shaft.” Nor can the young EW&F compete with the more experienced musicianship that Curtis Mayfield would bring to bear on the “Superfly” soundtrack. But there is something (dare I say) pure about “Sweetback’s” simplicity and how the repeating loop of that singing horn patiently unfolds over seven minutes. “Sweetback’s Theme,” like the movie that birthed it, has no standard to measure itself against, no precedent to converse with. It revels in that freedom like Sweetback revels in his, and the theme plays out, again and again, as a reminder that its namesake is still out there, still on the lam but still living free.
You bled my momma, you bled my daddy, but…You. Won’t. Bleed. Me.