‘Soul Train’ artifacts at Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History
By DeNeen Brown,
Peace, love and soooooooul spilled out of a white tent Thursday night on the Mall as a crowd boogied down a massive “Soul Train” line. The event celebrating a donation of artifacts from the popular 1970s-era TV show to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture had, appropriately, turned into a dance party.
A man in brown dress socks and white Converse shoes danced wildly next to a prim woman in a platinum sheath. Nearby, a woman dressed straight out of the iconic television program, in hot pants and platform shoes, grooved to the old-school music pumping through the speakers. Those in the multiracial crowd laughed and threw their hands in the air as they danced the Bump, the Loose Booty, the Robot and the Funky Chicken.
“Girl, you better swing it! Push it, baby!” yelled Tyrone “the Bone” Proctor, an original “Soul Train” dancer who taught the crowd iconic dances.
The woman in hot pants pumped a little harder and swung her arms.
“Oh, my!” Proctor yelled. “Stop it! You are impressing me!”
To help celebrate its 40th anniversary, “Soul Train” — which began airing nationally in 1971 and became one of the longest-airing nationally syndicated first-run programs in television history — donated five signature props for the museum’s exhibitions “Musical Crossroads,” “Black Popular Culture” and “Make a Way Out of No Way.” The museum is set to be completed on the Mall in 2015.
The items that were donated: “Applause” signs, the 10-foot-wide neon “Soul Train” sign, the neon “Soul Train Awards” sign, silver African heads from the awards program, and the Scramble Board, on which dancers unscrambled word puzzles quickly, then broke out in dance.
Before the Smithsonian dance lesson, Lonnie G. Bunch, founding director of the museum, told the crowd: “I accept this donation on behalf of every teenager like me who tried but failed to dance like the dancers on ‘Soul Train.’ With this donation, it’s really clear — the Smithsonian just got hip!”
Bunch said the acquisition would help the museum tell the story of “Soul Train,” which turned shag-carpeted living rooms into dance floors as legions of wannabes tried waacking, popping, locking and the click-clack along with the “Soul Train” crew. The show, which aired nationally until 2006, became symbolic of the “black is beautiful” era, which followed the civil rights movement and celebrated black empowerment and pride among African Americans.
Don Cornelius, the show’s host and founder who sported a perfect orb of an Afro, was the epitome of cool as he interviewed stars such as the Jackson 5, James Brown and Aretha Franklin.
The show became a cultural touchstone for Americans of all races, Bunch said. It “transmitted African American culture to an unbelievably broad audience. ‘Soul Train’ was around long enough to shape many generations. It became this interesting snapshot of several generations of African American culture and style.”
The celebration, which was part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s“Rhythm and Blues: Tell It Like It Is” program, opened with a panel discussion, moderated by museum curator Tuliza Fleming, about the show’s influence on television, culture, advertising and race relations. Tony Cornelius attended to represent his father, who he said was honored by the Smithsonian’s acquisition.
Proctor credited Don Cornelius with helping to save African American music by giving black artists a national platform.
“For many people, ‘Soul Train’ was a lifestyle,” Proctor said. “People would get up on Saturday and nobody would be in the street because they would all be in the houses watching ‘Soul Train.’ For the kids who danced on there, we literally lived for the show.”
Kinshasha Holman Conwill, deputy director of the museum, donned an Afro wig and said, “How cool is that?”
And when the conversation ended, the “Soul Train” party began. Ahmir Khalib Thompson, a.k.a. Questlove, a DJ and drummer for the Roots, released a flurry of hits showcased on “Soul Train,” and the crowd exploded. It seemed not to matter whether one could keep a beat. “Soul Train” was forgiving.
Outside the tent, people joined in the spontaneous “Soul Train” line.
“You don’t have to worry who is watching you dance,” said Marlena Pheney, 33, an accountant from Fort Washington, “because everybody is dancing.”