Techniques of Ecstasy: James Brown’s Multiphonic Sublime (“Cold Sweat”)

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The first time I heard James Brown’s “Cold Sweat,” the hair on the back of my neck stood up, just like Emily Dickinson said it should.

It was early morning on a spring Sunday in 1967. I was in a car, driving home from a gig where the band I was in had played “Gloria” and “Midnight Hour” to the wannabe-unwashed frat boys of Mississippi State. I always traveled with the drummer, a buddy for years; we were on the same page musically as in a lot of other ways. We knew without saying anything that, after midnight on the drive home, the radio would be tuned to WLS rolling out of Chicago. At that time of night it was legal for them to crank up the station to 50,000 watts so we could hear them even in an old Ford Fairlane on Mississippi Highway 45.

Famously, WLS and a few other such late-night stations broadcast mostly blues and R&B; my earliest acquaintance with many non-mainstream musicians arrived that way. Most of my peers, and all my family, were uninterested in this particular music. Their attention (and mine) was drawn powerfully to top forty radio music–which was of course different in the 1960s than it became later. The band I was in was a top forty cover band exclusively; some of my bandmates likewise wouldn’t have been especially interested in what WLS broadcast. But the drummer and I were both riveted by it, no doubt for different reasons.

I don’t now remember what was playing before, or how the DJ set up what came next, but the first note, the first beat, of “Cold Sweat” straightened both our spines.

“Always hit the one,” drummer Clyde Stubblefield said years later in an interview, “dominate the one.” It was that dominated one, that downbeat, that grabbed us first that night in 1969. Part of the brilliance of “Cold Sweat” is Stubblefield’s alone. In the same interview, he says that, new to James Brown’s band, he was on the trap set in the studio and started playing a groove; the bass jumped in and then the rest of the rhythm section, and “Cold Sweat” was born. The genesis of the song is more complicated than that, but Stubblefield’s account is true to its effect on the listener. Stubblefield’s deep and precise drum line (attended immediately by the bass and rhythm guitar) is what grabs the listener first. The horn section is there right away as well, playing a simple descending two-note figure, and that pattern is also part of the perfect scaffolding on which “Cold Sweat” is built.

The foundation of the song is rhythmically exact and feels unsyncopated: Stubblefield enters with a dominate downbeat; the horns hit their figure square on the two and the three; and the four is occupied by the bass. There is actually much syncopation underneath the surface of the music. Stubblefield’s drum figure and Bernard Odum’s bass line provide the sort of polyrhythm that we now associate with funk. Odum and Stubblefield are locked, in the pocket, and their lines are periodic, repeating precisely in every measure, keeping emphasis on the beat, not off it. Backbeat is provided more by the horns entering on the two than by the bass and drums; the horn line is bone simple, but the section is strong (there are seven horns on the album Cold Sweat, though I can’t say whether all seven play on this tune) and provides another periodic rhythm complementing Odum and Stubblefield. All together, the band pushes the groove forward inexorably, like a powerful machine, maintaining a steady four on the surface and unleashing opposing and yet congruous polyrhythms underneath.

But near the end of the second measure, something different enters, and it occurs off the beat. On the “and of three” in the second measure, a sound arrives, and it was this sound that, when I heard the song for the first time, made my hackles rise. What is it? A voice, surely. But of what? And saying what?

The lyrics of “Cold Sweat” are usually textually rendered with a monosyllable at the beginning: “Ha!” the texts say. If that sound in the second measure is a “ha,” you couldn’t prove it by me. I have listened to the track over and over and I am still unable to render it accurately in text. “Ha!” is as good as anything else, as long as you include the exclamation point, but “Huh!” might serve, or “Ongh!” The sound is animal; it is sexual; that it is also human only emphasizes the first two qualifiers.

It is, of course, James Brown—though it sounds as if a dragon has knocked down the wall of the studio and is breathing fire into the microphone. That gout of fire is sung, but what note is it? Sometimes I think he hits the root of the chord; sometimes I think it’s the fifth; sometimes I think it’s a blue note, the flat third. Someone with a better ear and more musical knowledge than I possess might be able to chart it out precisely, but it is enough for present purposes to say that this sound is a multiphonic—in this case several notes at once, like the sound that results from hitting a piano keyboard with your fist. If we think of it as something that happens on a multiphonic instrument like the piano or guitar, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that someone might control such a technique with great precision (think, for instance, of pianist Cecil Taylor). The idea that a single human could make such a sound with his or her voice is, for most of us, a more foreign thought; but Brown reproduces this monosyllable quite precisely at several points in the song.

In truth, James Brown’s voice is always multiphonic. His vocal apparatus seems designed to evoke not just a core tone, but a core tone attended by a swarm of harmonics. Many vocalists do this. Think of Louis Armstrong and Tom Waits; think particularly of the way Janis Joplin screams triads (full chords) in various of her tunes, notably “Summertime.” Such singers have “dirty” or “impure” voices—something that was frowned on, mostly, in the Western musical tradition until relatively lately. I have not attempted a rigorous study of the history of this kind of vocal performance in American music; it seems likely to me that it, like so much else, enters through the back door of work songs, gospel, and blues. Irish tenors and operatic sopranos (all opera singers, really) strive for pure tones, unadorned by dissonant harmonic overtones; gospel and blues singers often do not.

But there are other traditions, some of them ancient, that employ the same techniques that James Brown uses, though to very different effect and for different purposes. That night in the car, James Brown’s multiphonic “Ha!” (render it so) literally made the hair stand up on the back of my neck and sent an electric bolt down my spine. Thirty years later, when I first heard Tibetan throat singing, I had exactly the same physical response.


My exploration here is that of a poet who writes for the page, but who has also spent decades playing music, mostly so-called “popular” music, whatever that means. When those of us engrained in literature and literary criticism discuss songs, our discipline demands we go straight for the words; but songs, the musician in me insists, obviously consist of more than words alone. Our instinct might be to write about songs that are lyric-heavy—and thus resemble as closely as possible text-based poems, or have the most clear relation to texts—and while that’s perfectly all right, it leaves out a multitude of other songs that are of another kind. If I write about a Dylan song, for instance, I can (perhaps) easily retool all my close reading and comparative text skills to apply to the job. But while some analysis properly proceeds from the hypothesis that songs and poems are close kin, our text-critical habits may lead us to leave out, or not notice, important dimensions of the kind of poem a song is, or vice versa.

From the critic’s point of view there may be something liberating in the proposition “songs are poems too.” But if we flip the terms, problems may appear. “Poems are songs too” is clearly not literally accurate, unless you are prepared to sing (and set) any poem you meet— certainly a possibility, but equally certainly in many cases a waste of time. A text-based poem is not a song in the literal sense because it is not being sung. Musical terminology applied to textual poetry is mostly sheer analogy—only rhythm can make the leap, and even then only imperfectly. It is, of course, in analogies that we find rich territory for thought.

I have spent decades trying to teach students in creative writing classes how different a thing a text is from a living utterance (much less a song) but that it is our job as poets to build our poems in such a way that the reader will forget that difference. A piece of paper has no voice; it has no body. The reader must not think so. I am aware that there are poets and poetries that disagree with this assumption, and I tell students that. But most of my students (as I do) aspire to a poem that has at least a partial oral and/or musical basis. And so I have said over and over that the songwriter can rely on there being a band along with a singer to perform songs; but the textual poet must build not only the singer but also the rhythm section into the text: an analogic proposition if there ever was one.

Often students become very happy when they are told this—until they actually try to do it. When they return to class with blank looks, I begin to teach them craft. Every element of craft is a way to bring a poem into a deeper and richer connection with an audience, first and foremost—but straight up, in terms of the composition of particular, actual poems as opposed to in the abstract, every element of craft is dedicated to building the soul of the poem a body, and then making it sing, and then surrounding it with a band. One could, like George Saintsbury, speak volumes about what this means in particular cases (though even Saintsbury, for all his rigor, would be flummoxed by the craft of free verse). For present purposes it is analogically perfect to refer to all that cultural background, to millennia of the accumulated wisdom of actual poets, under the aegis of a single word: prosody, a term more or less relegated (comparatively recently) to the scrap heap of history because too many people associate it with a certain kind of poetic craft, forgetting its original meaning, which is for us what is singularly apropos: in its Greek roots, the word prosody means toward song. And so, while the word has for us mostly come to mean the exercise of traditional, Eurocentric formal poetic craft in the making of a “perfect” formal text (all of Charles Hartman’s efforts to establish the elements of a prosody of free verse notwithstanding), all the while the history of the word is telegraphing something different: prosody is the poet’s practice, within which he or she makes a body for the soul of the poem, and makes it sing, and provides it with a rhythm section. This is as true for Ginsberg as for Bishop or Hopkins. There are many musics; a rhythm section can have a trap set or kettle drums.

For present purposes, I am interested in the multivalence of the word “prosody,” and how it bears its precise ambiguity of meaning forward, whether or not particular practitioners are aware of it. We seek to discover analogies that help make and clarify complicated connections—in this case, the precise nature of the correspondence between the textual poem and its non-identical twin the song. Texts are analogs to living utterance—analogs twice over, in fact, since the text is a score for an utterance that the reader must mentally recreate, and so we are two steps away from the original source.

From here, there are a myriad of possible jumping-off points. I am choosing one of them: a parallel between the potential multivalence of language in particular contexts and vocal multiphonics. They are not the same thing—far from it. But poetic multivalence and vocal multiphonics often (in my experience) give rise to a similar effect: that uncanny feeling that raises the hair on my neck as it did for Emily Dickinson.


YouTube is an excellent repository of many things, including clips of singers performing, explaining, and teaching vocal multiphonics. Watching some of these videos gives a pleasure similar to what you might experience watching a stage magician do excellent sleight of hand: a drone note might be accompanied by a high-frequency melody octaves above the drone, all coming simultaneously from one throat. If you are familiar with the harmonic overtone series, you will recognize these melodies as its manifestation; these vocalists are, so to speak, stuck with certain notes like bugle players are. Watching these performances, I am amazed and dismissive at the same time. A parlor trick is a parlor trick, no matter how well it is done. And yet the fact that all this evidently independent sound is coming from a single human body can seem, like a good magic trick, impossible.

There are other applications of vocal multiphonics that are more interesting, indeed riveting. Tuvan throat singing, as practiced by people from southern Siberia and from Mongolia, tends to be low-pitched and dissonant; droning effects are the norm just as in the examples cited above, but they are deployed very differently. Some Tibetan Buddhist monks also practice low frequency throat singing; for them, as for the shamans of Mongolia and elsewhere, multiphonic singing  is a means to what I can only call a pragmatic mystical end: meditation of a profound kind wherein, according to tradition, one journeys somewhere otherwise inaccessible: to deep interior places, or to the world of the gods, or into universal sentience, for instance. The prosodies that aid the mystic traveler have been wonderfully summarized by the comparative religionist Mircea Eliade under the heading “archaic techniques of ecstasy,” his conclusion being that in order thus to journey one must be in an ecstatic altered state, attainable of course by chemical means but also otherwise.

A sound arises from the throat singer’s body that feels impossible to the listener, and very likely to the singer as well. It is as if something superhuman has entered. I emphasize the “as if,” since the nature of the tones produced by these means have physiological explanations; but the voices that emerge are not usual. The sound is thoroughly uncanny, and it is no wonder that it can be experienced as the arrival in the singer’s body of something from outside or from deep within: a power.

I cannot do justice to this phenomenon in a few words, so I must refer any interested reader to other sources (YouTube really is a useful starting point). Neither can I do full justice to the analog I want to present: the Logos, as understood (as nearly as I can tell) by the philosopher Heraclitus, for whom the Logos was many things and at the same time one thing, and one of the things it was to him was the voice within the voice.

Reader, you may be forgiven for thinking that this is a stretch, designed to allow me to be the first person in the history of the universe to associate Heraclitus with James Brown. Maybe.

But consider one of Heraclitus’s most famous and enigmatic fragments: “Listening not to me but to the Logos, it is wise to acknowledge that all things are one” (50). There is argument, of course, about just what is meant by this, but many commentators agree that the sense is close to this: When I speak, don’t listen to Heraclitus; listen to the Logos that speaks through Heraclitus. For Heraclitus, then, every voice is multiphonic, though those who do not pay attention will not notice that fact.

Heraclitus’s fragments are full of doubleness: puns, paradoxes, and metaphors are everywhere. This aspect of his sayings bothered later Greek philosophers, especially his tendency to metaphor; metaphor was too Homeric for Plato: too poetic, and we know what Plato wanted to do with the poets. According to the classicist Ann Brann, these figures are Heraclitus’s “double way of being double-tongued…his puns insinuate diverse meanings into one word sound,” which for Heraclitus was, or may have been, a kind of sacred activity, since it reminds us that there is a voice within the voice, which leads to Brann’s observation that “a logos-teller speaks both as this human being…and yet not for himself, for he has to ‘say the same’ as the Logos.”

The complaint of his successors that Heraclitus resembled the poets is apropos for this discussion. Poetry—or a certain kind of poetry, which is I believe the core of our tradition— seeks to convey both individual voices and something greater than any individual (which may be nothing more, or less, than the voice of poetry itself, which speaks through any practitioner, one way or the other).

At the end of his indispensable poem “Those Winter Sundays,” after detailing the life of one working-class household in which the father rises brutally early every day and stokes the fire and shines his son’s shoes (“I never thanked him,” the narrator confesses), Robert Hayden concludes with the thoroughly unpredictable lines “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?” It is as if another, greater voice has risen up out of the text; that voice seems to come out of nowhere, but it was there from the beginning. Or when, in an equally famous poem, James Wright concludes “if I stepped out of my body I would break / into blossom,” something similar has happened. What voice is this and where, in a poem about ponies in a field, did it come from? Reasonable question. But a careful reader will say, “It was there all along.”

Poetry is an art of multivalence. Poets labor to split the word, like a physicist splitting the atom—or, better, like a prism splits a ray of sunlight striking its precisely cut angle. What is revealed when white light breaks into rainbow? Something that feels miraculous but is really nothing more than what was actually there the whole time.

When I hear the multiphonic voice, my reaction every single time is a sort of ecstatic bewilderment: how is that sound even possible? There are people on YouTube who say they can tell you exactly how to do it in three minutes, but all they can really do is show you that they can do it. Learning to do it—and learning to do it precisely—is a discipline that takes years, or a lifetime. But the practice of it, like the practice of meditation with which it is sometimes allied, or the shaman’s technique of ecstasy, is a journey in itself, analogous to what is announced in the last line of Rilke’s great poem “The Archaic Torso of Apollo”: You must change your life. 



“Cold Sweat” was famous in its time among musicians, who found it strange. The trombonist Fred Wesley, who became a member of The James Brown Orchestra, said that he was at first “very unimpressed with [‘Cold Sweat’]. . . It only had one change, the words made no sense at all, and the bridge was musically incorrect.” Once he was in the band, he said it was the tune he most looked forward to playing. “Cold Sweat” was something at least semi-new in R&B: it was a modal composition not built on the 1-4-5 of the blues but on a two-chord pattern that bandleader and arranger Pee Wee Ellis, who was part of the tune’s composition, said was influenced by Miles Davis’s “So What.” Ellis, a saxophonist, is referring to the horn section’s two-note figure, the same figure that is part of the melody of “So What,” also a modal composition. I have my doubts about some of that, since the horn figure in question is a workhorse of R&B horn sections, but the fact remains that “Cold Sweat” departed from R&B tradition in favor of something different—something that quickly became Funk.

That particular cultural history is fascinating, but I choose not to pursue it further here for economy’s sake. It is worth noting that the lyrics of “Cold Sweat,” which hardly anyone who writes about the song pays a lot of attention to, came largely from an earlier song of Brown’s, “I Don’t Care,” which is an utterly different kind of song, a Bobby Bland-influenced blues ballad, quite all right in its way, but without much power. When it became “Cold Sweat,” Stubblefield says he laid down a rhythm in the studio, Odum picked it up on bass, and Brown “put words to it.” Assuming the musician’s testimonies are accurate, Brown must have realized, in a flash inspired by Stubblefield’s groove, that a chunk of the lyrics of “I Don’t Care” had found another, better home.

Each chorus and bridge of “Cold Sweat” leads to a climax that I, for one, find it hard to believe was arrived at on the spur of the moment with a seven-piece horn section. At the crucial moment, the rhythm section stops. “I break out,” Brown sings in the interstice, and the horn section answers with a five-note ascending figure. Then they stop, and Brown virtually screams “In a coooold sweat!” and the horns reply with five more ascending notes ending in harmonized long tone. Then the groove resumes exactly as before.

The backing track of “Cold Sweat”—the groove plus the horn arrangement—is precise and undeviating, through all seven and a half minutes of the song. The rhythm section is an unstoppable machine, absolutely clean—pure, one might say: the incisiveness of Stubblefield’s drumming, the fat tone of Odum’s bass (which set a standard for the all-important bass role in Funk), the perfect and reticent rhythm guitar work of Jimmy Nolen. Against that grid, Brown’s voice works its counterpoint: syncopated and thoroughly impure.

Brown has a “dirty” vocal timbre that is the consequence of its core being constantly harmonically “disturbed” by harmonic overtones. This is probably not an effect that Brown worked hard to attain; he always sounds like that. But something about “Cold Sweat” seems to invite him to push the multiphonic quality of his voice to the maximum. His passionate cry “in a cooold sweat!” is about 75% of the way to that maximum.

But he doesn’t begin to get all the way there until, midway in the song, he calls on his ace tenor saxophonist Maceo Parker. “Maceo! Come on now, brother. Put it where it’s at now,” Brown intones, and Parker enters with a solo that initiates a second movement.

Parker, as usual, rises perfectly to the occasion, delivering riffs that are insistently off the beat and full of empty spaces, the kind of stuttering effect of which the great R&B saxophonist King Curtis is the eternal master. But Parker is not simply playing a solo; he is setting up a dialog. Very soon after the tenor ride starts, Brown begins filling in the empty spaces between the riffs with shouts. A call-and-response ensues, in the course of which Brown exhorts Parker, talks to himself (or someone), at one point even quoting “Funky Broadway,” and pushes his voice into a variety of non-verbal modes: grunts, laughs, brief screams. This passage takes Brown to perhaps 85% of his multiphonic maximum.

At length, signaling the end of Parker’s solo, Brown says (evidently for the first time on record) the immortal and sometimes dreaded words “Give the drummer some!” Stubblefield solos briefly, and then is joined by Odum, who riffs with him at length, all over one chord. Finally Brown re-enters with one last verse, cranked up to a new intensity—a verse that never ends, for he begins repeating a phrase from the song’s bridge, “When you kiss me”—the phrase that has immediately preceded the hook (“I break out in a coooold sweat!”).

What I expect is for the hook to return and for the song to end on the horns’ ascending figure with a big formata at the end, but it is not to be. Brown begins singing “when I kiss you” over and over, punctuating it with flat-out screams—or, more precisely, with seriously multiphonic long tones. As the repetition progresses, Brown’s voice splits apart increasingly, until, near the end, he is producing profoundly and obviously multiphonic effects in which very high harmonics begin to break out over the fundamental, until the song simply fades out, as if even after seven and a half minutes the band simply can’t stop playing.

The effect is stunning. The more I hear it, the more uncanny it feels. Brown knows exactly what he is doing, because he paces and builds this movement perfectly. If, listening to this, you think Brown is “simply” screaming, listen again: there is complete control of how much his voice dissociates its innate harmonics—exactly the way a beam of light hitting a prism breaks into predictable fundamental wavelengths that were always present but not visible to the eye.

Of course, at that point, the song is all about ecstasy—sexual ecstasy, obviously, but underneath that (just as underneath the steady one-two-three-four of Stubblefield’s drums there are riptides of polyrhythm) the ecstasy is the song’s: not Brown’s, not Stubblefield’s, not the listener’s, not the characters in the lyrics.

Speaking of the lyrics: I have written this far about “Cold Sweat” in the context of poetry without saying anything about the lyrics beyond the opening multiphonic syllable. The fact is, except for the hook (one wonders where Brown got that, since it isn’t part of the original “I Don’t Care,” even remotely, but for this song it is brilliant) the lyrics are unremarkable. Fred Wesley’s observation that they “make no sense” makes no sense, though it also makes no sense to criticize a pop tune for having lyrics that make no sense. Isn’t that a tradition in and of itself?

The lyrics of “Cold Sweat” are ordinary—interchangeable, even, as the fact of their being partly transplanted from another song reveals. “I don’t care about your past / I just want our love to last.” Yup. Check. Nothing nonsensical there, and nothing extraordinary. Dylan or Joni Mitchell or Rimbaud it ain’t. But the song has a certain peculiar power hard to find in other songs and other artists (not impossible, but rare). The poetry in the song lies where the poetry in poetry often lies: in precision juxtaposed against passion; in the precision of passion; in the passion of precision.

And even more, it lies in the breaking open of the voice—a precise breakage. Poets create similar effects by creating patterns of doubleness, interwoven strands of purpose, that can at the poet’s will be teased or torn apart, revealed, and held out to the reader: shown, not told. The screams at the end of “Cold Sweat,” the very last ones, the most shredded and scarred, in which Brown’s voice is literally deconstructed, speak of a powerlessness within the bluff of male sexual bravado. They also speak of the ecstasy of a certain kind of music. There is a meaning in them that is behind the meaning, voiced but unspoken, wordless.

Driving through that Mississippi night in 1967, feeling in the back of my mind and at the bottom of my soul the country coming apart, I was crucified on James Brown’s voice. At seventeen, I did not understand his precise prosody, any more than I understood the life of a grown man of color in America. But from that dominated downbeat, followed by Brown’s multiphonic—what? Ok, call it a “ha!” if you must—outcry, I was galvanized in just the way Emily Dickinson says one is galvanized in the presence of real poetry.

My response to “Cold Sweat” doesn’t make it the same as Dickinson’s “After Great Pain A Formal Feeling Comes.” It does, I maintain, make it analogous. In each work, a patterning evolves toward its own untangling, and in that breakage there occurs a revelation of something deeper, something primal and unacknowledged, but actually known by everyone, that lives underneath. Each work embodies (I was about to say expresses, but that seems too weak a word) something simultaneously uncanny and familiar. And the means by which each work achieves what it achieves can be described fairly precisely, though the essence of the experience cannot.

What I find myself wanting to know is this: if, as we often say, quoting Walter Pater, that all art aspires to the condition of music, just what is it to which all art aspires? What is the condition of music? Likely that depends on just what kind of music we mean, a detail on which Pater is cagily silent, but I don’t think he meant the blues. The poet in me envies the wordless expressiveness of music—even when there is a singer, even when there is not. Underneath the voices, whether of people or of instruments, there are other voices—or as Heraclitus would have it, another Voice. The composer of genius knows how to unleash it.

James Brown does not usually make the list of great American songwriters. That may be because of the kind of lyrics he wrote; it may be because, brilliant singer though he was, he was in the end an ensemble player. It is hard to imagine James Brown without the Famous Flames or some version of it, one of the best bands in history; that band was Brown’s Heraclitean fire. “Cold Sweat,” on the testimony of the musicians involved, appears to have been a group composition in any case.

But if we are to address adequately the nature of the commonalities between poetry and music and their complex intertwined history, we need to be able to take account of songs of all kinds, just as in any comprehensive discussion of prosody we need to be able to take account of poems of all kinds, from sonnets to “Song of Myself.”  For me it is necessary to begin with figures like James Brown and Chuck Berry because, as an artist, I have a strong allegiance to work such as theirs, its power to charm (Chuck Berry) or its transforming ecstasy as it manifests in James Brown, who of all the musicians of the twentieth century must be among the most Dionysian.

To put James Brown in the company of Heraclitus, the shamans of Mongolia, and Emily Dickinson is not the usual approach to his music. I would argue that the ecstatic journey of shamanism (not just in Mongolia but worldwide) is the subterranean ancestor of all art, and so in a way the contention is meaningless—the shaman is also the ancestor of the scientist and the physician. But when one finds in the work of a contemporary artist techniques analogous to something ancient and profound, even if invisible to the artist herself, isn’t it our duty to mention it?

As to the condition of music, to which I for one most certainly do aspire, I leave it to Heraclitus to provide an apt analogy, as I think he does in fragment 93: “The God, whose is the Oracle at Delphi, neither speaks nor hides but signifies.”