Black Empowerment: Tina Turner’s Ownership of Proud Mary (Creative History Assignment)

For this paper, I will examine how Tina Turner’s cover of Proud Mary in 1971 served as an example of how black female artists were taking ownership of their stories. More specifically, how Tina Turner’s rearrangement of lyrics, live performance, and influential platform in a white-dominated industry reinvented Creedence Clearwater Revival’s original version of the song. And as a result, empowered black women and ignited black feminism, especially of the working class even further.

John Fogerty, lead singer of the band, initially wrote Proud Mary after his discharge from the military reserves. Growing up with his financial struggles, John decided to replicate a similar theme through the lens of a washerwoman working in the city. Shortly after the song’s release, Tina and Ike Turner, her husband at the time, covered the song, and it skyrocketed.

Most of the cover’s success lies in how Tina Turner reorganized the lyrics. As opposed to John singing the lyrics from the start of the song, Tina wrote a brief but essential monologue in the beginning. As Ian McCann phrases her intro in “Proud Mary: Why Tina Turner’s Classic Cover Keeps on Burnin’”, “Tina’s spoken intro, promising to deliver something “nice and easy”, was something she might have said on stage, and when the song soon leapt from mellow to wild, it was like the soul power of Ike And Tina Turner could not be held back any longer” (Mccann). Although by this point the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, racial injustices remained intact. As discussed in one of the class lectures, the Civil Rights Act offered limited reforms that didn’t particularly dismantle any embedded racial systems. Tina, herself, incorporated her life experiences as a black woman in her songs and Proud Mary was no different.

For instance, during an interview, when asked about her family’s background as sharecroppers, Tina confided that she “hated the cottonfield” and remembered, “the cones- that your hands and the cuticles and the sun, the sun was so hot” (US News). Her song, Nutbush City Limits derives from these experiences. And so, similarly, in Proud Mary, Tina Turner reflects on her simultaneous experiences as a black female living in the United States. If she left the lyrics in the same order as John Forgery sung them, Tina Turner’s story would not shine through as much. The story of a blue-collar white male in the city compared to a black working-class woman, while revolving around the same theme, hardships and adversity, certainly differ in terms of race and sex.

It’s an understatement to say Tina Turner’s live performance of Proud Mary serves as the antithesis to that of John Forgery. As opposed to the casual attire of Creedence Clearwater Revival, lax shoulders, and predicted tune playing from the instruments, Tina Turner reflected quite the opposite. Glamorous costumes, a powerful and passionate voice, and growing anticipation for the second half of the song lead to a captivating and empowering performance. Aside from these factors though, overall, Tina Turner’s dancing, singing, and connection with the audience, contributed to black empowerment.

As explained in ‘To Joy My Freedom, Hunter illustrates how integral, dancing played in fueling liberation for black women. From slavery up until dance halls were showcased in the 1900s, claiming ownership over their own bodies, seemed like an impossible dream for black women. In ‘To Joy My Freedom, Hunter emphasizes this notion, stating “In slavery, blacks were denied the ownership of their bodies. In freedom, they reclaimed their right to use their bodies beyond their needs for subsistence alone” (Hunter, 184). Sue, for instance, a black woman who worked in the mills, “worked hard, like a man, during the day, but she shed her industrial pants and worked hard as a woman at night, as she danced in a setting in which femininity was appreciated for its compatibility” (Hunter, 181- 182). Concerning Tina Turner, she represented the product of owning her black body. It’s one of the main reasons why Turner became symbolic for black women. Watching a black woman follow her passions in an era of injustices and white dominance spoke volumes. Nevertheless, watching a black woman perform an all too well-known story that resonated with the masses while dancing as she pleased, inspired many.

And so, what black woman aspired to claim in dance halls in earlier years, revealed itself in Tina Turner covering Proud Mary. Ultimately, her live performances empowered black women as “the major underlying principles that informed this aesthetic and that were embodied in vernacular dance were irreverence, transcendence, social realism, self-empowerment, and collective individualism” (Hunter 183). Collective individualism, in particular, coins at a larger theme of enduring hardships every day. Specifically, sexism and its role in the lives of black women. It’s worth noting that, in most cases, feminism diverged at the concept of race. Enter, black feminism and why Tina Turner’s influence in a white-dominated industry prevailed.

Before identifying the differences between black women and white women and how intersectionality separated the two, I’d like to argue that black women fought for full citizenship as women and as black people. In other words, perhaps, like the Double Victory prefaced in earlier years concerning winning a war abroad and at home, black women encountered a similar dilemma. However, through a microscopic lens, black women aimed to sustain a double victory in more nuanced terms. That is — obtaining full citizenship in their fight for equality through both identities.

Through a statement by the Combahee River Collective, a black feminist lesbian organization, they explain these anecdotes, writing, “We also often find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously” (Combahee River Collective). This reinforces the argument that black sexist men and white racist women do exist.

Considering Tina Turner, a black woman, facing hate from both sides, she sought out to provide confidence through her influential platform. It’s difficult to pinpoint whether, Tina aimed to inspire and uplift black women. In any case, I think Proud Mary, “identified with the glorious tradition of black female activists’ trenchant commitment to empowering themselves to create a humanistic community” (Taylor, 27). And though Tina Turner admitted to aspiring to sound like black male artists, she also took pride in her identity as a woman. Despite the extra hurdles Tina Turner went through in her musical career, she kept going. I think Tina strategically reinvented the meaning of Proud Mary in part due to its metaphorical sense as well. John Forgery mentioned how “Mary” symbolized a riverboat.

The chorus of the song, to which Tina Turner earnestly sings with a fire in her soul, interestingly follows as such, “big wheel keep on turning, Proud Mary keep on burning” (Genius). It’s reasonable to assume that Tina Turner kept on burning. Therefore, along with amplifying black woman’s confidence and ownership, Proud Mary hit close to home for Tina. According to an article by The Atlantic, Proud Mary “always had a more intimate meaning to Turner. When asked by Haute Living this winter to do a little word association with some of her biggest hits, she responded to “Proud Mary” with a single word: freedom” (Heller).

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