In a career lasting a half-century and with a performance catalog of 800 songs, it is hard to call one song James Brown’s calling card, but a case could be made for “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” For starters, it was the song that introduced the rhythmic innovations that would become his signature sound. Shifting the beat “to the one,” freeing the musicians from traditional chord progressions, and setting melody and harmony aside for the sake of rhythm all began with “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”
Even the lyrics could be interpreted as announcements of the new direction Brown was taking R&B. Papa’s “brand new bag” could be interpreted as the innovations he is introducing. Many have made this argument, including rock critic Dave Marsh. With this song, Marsh says, “Brown declared a new order of rhythm and himself its avatar. Or at least, that's the only way in which his expostulations about digging the new breed thing and his recital of every dance craze of the previous five years fit together with the percussive frenzy of drums, bass, razor-edge guitar, and blaring horns.”
Finally, the song about an old man with the nerve to take his dance moves out on the floor reflects the performance style that made Brown’s concerts legendary. High energy and tightly scripted, Brown’s shows were dances as well as concerts. He would do the jerk, the fly, the monkey, the mashed potato, the alligator, the twist, and the boom-a-rang, and then, like some exhausted, danced out old man, he would be draped with a cape and escorted from the stage, only to return to show off a bit more of his new bag.