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The musical innovations within "Papa's got a Brand New Bag" are announced with the opening fanfare and continue to emerge as the song unfolds. The first major change occurs on the first beat. The horn accents the one, leaving the sax and guitar to follow on the backbeat. Almost all previous forms of black music, including gospel, blues, and R&B, accented the two and four or backbeat.
Just about the time listeners come to terms with this innovation, they encounter another. A traditional chorus does not follow the first two verses. The closet thing to a chorus is an extended phrase or vamp where Brown rattles off various dance styles. The chords don't change, and there's only the tiniest of melodies before Brown returns to the chords and melody of the verses.
Having already denied any sort of structural predictability, Brown add a second, far more extended vamp filled by a sax solo. Again, there's no chord progression; the rest of the band hovers on the same chord, serving only as a rhythmic backdrop for the sax. For more than 50 bars, the sax player, Maceo Parker, is free to go wherever he wants within this rhythmic pattern, as there are no chords or melodies limiting his movement.
Brown all but disappears for the last half of the song, only popping in periodically to provide additional rhythmic accents. He doesn't really sing lyrics so much as use words like percussion instruments, and by the end of the song, Brown has joined the rest of the band as part of one large rhythm section.
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.