Aretha Franklin in People’s History
The day after Aretha’s passing, two of my sons, Toussaint and Conrad, texted me to the effect that, “Pops, you never told us anything about Aretha Franklin…”
Toussaint: “I didn’t know her; you didn’t play her for me growing up…”
Conrad: “I agree with Touey. You never really mentioned Aretha. Never played her songs. That’s your generation. I remember as a child you played Public Enemy and Stevie Wonder….”
Since it was two of my children and neither had any reason to lie, I had to plead guilty … to child neglect, at best, and, at worst, to child abuse — “How can a Black man of the 1960’s generation not tell his children about Aretha Franklin?”
I thought about this, and, while I pled guilty, I was able to identify the reason for this apparently gaping omission in healthy parenting after I received a text from my oldest daughter, Lisa: “I’m so sorry to hear about Aretha. I know what an impact she had on your life.”
“Li, thanx for saying it that way. As the greatest singer of my life time, I haven’t listened to her since the close of the 1970’s. She was the highest voice of the Black Liberation Movement [BLM], and it diminishes her greatness not at all that with the decline of that movement, so Aretha died for me….
“To the extent that NPR is the definition of liberalism as a stinking corpse, today I’ll take them every minute of the day over GE [NBC], Disney [ABC] or Trump [Fox] — NPR is playing Aretha from the ‘50’s — 70’s. Corporate Aretha fans are calling Aretha ‘the Diva’… I don’t have a reference point for that? Anytime Clinton, Bush Jr., Obama and Trump all agree (yeah, Trump called her a diva also!), you know the stars are out of alignment…”
Li: “You can package and sell a diva. You can’t package soul…” Lisa, closed this message with the power sign/clenched fist emoji. That was my sentiment exactly…
Indeed, with the demise of the BLM, everything in the cultural/social/political atmosphere of African America changed. Particularly with the elimination of the Black Panther Party by military means, we were in disarray.
And the cultural reflections of that moment changed — went underground. Hip-Hop was born as the next generation’s response to the most prominent activists having to go into hiding, fleeing to other countries, or being assassinated (Medgar Evers, Malcolm, Martin, Lil’ Bobby Hutton, Fred Hampton, George Jackson). The music, including Aretha, lost its poignancy — it lost its open declaration of confidence in the righteousness of our mission. Aretha’s music took a decided turn away from its most “Black self” of the 1960’s and ‘70’s.
Lisa’s acknowledgement, that Aretha belonged to the 1960’s generation, and not to the commercialized, corporate diva image, inspired me. I got the courage to resubmit for internet publication my very personal story, “Aretha was my First Girl Friend,”[ii] first published 22 years earlier. With that resubmission, I joined a cacophony of voices which were reclaiming Aretha as the melodic representative of the Black Liberation Movement. This quote from Aretha fan, Cami Bell, captures the message of my first article from 1996: “Lord Jesus, her ability to execute the definition of what love is thru song and melody is UNPARALLELED!!!! If you don’t know what love is, looks like, or feels like, this women can give you a clear depiction of it!!!” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9_KlifOSq0).
First there were numerous references online to her support of Angela Davis. Even as her father warned her not to get “mixed up” with folks who were “too radical,” she ignored that admonition and publicly spoke out against the repression the US government was meting out to this revolutionary and member of the Black Panther Party (BPP).
My daddy says I don’t know what I’m doing. Well, I respect him, of course, but I’m going to stick by my beliefs. Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up (for disturbing the peace in Detroit) and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she’s a Black woman and she wants freedom for Black people. I have the money. I got it from Black people. They made me financially able to have it — and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.[iii]
I love that she called Angela Davis a “communist” and she then still supported her.
Then there was her letter to Emory Douglas, Minister of Culture of the BPP, and arguably the greatest cartoonist of the BLM. I had never seen this letter before.[iv] She was apologizing for not being able to follow through on an engagement of support of the Panthers. What is so striking is the humility with which she approached the countenance of the BPP: “I love what you are doing in the community, and I am looking forward to meeting all of you,”… and adding that “I am also gratified that you thought enough to write and let me know your feelings, as once in a while one feels so inadequate in this business and wonders if people really feel we have talent or not and if that talent brings a smile or so from those we try to reach.”[v]
Her benefit concert for the families of victims of the Attica massacre, 1972, is at least as noteworthy, as the leadership of the Attica Uprising, the greatest prison uprising in the history of this country, was avowedly aligned with the New York chapters of the Black Panther Party and Puerto Rican Young Lords Party (Ritz, pp259–260).
In the wake of Aretha’s passing, the outpouring of admiration for her work in support of our freedom struggle of that era has brought into bold relief our greater understanding today of what back then actually constituted “the Black Liberation Movement.” Folks who experienced themselves as activists in the “Civil Rights Movement” were equally as vocal in their reclaiming of the soul of Aretha.
Indeed, today any legitimate People’s History account of the BLM understands that the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement/Human Rights Movement were each wings of one movement. Today, we have the advantage of hindsight. Aretha’s spiritual disposition back then was such that she could embrace with her voice the entire movement.
It also must be pointed out that her father was a key operative in the civil rights wing. As a Minister with a large congregation, he predated in his social activism today’s practitioners of Black Liberation Theology. However, the social character of the civil rights wing of the movement, its leadership and its political purport (in other words, its targets, its ideology and its identification points), was decidedly middle class. Aretha had an exhaustive schedule in the late sixties, meeting the demands for support at rallies of the civil rights movement, as well as the demands on her time as the most prolific and popular artist in the country. That she was able to fit in, against her father’s will and against the demands of the civil rights leadership, attention to “the revolutionaries and communists” is testament to her singular leadership, if from the perspective of a cultural activist, of the entire movement.
People’s History is the record of the combined efforts of we-the-people, in our millions, to create a better world, a world in which we can survive and thrive. People’s History utilizes this record for the purpose of informing our current efforts — this is what history lessons are for. To the extent that People’s History examines the role of this or that individual, it is for the purpose of identifying their representation of the people’s cause, their contribution to our mission to freedom. People’s History appropriates such individuals, not as having been dropped from the sky by God into our midst, but as birth children of the People’s Freedom Movement. Aretha Franklin was such a birth child. Aretha Franklin made a significant contribution to the people’s cause, and so we examine her role as a voice of the people in a world we are changing for the better.
The next day of the mourning process was Saturday, the day of our weekly Black Mindfulness Meditation group up here in Roxbury, MA. The session broke out into a meditation on Aretha. Unprovoked, in other words, without a prior plan to do so, each of us brought Aretha memorabilia, and we meditated on our obligation to reclaim Aretha’s soul. It was a lovely and exquisite session. (Meanwhile, a friend texted, on her way to a four-day retreat for Black women, “The theme for our retreat is going to be Aretha!”)
One participant in our group offered that none of her songs spoke in openly political terms, and that “her most intentional album, theme-wise, Amazing Grace, in fact had not one manifestly political line.”
Mary disputed this: “It is political. Gospel is the story of our freedom struggle; the revolution to overthrow chattel slavery; Jim Crow. The entire piece is political through and through.”
Donna added, “We feel art, we feel the spirit in the music… It doesn’t need a formulation or a definition… Aretha made us feel powerful, feel love for each other, feel the need to continue to fight for our freedom.”
It was suggested that the entire presentation of Amazing Grace is non-ideological, and at the same time in possession of a rich theme of social revolution and liberation. “Listen to her words — it is not a Christian presentation. ‘Mary, Don’t You Weep’? — as soon as Moses parts the waters so that Harriet Tubman and her guerrillas can grab us, chop off massa’s head if necessary, and get us to the water so that the dogs can no longer smell our scent — in that immediacy does this cease to be a Christian story, in other words, a religious dogma. (There is nothing more ideological than religion). It is spirituality — the spirit of African America.”
Indeed, apropos Donna’s approbation regarding our feelings, what are you feeling when she screams that “Pharaoh’s army drowned in the Red Sea. Yes, they did! Oh Mary, don’t’ you weep. Tell Martha not to moan”? Does it not give you the feeling that we may be able to make it through this very strange situation in which we find ourselves today?
There are many other openly political statements in Aretha’s canon: “To be Young Gifted and Black.” Indeed, the major “crime” committed by Black Lives Matter today, according to its critics, is that it openly avows that specifically Black Liberation is human liberation. Aretha was saying just that, 50 years ago.
“Funny,” Ray Charles said, “but the first Aretha song I remember loving wasn’t ‘Respect’ or any of those first hits, but Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come.’ I thought that was the one that explained who she was and how she was changing up the shit. When I heard that, I realized Aretha was my one and only true Soul Sista.”[vi]
A possibly subtle evidence of her world view was that Aretha did nothing to try to make her sound more palatable to White people. She was interested in reaching all humanity on the basis of her deep support from Black American culture and spirit, and she compromised her presentation in no way to achieve this connection. Her release, at the height of her popularity, of the album Young, Gifted and Black is another proof of this.
In the words of Jazz critic, Nat Hentoff, “She never compromised an iota of her authenticity as an artist schooled in the deepest and most creative tradition of Blues, Gospel, and Jazz.”[vii] All three of these are African American art forms.
And Aretha’s agent, Jerry Wexler, confirms: “‘Respect’ started off as a soul song and wound up as a kind of national anthem. It virtually defined American culture at that moment in history.”[viii]
“It was Blues with an attitude — a Black attitude. In the first part of the sixties, Motown reflected less militant middle-class desires. Motown was beautiful, but Motown, at least in its early configurations, was mild. Aretha was anything but mild. Her voice carried the assertiveness of a new class of not only Blacks no longer content to get-along-and-go-along but also young Whites whose discontent with the status quo was deep.”[ix]
I would assert that this “new class” basis of her voice was that of the African American industrial working class. Detroit is home to the most entrenched Black industrial working class in the history of the world. It gave birth, in the late ‘60’s early ‘70’s, to the Detroit Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), rooted in the Black trade union workers at the auto plants — this organization was actually the strongest revolutionary organization in Detroit at the time of the 1960’s revolutionary movement, stronger than the Panther chapter there. This city was home to the great communist revolutionaries, James and Grace Lee Boggs.[x]
There can be no doubt that this Black working class foundation influenced the greatest daughter of Detroit. Aretha’s revolutionary sound comes from that class basis as well as from the other Black influences in her life. It was this class basis which caused Aretha to choose Atlantic over the bourgie Motown. It was this class basis which influenced her to take on the awesome responsibility of revolutionary leadership.[xi]
Aretha as Lyricist
One thing that is emphasized in all scholarly recounts of Aretha’s artistic life is her otherwise under-appreciated acuity as a lyricist. She was every bit the outstanding writer, as she was simultaneously able to identify great writing in others. She could rise to the most beautiful crescendos in verse, which were translated to our ears through her bird-like rendering of them:
Baby, baby, baby, think of me sometimes;
Because if loving you was so wrong, then I’m guilty of this crime…
I’m bewildered, I’m lonely, and I’m loveless,
Without you to hold my hand
If you’d just understand…[xii]
When Aretha took a song from a White performer, a song which I may have paid no attention to in its first iteration, I immediately assumed there was some deep meaning to the song because Aretha decided to sing it. I was invariably correct: “Border Song,” “Bridge over Troubled Waters,” “the Weight” (no, I’m sorry. I knew “The Weight” was deeply about something before she took it — it is deeply about something; check it out, The Band[xiii]). I was initially crestfallen when I found out that Aretha had no idea what “the Weight” was about.[xiv] But, as the story of her choosing of this song unfolded, it emerges that she sensed it was about something important (Ritz). In the same manner that she could reproduce a song without knowing how to read music, so too could she anticipate the meaning of a song without actually being able to explain it. She translated the meaning through the tenor in her voice. It is hard to argue with an intuition such as this one, given the track record.
Finally, on her lyricism, as mentioned already, if Aretha took someone else’s song, I assumed there was deep meaning. That didn’t always turn out to be the case. “Love the One Your With” by Steven Stills, had a shelf life as long as the hippie “free love” “revolution…”[xv] In other words, a few years. “Let it Be,” by that airhead Paul McCartney? All over the world, social change is being made in cataclysmic fashion. The powers-that-be are running amuck in genocidal campaigns in Vietnam, against Black America, and the best this guy can come up with in response is to “Let it Be”? Aretha made it sound like there was something important taking place. (There wasn’t).
In the final analysis, the power of her sound, and the accompanying lyrics of her songs, came from the uprising of her people and from the international movement for human rights, the fight for freedom then raging all around the world. Cecil Franklin: “I encouraged my sister’s political stances. I think they helped her. When she was politically engaged she regained a stronger sense of herself. Political involvement took the concentration off herself and her personal problems. It got her out of herself. When her emotional fragility was at its greatest, I’d often give her an article about what was happening in politics — just to bring her back to earth. Some say that ‘Spirit in the Dark’ was about sex. Some say it was about God. But there was also a powerful political spirit that was sweeping through the country in the early seventies. Aretha was part of that spirit. She contributed to it and, in many ways, gave it a voice.”[xvi]
Aretha Live at Fillmore West and Amazing Grace
Jerry Wexler on Aretha Live at Fillmore West: “All the planets were aligned right that night, because when the music came down, it was as real and righteous as any recording I’d ever made.”[xvii]
As I have alluded to previously,[xviii] I lived in the vacuous suburbs in the ‘60’s, early ‘70’s. No matter how much is going on in the world, the most clueless place possibly on planet Earth is the White suburbs of the United States.[xix] It was in this situation that Aretha Franklin was one of my penultimate spiritual guides. My friends and I (they were all White) hung on her every word as guidance for a way out of this purgatory.
When I heard about this concert, I immediately went out and bought the album (1971) and brought it to my partners, Johnny and Matthew Hill. They were both musicians, and I could count on them taking this seriously, as I saw this album’s release as a possible important event in our spiritual lives. Their mother, Selma Hill, who was otherwise generally occupied in the culture of White middle class America (a social illness), was also an artist who on occasion was able to transcend this condition — this turned out to be one of those occasions. She was part of our foursome as we sat down to study and imbibe this album for the first time.
Biographer David Ritz describes the build up to and production of the concert in these terms: “The Fillmore gig almost hadn’t happened. Even at a time when ‘Respect,’ ‘Chain of Fools’, and ‘Natural Woman’ had made Aretha a real crossover star, [Jerry] Wexler admitted that he ‘considered the musical tastes of the Flower Children infantile and retarded.’ Although Aretha liked the hippies… colorful garb and their ‘love-the-world philosophy,’ she shared Wexler’s apprehensions. The audience’s response surpassed her wildest hopes. ‘What overwhelmed her — and surprised me — was the musical intelligence of the hippies. They picked up on her every shading and nuance; they were attentive, appreciative, and hip to exactly what was happening, technically and emotionally. The response,” he concluded, “was as evolved and as well defined as though it had been an entirely black audience.”[xx]
My two friends and their mother were part of this section of White America, and as such, I had no doubt that they were going to connect to this experience. We hung on every word, and went with each rise and fall of her voice. The band, King Curtis’, was amazing, and Aretha’s backup singers were sent directly from heaven.
The band started the introduction with ‘Respect,’ and the audience, large majority White and a few Black, were in an uproar as Aretha came out; standing and screaming, before she could get out a word. From the opening gun, ‘Respect’ was not simply the new national anthem, but it was the Black anthem for… America.
My foursome was mesmerized. As she went from ‘Love the one you’re With,” to ‘Make it with You,” it was clear that she was “reaching out” to this people from the dominant nation, taking their songs, and literally taking ownership of them, making them Black songs.
Immediately, I (we?) experienced it as the realization of the “dreams” of integration and “racial harmony.” As someone brought up in White middle class liberal culture, I internalized the goals of this aberrant section of humanity. In fact, this achievement of “racial harmony” was a White (engendered) fantasy. When White people in general (peoples of European ancestry are 16% of the world’s people), and White Americans in particular (White Americans are 3% of the world’s people) find themselves with the most minuscule percentage of “other” humans in their midst, they think they have achieved “internationalism.” The purport of this concert was something else. It was Aretha, representing the BLM, reaching out to the disaffected sector of the White American nation, the “hippies,” the “counterculture.”[xxi] In this connection, it was not until today, re-studying the period and the concert, that I realized this was not an audience made up of “half-White and half-Black” as I imagined it while listening back then. Liberalism as an ideology has deep roots in all of our psyches and inserts itself unconsciously.
In fact, a large section of this part of White America was genuinely attracted to this Black Liberation sound, even as they may, as a group, not have understood its transcendent purport, transcendent of Western culture, and prefiguring a society free from oppression and exploitation.
Hey, have you ever tried,
Really reaching out for the other side,
I may be climbing on rainbows,
But, baby here goes…
Aretha was up to the challenge of her own supplication, and so was the crowd. There was no sweeter voice on planet Earth than that of Aretha to ask this question. You wanted to say, “Ok, I’ll try it…”
After thirty minutes of this music, Aretha exited the stage, and the crowd sounded like they were in pre-riot form, demanding that she come back for an encore. In her encore, Aretha preceded ‘Dr. Feelgood’ with urban ministry, asking her audience, “Would you like to hear the Blues?” As the audience screamed its approval, she performed a transcendent version of this panegyric to sexual love. She took what was already a household sound in America, and raised ‘Dr. Feelgood’ to a spiritual level. Think about how sex had been presented to us: From our initial kidnapping, originally from many mostly West African nations, and forged into one people on the anvil of slavery, under the lash on a sugar plantation — the way sex was presented to us was synonymous with violence, torture, stealing, and perversion. Our women and girls were subject to rape as a life-long experience, while our men and boys experienced the same, maybe to a lesser extent, and we were also breaded and removed from our loved ones as part of the process. Who better than African Americans to present sexual love as a beautiful and life giving experience? In this presentation of Aretha’s, sexual love became more than recreation, but was a human need and a human right.
At the center of the encore was a collaboration with Ray Charles: Jerry Wexler on their rendition of “Spirit in the Dark”: “It’s Aretha conducting church right in the middle of a smoky nightclub.”[xxii]
After this, they closed the performance. “I remember there was discussion about how she should end the concert,” said Cecil.
“Aretha wanted to do ‘Reach out and Touch’ (Somebody’s Hand),’ the Ashford and Simpson song that Diana Ross had turned into a megahit. Wexler thought it might be corny for the flower children. But Aretha argued that it was perfect because the hippies were all about hand holding and love…”(Ritz, p237).
During this presentation of “Reach out and Touch” the audience was in a full-out tumult. Her voice is like a lightning bolt.
“We were all crying,” said Brenda Corbett, Aretha’s cousin who was a member of the Sweethearts of Soul vocal trio, backup singers for this concert. “It was one of those times when you thought, despite what was happening in the world, that peace and love might really prevail. Of the hundreds of concerts I did with Aretha, this was probably the most exciting” (237).
I don’t remember about my three friends, but I was freely crying. “Reach out and Touch,” was the ultimate in “I believe you” experiences I had with Aretha my entire childhood. She meant it; this was a completely sincere admonition.
In this situation, Selma Hill rose to the occasion in a manner that possibly all humans do at least once in our lives. She, responding to the emotion in her living room, in the crowd, in Aretha’s adjuration, said, “That is the best Gospel concert I’ve ever heard.” This was a revelatory moment for me, because, again, growing up in the ‘burbs, I didn’t have a framework for what had just happened. Selma Hill formulated it — this was Gospel music, an African American art form rooted in our experience fighting for freedom against slavery. Within a few years of experiencing this concert and having it framed for me in this way, Gospel became my favorite music for life.
“I saw it as a breakthrough,” said Wexler. “The crowd at the Fillmore was not only emotionally connected to Aretha but proved to be musically sophisticated. They were deep into every riff played by King Curtis and Billy Preston and Ray Charles. They followed Aretha’s every vocal nuance. If she had let them, they would have carried her from the stage and held her on their shoulders like a conquering monarch” (237).
Ray Charles, “Looking back, it was history in the making…” (237).
“I’ve played a million gigs,” said Billy Preston, her organist during those nights. “I’ve played a million churches, a million buckets of blood, a million nightclubs, and a million concert halls. But never, ever have I experienced anything like playing for Aretha at the Fillmore. It wasn’t that the hippies just liked her. They went out of their minds. They lost it completely. The hippies flipped the fuck out. Fans say that BB King Live at the Regal or Ray Charles Live in Atlanta or James Brown Live at the Apollo are the greatest live albums of all time. And, no doubt, they are great. But, brother, I was there with Aretha at Fillmore. I saw what she did. And I’m proud to say that I helped her do it. What she did was make history” (235).
Live at Fillmore transformed pop songs into Gospel; turned secular songs into spirituals. Amazing Grace resurrected Gospel to its highest expression.
I encourage you, the reader, to see the common ground between the religious explanation of Aretha’s brother, Cecil, on one hand, and the secular or spiritual explanation of her agent Jerry Wexler, on the other, regarding Amazing Grace:
Cecil Franklin: “I see it as more than a hit record. I see it as the sacred moment in the life of black people. Think back. We had lost Martin; we lost Malcolm; we had lost Bobby Kennedy. We were still fighting an immoral war. We had Tricky Dick in the White House. Turmoil, anger, corruption, confusion. We needed reassurance and recommitment. We needed redirection. So When Aretha helped lead us back to God — the only force for good that stays steady in this loveless world — I’d call it historical” (258).
Jerry Wexler: “I’m a hard-core, card-carrying atheist. I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in art. And though it might sound like hyperbole, my assessment of Amazing Grace is that it relates to religious music in much the same way Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel relates to religious art. In terms of scope and depth, little else compares to its greatness.”
Wexler: “In less than six weeks, it sold more than a million copies. That’s unheard-of for a gospel or R & B album — especially one without a hit single. This record was on its way to making history. The reason had to do with nothing but quality. When quality is this fantastic, a record sells, no matter what genre. Take Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. No one would ever believe a jazz album would sell in the multi-millions. But that particular jazz album is simply so good…”
By 1973, life in the ‘burbs had reached crisis proportions, as I sank into a deep depression. It was voices like that of George Jackson’s (the greatest writer of the Black Panther Party) and other revolutionaries which were eventually able to break through my malaise.
There was no one more influential in my life, and reflecting this change, than Aretha. I left the White ‘burbs, and the campus of Boston University, intentionally moving to find the Panther Free Breakfast for Children Program at Bromley-Heath Housing Projects, the Panther’s base in Boston’s African America. I was not alone in this move from the campus to the BLM, as my older Sister, Suzanne, had preceded me by two years, bringing medical equipment from Harvard to the Free Medical Care Van of the Panthers between Mission Hill Housing Projects and Bromley-Heath. Other students who I met back then, and are now friends of mine to this day, went to these programs from Harvard, BC, BU, MIT, Wellesley, Northeastern and other college campuses. Also, people who lived in this housing project who I met then remain close friends to this day. Our bond was forged in those tumultuous days of the BLM.
I also found, when I arrived, Aretha’s Amazing Grace. It was simply the logical progression of my cultural and spiritual development.
If Live at Fillmore West was an exercise in leading the most progressive section of the White population with a Black spirituality, so Amazing Grace reinforced for Aretha’s base, African America, the necessity of a spiritual solution.
To an extent, it is legitimate to argue that Live at Fillmore West came at the peak of the revolutionary movement, of the merger of the national liberation movements, led by the African American People’s Freedom Movement, the Chicano National Movement, the Puerto Rican Independentista Movement, and those of Native Nation Peoples, with that of the People’s War being waged and won by the people of Vietnam against U.S. imperialism. To that same degree can it be argued that Amazing Grace came in response to the decline of the BLM, its defeat at the hands of COINTELpro.
In these circumstances, that of the decline of the BLM, the message from Aretha was to us, to African America. The fact that the rest of America heard it — Amazing Grace is the most popular Gospel album, sold the most copies of any Gospel album, in the history of Gospel and the history of the world — was derivative. Ultimately, African America must lead the liberation through the decay of American imperialism.
Amazing Grace is an exercise in recommitting to the genuineness of our story, in recommitting to “How [We] Got Over.” Aretha seemed to be saying: Find a spiritual solution in our history of overcoming this slave system we are living in. After all, Aretha was teaching us, COINTELpro is not our only problem. In fact, it may not even be our biggest problem. The most important prerogative is in finding ourselves in the circle; who we really are in community. Our primary task is in looking inward for the soul of our freedom movement. There is no external force, white supremacy or any other, which can defeat this soul-force once we grab hold to it. This is how many of us experienced the message of Amazing Grace.
Our most important mandate is in re-configuring our love for ourselves, in rooting ourselves in healthy family/community building, even as we are living in the midst of an apocalypse. Who better than we, and what time better than now?
Aretha’s peers in Black music saw it the same way. Billy Preston: “It’s an important moment in the history of black gospel, because it lights up the crossroads. She gives a nod to old time by including those Clara Ward and Caravan songs. But she also anticipates modern gospel. She actually helps invent modern gospel by including Marvin Gaye and allowing a funky R-and-B rhythm section and razor-sharp choir to dress up the sounds. It’s more than Aretha’s greatest performance. It’s really a radical record” (257–258).
Carmen McRae: “She’s turning traditional gospel to pop and turning pop songs into gospel…” (257).
Jerry Wexler: “Not only did critics call it her crowning achievement, but the public came out in droves to buy it. Since its release in June of 1972, it has sold well over two million copies. It remains the biggest-selling album in Aretha’s career as well as the biggest-selling album in the history of black gospel” (258).
As a cultural artifact, Amazing Grace is a graduate level course in the history and purport of Gospel music. The social practice of conceiving, creating and producing the album and the service Amazing Grace was an exercise in making the circle whole, in letting the circle of our freedom struggle be unbroken.
Let the Circle be Unbroken
Let the circle be unbroken is an African American spiritual principle expressing beliefs about life, death, god, family and love. The principle adjures us that when a family member, that is, a loved one, passes to the other side, they are dead but not gone. It establishes that when a people’s movement appears to be dead, it may be dormant, but it has not disappeared.[xxiii]
It was three of my children who gave me permission to mourn the passing of Aretha. I have never in my life grasped the power and beauty of mourning on this level before.
It was two of my closest friends who insisted that it was OK for me to participate in the funeral. I was deeply suspicious of this affair, as, since childhood, my father had instilled in us a deep distrust of and dislike for the Black bourgeoisie. I knew Jesse, Al Sharp-tone and TD Jakes (actin’ a fool…) would be heavy into the mix. And they are.
But, Detroit is also home to the most entrenched Black industrial proletariat in the world, and the bass in Aretha’s revolutionary/angelic sound comes from that population.
Yolanda Adams, Gladys Knight, Jennifer Holiday, Shirley Caesar, Fantasia, Stevie, Chaka Khan, Jennifer Hudson, each of these people come from the roots of Gospel; they each started with Gospel. They are each singing, at this funeral, Gospel songs that Aretha made world-wide famous — most of them from Amazing Grace. Each of these renditions done in her honor, also respectfully mirrors the way Aretha sang them:
How I Got Over, Shirley Ceasar https://www.youtube.com/watch?
Precious Memories, Vanessa Bell Armstrong and The Williams Brothershttps://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Precious_Memories_(hymn)
Precious Lord, Take my Hand, Fantasia https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ay2Fi_Ao_tU
Amazing Grace, Jennifer Hudson https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vL2N3JOypNk
Check it out; it will do you no harm. I was encouraged to participate by my people; so I want to encourage you. This is the best funeral I’ve ever seen. This choir is amazing. This is genuinely a celebration.
Two weeks later, and me and mine still had not moved beyond the passing of Aretha. Because it’s so sad? No, my children and friends helped me understand that the sadness started about thirty years ago when the BLM died and she became … “a diva”?? (How someone goes from being Angela Davis and Fannie Lou Hamer in verse and song to … a diva… Only people who can admit to great peaks and valleys in their personal development can identify.) When we mourn Aretha’s death, we re-mourn the temporary decline of the BLM. When we celebrate Aretha’s life, we celebrate the resurgent life of the African American People’s Freedom Movement.
I asked my children, “How important was Aretha to our family?” It is impossible to describe the deep happiness and joy all over my father’s face when Amazing Grace, an outright Gospel album, went to number one on… the White Pop charts. My father was so proud; it was as if Aretha was his own daughter. This was inescapably our music. Gospel is the story of our freedom fight in song.
Two of my sons charged me with having not shown them Aretha? And I duly …pled guilty? Hmmmm, we had a memorial for their grandfather after his passing, at which one of my accusers, Toussaint, when he was 13 years old, was one of the speakers. My niece, Chiara played “Amazing Grace” on her harp. Beyond this beautiful rendition, I was the curator of music for the memorial. I chose the choir — the most famous Gospel choir in Harlem. I chose the three songs they were to sing: Ella’s Song — written by Bernice Reagan Johnson, Sweet Honey ‘n the Rock, in honor of the great Ella Baker; also popularly known as “We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest,” anthem of the Black Liberation Movement.
The other two songs were both Aretha:
There is a Fountain (filled with blood, drawn from Emanuel’s veins…). Aretha sang this on a gospel album when she was sixteen years old. I first heard it when I was about 20 years old (before my father gave his autobiography the same name…).
Climbing Higher Mountains She performed this on the most popular Gospel album of all time, world-wide, Amazing Grace.
So, hmmmm, my children were there as teenagers. They found their father guilty of child neglect for not teaching them about Aretha? I don’t think so. Clearly, after reviewing the history, we must reverse this verdict. But, my children, and any of you readers who have not had the pleasure, are going to be charged with neglect of your spiritual development, and the birthright of the African American People’s Liberation Movement, if you cannot spare the time to listen to these two songs by Aretha. If you fail to listen to these two songs, I’m powerless. I can do nothing for you:
There is a Fountain
Climbing Higher Mountains
While you’re at it, try my two favorite songs from the greatest funeral music performance I’ve ever heard in my life:
Chaka Khan, Goin Up Yonder
In this piece Chaka Khan is the facilitator of a presentation that included the fantastic choir, and the participation of the audience. The most inspiring image is that of Chaka’s peers cheering her on.
Jennifer Holiday, Climbing Higher Mountains
In this piece Holiday is simply in a trance for 15 minutes.
Aretha told us,
Reach out and touch
Make this world a better place,
If you can
She followed this by asking: “Need I say more? Need I say more than that? No!”
This has been my inspiration. Let it be yours.
[i] Picture, Free My People, 1991; caption, Love in Action newspaper, 1997
[ii] Lynn, Alexander. “Aretha was my first girlfriend.” Originally published by Women’s Theological Center. 1996. https://medium.com/@alexandersjeunity/aretha-was-my-first-girl-friend-ef7aac239193
[iii] Deron, Bernadette. (2018). “Aretha Franklin Offered To Post Angela Davis’ Bail In 1970 Because She Wanted ‘Freedom For Black People’.” ati. https://allthatsinteresting.com/aretha-franklin-angela-davis
[iv] Roe, Samir, Colorlines. 2016. https://www.colorlines.com/articles/how-aretha-franklin-lent-her-voice-civil-rights-movement
[vi] Ray Charles, in Respect, p165
[vii] Nat Hentoff, in Respect, p170
[viii] Respect, p162
[ix] Jerry Wexler, in Respect, p164
[x] See in this regard, Boggs, James and Grace Lee (1969). The Awesome Responsibility of Revolutionary Leadership. https://www.freedomarchives.org/Documents/Finder/Black%20Liberation%20Disk/Black%20Power!/SugahData/Books/Boggs.S.pdf
[xi] Boggs. (1969).
[xii] Franklin, Aretha, “Baby, Baby, Baby,” on I Never Loved a Man the way I Love You, Atlantic, 1967.
[xiii] Robertson, Robbie. (1968). “the Weight.” The Band on Capital Records.
[xv] Lynn, Alexander, “Ashes and embers revisited,” in Healing and Community, United Youth of Boston pub., 2001.
[xvi] Cecil Franklin, in Respect, p228
[xvii] Werner, Craig. (2004). Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul. Chapter 3.“Spirit in the Dark”.http://publicism.info/music/higher_ground/4.html
[xviii] Lynn. (2016).
[xix] When considering this verdict leveled against the White American suburbs, understand that it is made in opposition to the mythology perpetrated by the dominant culture against the rest of the world’s people as through a saturation cultural bombing, regarding this idyllic population. The infection runs deep, and even some of the civil rights movement spirit took on this mythology and produced the idea that White middle class American suburban life was the goal to aim for of the… “liberation struggle…” Such a bizarre proposition must be soberly countered.
[xx] The most oft referenced source in this story is the biography, Respect, written by David Ritz (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2014). For anyone who wants a close-up, inside view of the personal and political life, in addition to the public career of Aretha Franklin, I recommend this as the most valuable for this reason: The author braids together the testimonies of Aretha’s three siblings, Erma, Cecil and Caroline, and her on again, off again agent of 40 years Ruth Bowen, which is extremely convincing. It is well known that Aretha attempted to shield from the public the actual major turmoil in her personal life. She disavowed this book, and opposed its publication. Meanwhile these testimonies, from these most close inner-circle relations were in uniformity — they agreed on every pattern of Aretha’s personal journey. Finally, add the fact that Jerry Wexler, her producer, paints a picture which mirrors, step for step, in her professional life, the story told by her siblings and her agent. It is this consistency which unfolds the story, for example, of her having regular sexual relations at age eleven with men in their 30’s. This today is called rape. Her giving birth to two children by these “lovers” by the time she was 13 is today called childhood sexual abuse. This element of her personal life answered the question I first asked in 1996 of why when I was at the young age of twelve I would invariably find myself in tears listening to her plaintiff cries about love loss, fear and rejection. Today, we call this identification — the deep suffering evident in her voice was coming from … the deep suffering of a twelve-year-old, the kind of suffering I too was going through. I could identify with the feelings, and so could millions of others, without knowing the real story behind them. This is the authoritative book on the life of Aretha Franklin. As to the skill of Ritz as a writer, he becomes invisible after the Introduction. The intimate narrative is that of the united voices of Erma, Cecil and Caroline Franklin, Ruth Bowen and Jerry Wexler. For the writer’s voice to disappear in the narrative about someone else is a laudatory skill.
[xxii] Jerry Wexler, in Respect, p220
[xxiii] Lynn, A. (2013). “Let the circle be unbroken.” Social Justice Education. https://medium.com/@alexandersjeunity/let-the-circle-be-unbroken-e3a182b4f874