In 1958, Ralph Ellison wrote that there are “certain women singers who possess, beyond all the boundaries of our admiration for their art, an uncanny power to evoke our love.”
Standing “regal within the bright isolation of the stage, their subtlest effects seem meant for us and us alone; privately, as across the intimate space of our own living rooms,” Ellison continued. “And when we encounter the simple dignity of their immediate presence, we suddenly ponder the mystery of human greatness.”
Ellison could have been describing many women singers; however, the essay wherein he wrote that passage was about the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
What can easily get lost in the transcontinental sea of tributes and obituaries that has been roiling since the passing of the great Aretha Franklin, who died Aug. 16 at the age of 76, is the fact that Aretha sprang directly from a tradition of black greatness rooted in a specific context of which I am a proud product — the Baptist church.
Aretha Franklin, the daughter of the great Baptist preacher, C.L. Franklin, was mentored by Mahalia and Clara Ward, both Baptists. Mahalia, in turn, took her inspiration from the great Blues singer Bessie Smith, herself the daughter of a Baptist preacher.
James Baldwin, once a boy preacher, said he first listened to Bessie sing while in the mountains of Switzerland, where he was working on his first, and most acclaimed, novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain.
Bessie, “through her tone and cadence,” helped Baldwin remember a part of himself that he had repressed. She helped him confront, and eventually overcome, the shame of being black — one of the reasons he was finding it difficult to finish the novel.
“I was ashamed of the Blues, ashamed of Jazz, and, of course, ashamed of watermelon: all of these stereotypes that the country inflicts on Negroes, that we all eat watermelon or we all do nothing but sing the Blues,” Baldwin told Studs Terkel in 1961. “I was afraid of all that; and I ran from it.”
Baldwin, I think it’s rather important to note, grew up Pentecostal.
I grew up in a century-old Baptist church in suburban Maywood, where my late pastor would often recount from the pulpit funny stories of gun-toting deacons and cussing saints and “hard drink.”
I never got the sense that liquor or profanity was allowed (though the pastor often boasted of his many guns); there was, however, the sense that these prohibitions were not quite as central to the sacred liturgy as they were within that other great black religious tradition — the Church of God in Christ (a Pentecostal denomination), which is more firmly anchored in the mores of upright and straight-laced living.
As a native Baptist, I grew up admiring (coveting even) the rich musical tradition of the COGIC church. There was a COGIC church located right across the street from my Maywood church and I must admit that the music blaring from that COGIC church was, well, better, in my opinion. My admiration extended to many of the modern gospel music icons that have roots in COGIC — from the Winans to the Clark Sisters.
Aretha’s death, however, has strangely enough allowed me a point of pride as a Baptist. I’ve staked my own claim to her music after realizing just how essential the denomination may have been to her unique musical legacy.
I think it’s fair to wonder whether an Aretha Franklin could have been produced in the Holiness tradition of COGIC, the church where, as Baldwin’s experience shows, the repressed shame and fear of the black body was much more pronounced; where, I was told in my youth, women were barred from even entering the sanctuary if they so much as wore pants or skirts above their knees.
Of course, you can only pursue this line of questioning so far before being forced to confront the particularities of Aretha’s life — the unique way the profane and the sacred intermixed in the personality of her father (a philandering preacher whose ravenous sexual appetite reportedly drove Aretha’s mother away when the daughter was only a toddler); or the fact that Aretha, the child prodigy with a Holy gift, got pregnant twice before she turned 15 years old.
Still, I think Aretha’s rise to secular stardom was made smooth by the approval of her father, who famously predicted that his little girl would sing before kings and queens, and by the fact that she didn’t have to face the wrath of COGIC bishops and mothers, as was the case with Mattie Moss Clark.
After Mattie willed her daughters to a small taste of crossover commercial success during a breathtaking 1983 Grammy Awards performance, she was told by COGIC leadership that she couldn’t perform with her daughters again.
Aretha’s Baptist background also meant that she was more closely affiliated with the prophetic, social justice-oriented theology of Baptist preachers like Rev. Martin Luther King, one of her biggest fans.
Unbound by the prohibitions of Holiness or by an overbearing allegiance to a specific denomination’s rules while also rooted in the black prophetic tradition, Aretha was able to cross the border of sacred and secular unlike any other artist before her or since.
As Cinque Henderson writes in the New York Times, Aretha, through “a thousand double entendres, throaty growls and shouts of ecstasy,” injected “sexual need into gospel music.
“In so doing, she made herself the forebear of everyone from Madonna and Beyoncé to Adele […] Other musicians, like Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, had mixed the two, but no one blended the sacred and the sexual quite as Ms. Franklin did.”
And yet, Aretha and her father, C.L., were, despite their well-known worldliness, undoubtedly in and of the black church. If you have any misgivings about this notion, just listen to the preacher’s rendition of “The Old Ship of Zion” and his daughter’s “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and pay attention to how the spirit moves in you.
To understand the effect of this interplay between secular and sacred, watch Aretha’s electrifying performance of “Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015, which made this country’s first black president shed a tear or two.
“There is nothing expressly religious about ‘Natural Woman,'” Henderson writes. “But it is, of course, inevitably haunted by the verse from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians about a natural man, who ‘receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God … neither can he know them.’
“It may be that a natural man cannot know the things of God, but it was the radical gospel of Aretha that first made known that a particular type of woman could. That a natural woman can know God and erotic longing, ravenous spiritual and sexual need all at once, and that they can live uproariously in one buoyant, life-giving body. That body is gone now, but the voice, and the songs it gave us, are now a matter of permanent human record.”
So is the lesson of Aretha’s humanity, perhaps best distilled in another passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.
“My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”