The music of Queen Genius of Soul Aretha Franklin has been part of my life since I became aware of music. She had so many hit records that were rousing anthems, soul-stirring spirituals, romantic ballads and dance tunes. She was regal and regular. Talented and accomplished. Vulnerable/unprotected and loved/exalted. Triumphant despite her childhood and adult wounds.
Right after the announcement that Queen Genius Soul Sister Franklin passed, a friend, David Bickham, wrote me the following, which I reprint here with his permission. David originally wrote this in an email to a friend on March 2, 2012 after seeing Sister Franklin perform. He modified it slightly on August 19, 2018. He says everything that I want to say:
Glory, Glory, Hallelujah: A Tribute to Aretha Franklin
Copyright 2018 by David Bickham
“Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, Since I laid my burden down,
“Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, Since I laid my burden down.”
From a gospel song from the rural South
Dear Friend, I thought of you after my wife and I went Monday to an Aretha Franklin concert at the Fox Theater in Atlanta. Let me tell you she was absolutely magnificent and glorious. And she sang blues.
I told my wife four attributes shocked me:
1)Her regality–One can tell she was reared in a tradition of black church royalty and manners because her carriage and deportment were so elegant. She reminded me actually of Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith and the other “Smiths” as she wore a beautiful sequined gown. She represents the greatest of a great tradition of queenly singers such as Mahalia Jackson. One can tell she was the daughter of Rev CL Franklin, a master orator, preacher and singer, and a suave brother, born in Sunflower County, MS. Her gown could have come from the Harlem Renaissance. She was eerily like Mahalia Jackson as she walked off stage or danced.
I understand now how her elegance was particularly rich and wrought out of the most difficult youth, moral contradictions and complicated parenting, including her father’s profligate and prophetic life and her mother’s absence. In some ways, she embodied the war between and a created personhood adorned with the carnal and the divine, the sacred and secular, the holy and the tainted, the exploited and the victorious, the sorrowful and the joyful, the unloved and greatly beloved, girlishness and womanliness, mothering and motherless, extraordinary talent to satisfy others and ordinary, insatiable pining, and the sensual and the sanctified. Negotiating these contradictions with such gifts, including the demands of the gifts themselves, and in such a famous way gave the world a public script in which she was the one only literate. Who knows how the mysteries of her suffering informed the elocution of her style, delivery, art and personae from a girl pregnant at 12-years old to one of the most celebrated and most decorated popular divas ever? Who knows how she took what might have been the shattering of these contradictions and made them into some kind of whole for herself as she made others whole?
I have heard Ms. Franklin speak during televised and on-line interviews and heard her speak during the concert, and she speaks so eloquently and intelligently. Aretha and her father have not been honored in Mississippi in any significant manner in recent memory for their cultural contributions. I am thinking of writing an article about gospel singers and Civil Rights movements over a period of decades. Mahalia Jackson was in the movement prior to King, and I found a photo of her at 1954 or 1956 civil rights meeting in Mound Bayou where Dr. Thompson, Delta, Mississippi physician, Civil Rights leader and entrepreneur, had these annual gatherings. They were killing folks in Mississippi and Mahalia Jackson was right there. And of course Aretha as early as her teens and her father were intimately involved in civil rights and human rights, which she continued until her demise.
2) Her musicality–She can sing any song in any genre and the robust blues, gospel timbre, rifts, tonality, and phrasing infused every note, and she can play the hell out of a piano, perhaps by ear. Her band and backup singers were so rich and tight even as she improvised riotously on the piano creating a call and response not just among the congregation/audience, the band, and Ms Franklin but we got a glimpse in which we were witness to the inner call and response among her genius, gifts and soul playing off of each other in profound musicality. I am sure she delighted in her enormous gifts and we were the beneficiaries of this self-actualization. Now this year marks 52 years as a professional singer and she will turn 70, March 25.
3) Her preaching—Friend, in the concert, she literally preached and testified. Not only did she assume the posture and pronouncements of a preacher and of course sang gospel songs, I noticed her manners and at certain points, prior to the holy dancing and the accompanying music when she was about to break through or felt particularly joyous, no matter the genre of the song, she would put one hand behind her back or wave her hand. In the black church, these postures signal a shift, from the exegetical or lyrical to the ecstatic. But during a testimonial period of about 15 minutes she played the piano, and then right before her encore, the last song was about 25 minute rendition of “Freeway of Love” with “I am riding in a pink Cadillac.” But she turned the end of the song into this interminable prophetic utterance like speaking in tongues, “Freeway of love, Freeway of peace, Freeway of justice, Freeway of understanding…” And she preached and preached and preached.
And the sold out crowd adored it. So both in her intrinsic gospel feeling and in her direct gospel songs, I was just blown away. I had seen videos of her “preaching” at the end of her singing tribute to Luther Vandross’ funeral and at the end of her tribute to Oprah at the finale of the Oprah Show, where she intoned this call and response and preaching style, but to see it in person, and see the reaction and affection it invoked, was something I shall never forget.
Ms Franklin is in a line of women “preachers” of various genres including Ms Jackson and Oprah.
4) Her “Mississippianness” — Of course I claim everybody as being from Mississippi or descended from Mississippi. I say what Africa is to world civilization and the Diaspora, Mississippi is to American culture and civilization. I consider Aretha an apotheosis of the Mississippi Diaspora. She is so Mississippian, so Delta. One could see this, for example, in her iconic hat at President Obama’s inauguration when she sang, “My Country Tis of Thee” and so on. Her hat caused a sensation, but we black people recognized it as our women’s elegance and creativity seen every Sunday, whether custom made from a favorite millinery that Aretha frequented or upcycled from a thrift store.
But I expected since she had spent her childhood in Detroit that she would have a more urban character. Not so. It dawned on me that her father and the Great Migrationists recreated the South and Mississippi in their new environments, and though it was Detroit, it was still distinctly Mississippian or southern, and the parishioners, colleagues, civil rights and gospel greats, the church culture, perhaps extended family and neighbors, etc cemented a culture, transported and transformed it without degraded its catalytic essence. This re-creation has been beautifully written about in The Warmth of Other Suns.
I always study mannerisms, the physicality and aesthetics of a person to connect them to their home, their lineage, etc., a kind of witness of manners, a genealogy of taste.
Well, take care. I am rambling. Give my love to everyone.
Didn’t David testify? (Rather like the preacher he ain’t but is.) Please join me in thanking him for this loving tribute to Queen Genius Soul Sister Aretha Franklin now resting and reigning in peace.
Related: Aretha Franklin: The 60 Minutes Interview with Ed Bradley – 1990
Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson