Robert J. Gallagher says goodbye to Aretha Franklin
Goodbye, Doctor Ree. Fare forward.
The death of the great Aretha Franklin has come at a time when a great nation is enduring a relentless assault on its dignity from within. But anybody looking for any firm evidence of a peerless singer and a person regularly obliged to pass through the fires of life placing herself at the heart of the anti-Trump Resistance has to look very hard indeed. Aretha was Aretha, not Marvin Gaye, James Brown or Nina Simone, or any other aristocrat of soul music ready to use their music and their fame to highlight the sufferings of black America.
Alongside the three occasions Aretha sang at the inaugurations of Democratic Presidents there can’t be set any “What’s Going On”, Marvin Gaye’s magnificent condemnation of an American social decay affecting blacks above all.
Despite the ease with which Aretha’s name can be associated with Martin Luther King, no stage appearance by her ever had remotely the same social impact as the Boston night James Brown sang on and on to keep potential black rioters off the streets and so out of the clutches of the American criminal justice system.
When Nina Simone paused between songs it was often her opportunity to rail against the prejudice and unfairness heaped on black America. Aretha, essentially, told you what was coming next.
Some opaque mixture of genetic inheritance, individual upbringing and membership of a racial group in which music remains at the very centre of things meant that Aretha Franklin developed a voice, and a command of that voice, which allowed her to be ranked with the supreme exponents of any artistic discipline. Aretha’s star shines in a firmament containing not only Mozart and Tchaikovsky but Shakespeare and Rembrandt too.
Is it a pity – especially from the perspective of the left, liberal/left and everybody else convinced of the conscious improvability of human society – that a sublime talent did not serve as a platform for overt political comment and action? Wouldn’t that have been even more wonderful?
The strong suspicion is black America itself would smile indulgently at such a suggestion. When Aretha hammered majestically into “Respect”, “Think”, even “Chain Of Fools”, only a half-wit would fail to identify the spirit of MLK and the Civil Rights Movement, the force behind the swell of black American energy crucial to Obama’s election. When the unsuspected possibilities of “I Say A Little Prayer” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” were so gloriously revealed what obtuseness was required to miss the proclamation they made that an America without its black presence would be an impoverished America?
As for the world outside black America, just a single point has to be made. The magic of Aretha Franklin’s artistry enabled her to sustain for most of her career a most valuable illusion. That what she sang, that what you heard, with all its power, subtlety and complexity, was what she felt.
Listening to Aretha Franklin was listening to humanity with an extraordinary, deeply moving clarity. Vulnerable, hopeful, defiant, precious humanity. Subliminally present time after time, surely, song after song, was the same message. A human being, black or white, male or female, however blessed or not by nature, is a unique entity. A human being deserves humane politics.
Goodbye, Doctor Ree. And thanks for everything, including the ever-present instruction implied by your music to oppose Trumpism and all similar backward manifestations.
Robert Gallagher is a radio playwright and former soul music journalist for Melody Maker and Black Music magazine.