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Life and soul: Aretha Franklin’s role in American history

Poorna Swami | Updated on April 26, 2019

Rhythm divine: The church was a platform for the young Aretha Franklin. She was only 10 when she performed her first solo at church.   -  Reuters

Aretha Franklin, posthumously awarded the Pulitzer on April 15, was the only singer to have performed at three presidential inaugurations in the US

Aretha Franklin wanted to be a part of history; of the histories of people’s lives. “People were growing up to my music, getting married, having babies, defining their youth and making memories that would last a lifetime. I loved being part of all those memories,” she wrote in her autobiography Aretha: From the Roots.

Widely hailed as the Queen of Soul, Franklin — who died in August 2018 — was posthumously awarded Pulitzer Prize’s Special Citation on April 15 for “her indelible contribution to American music and culture”. The citation is fitting, because Franklin defined the personal lives and political image of American culture.

Some discovered love or their first inclinations toward feminism with her songs. Many can sing along with Natural Woman and Say a Little Prayer even if they don’t know who those are by. Her riveting voice has inspired generations of musicians, from Whitney Houston to Alicia Keys. And though her music has been of personal significance to many, it is also historic in a larger sense.

Throughout her career, she was a politically aware artist. She believed in the potential of her music to voice the aspirations of black communities and women. “A woman’s only human.. She’s flesh and blood just like her man,” she sang in 1967.

Franklin was born in 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee. Her mother Barbara was a gospel singer and her father, Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, an important figure in the American civil rights movement of the 1960s. When she was six years old, her parents separated and Franklin moved with her father to Detroit, Michigan, where he became the pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church. The church was at the heart of civil rights activities, bringing in figures such as Martin Luther King Jr and Adam Clayton Powell. It was there that Franklin was exposed to revolutionary political thought at an early age.

The church was also a musical hub. James Cleveland, the pioneering gospel musician, was its organist and the church regularly hosted the great gospel singers of the time. She recalled in her book how the gospel singer Clara Ward performed at the church one day.

“I was only a small child, but after hearing Clara... there was no question in my mind that one day I would be a singer,” Franklin wrote. When she was 10, Franklin performed her first solo at church. She then began touring churches with her father, sharing the stage with established gospel artistes.

Despite the tensions of the times, her childhood was idyllic. Peach, plum and crab apple trees lined her backyard, and Saturday night dinners promised baked ham, fried corn and rolls. Her house, she wrote, was always bursting with music: “The piano, the radio, the record player might all be going at once.”

In the late 1960s, Franklin began transitioning into the world of secular music, while also participating in the civil rights movement. She sang at King’s rallies, to raise money for the cause. The song that defined Franklin’s career — Otis Redding’s Respect — was released at this time. It was, as she said, “a battle cry” for civil rights.

The words — ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to me’ — were historically transformative. Franklin spelt the word out in the song, underlining its strength. “It was the need of a nation,” Franklin wrote in her book, “the need of the average man and woman in the street... — everyone wanted respect.”

As successful as she became, and the more secular music she sang, Franklin never forgot her origins. In 1972, she gave a gospel concert at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church. Amazing Grace, the live album produced from that, remains the bestselling gospel album of all time. “Church is as much a part of me as the air I breathe,” Franklin wrote.

Franklin also never abandoned her politics. In 1971, she even offered to pay bail for Angela Davis, the Black Panther revolutionary who had been arrested for her communist sympathies. Despite her father’s disapproval, Franklin declared, “I am going to see her (Davis) free... not because I believe in communism but because she is a Black woman and she wants freedom for Black people.”

Franklin performed at three presidential inaugurations — of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. At Obama’s 2009 inauguration she sang My Country, ‘Tis of Thee at the Capitol Building. It was not simply a concert, but a recollection of the past.

In 1939, Marian Anderson, a black opera singer, had not been allowed to sing at the Constitution Hall in Washington DC because of her race. Eleanor Roosevelt, the then First Lady and also an opponent of segregationist policies, invited Anderson to sing in an open-air concert on the steps of Lincoln Memorial instead. Anderson performed to an integrated crowd of around 75,000 people, with millions listening over the radio. She sang My Country, ’Tis of Thee.

So when Franklin sang the same song 70 years later, at the inauguration of the country’s first black president, her voice addressed many generations. It marked a momentous change in history, but also paid tribute to those who had made her history before her.

Poorna Swami is a writer based in Bengaluru

Published on April 26, 2019

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