Having Church with Aretha

My wakeup call.

I grew up in church.

My father was a United Methodist minister. My childhood was marked by that: the frequent moves making it difficult to keep friends and, by the time I was in high school, to even make them in the first place; the many evenings when Dad was absent from our home due to a crisis, a call, or a meeting; and the weekends marked by Dad's Saturday night cramming for his Sunday sermon. It took a major illness to keep me from being in the pew for that sermon. As I grew older, I acquired church jobs of my own: watching children in the nursery, reading litanies and Bible lessons from the pulpit, eventually typing and printing the Sunday bulletin and monthly newsletter as Dad's church secretary. When teaching music proved more difficult than I expected, my 23-year-old attention span pivoted instantly to following in my father's footsteps, and going to seminary.

I arrived at seminary already steeped in church life; and yet, in a way, I'd never really had church. White Methodist worship was an intellectual thing, centered on a sermon that was a sort of poetic theological essay, surrounded by litanies and hymns that supported the arguments made in that sermon. It was rarely passionate, and the few occasions my father became emotional in the pulpit, I remember him apologizing for it.

So I arrived at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas, a member of the frozen chosen: white mainline Protestants whose worship rarely approaches anything resembling deep emotion. Considering where I came from, I probably would've been more comfortable attending a seminary in California or in the Northeast, where the focus would've been primarily on intellectual rigor. There was still plenty of that at Perkins, but there was also a deep tinge of evangelical fervor, not to mention the prominent presence in both the student body and the faculty of African-Americans. One of those professors, an adjunct named Zan Holmes, was a fantastic preacher. One Sunday when I was between church jobs, I went to St. Luke's Community United Methodist Church to hear Dr. Holmes preach in his home pulpit, and had my eyes opened to what church could really be: joyous, challenging, inspirational, moving, transformational. The sermon was great, as I had expected from hearing Dr. Holmes preach in the seminary chapel, but much to my amazement, it was not the highlight of the service for me. No, that was in the music: the choir, the soloists, the organ underscoring the prayers and sermon, the congregational response to all of it, and the power of the congregation singing gospels songs I had thought I knew--and found silly and trite--but which became collective calls for justice when sung in this context.

I wasn't able to attend many services at St. Luke's until near the end of my seminary years--I always had, until then, jobs directing church choirs--but I did seek out other ways of feeling the inspiration I had encountered on that Sunday morning. One of them was the album One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, a recording of a gospel concert at Aretha Franklin's home church in Detroit. She shares the spotlight in this album with other luminaries of gospel and R&B, including a number of Franklin family members and Mavis Staples, as well as some great preachers (Jesse Jackson is one of them) and, of course, a choir and rhythm section that guarantee the words being sung and proclaimed dig deep into the psyche of anyone open to inspiration. I got the album as part of a Columbia House Record Club introductory offer that also included Paul Simon's Graceland (another recording that opened my mind in an utterly different, yet related, direction, as it was my introduction to Afropop; but that's grist for another blog). I remember putting it on, flipping the disks, being astonished by the brief but powerful sermon by Jesse Jackson, but most of all, by the way Aretha's voice, soaring over the choir, providing counterpoint to other soloists, and musically proclaiming the good news, moved me as no preacher (including Zan Holmes) ever could.

That was 31 years ago. Since then, I've had many opportunities to have church with gospel musicians and Black congregations, including five years of playing the piano and preaching for one in northeast Portland. Secular recordings by Aretha Franklin have been in frequent rotation on my phonograph, cassette deck, CD player, iPod, and iPhone. It wasn't until this week, though, that I called up this album, as well as her earlier gospel concert recording, Amazing Grace, to revisit Aretha as gospel singer. Everything she did with that amazing voice and brilliant sense of arranging is present in these albums: the flexible homiletical way she proclaims, more than sings, a melody; the improvisational commentaries she throws in between phrases or over the top of a chorus; the harmonies and rhythms that drive the song, whether it's a ballad or an up-tempo dance number; and the way she employs backup singers (and choirs) as featured performers. All of these characteristics figure prominently in her secular music, and in the music of every pop vocalist to follow her emergence on the charts in the 1960s. 

And now she's gone. Of course that's why I've dusted off her gospel recordings (as well as many of the hits she's far better known for). Listening to an old interview she did with Terry Gross in 1999, hearing how careful she was to avoid talking about any of the trauma that marked her entire life (her mother walked out on her philandering preacher father when she was 6, then died when she was 10; she became a mother at 12, and again at 14; her first husband abused her, probably inspiring her greatest hits, "Respect" and "Think"; her second marriage ended soon after it began; her father was shot when she was 37, then spent five years, under her care, in a coma before finally dying; and many of her siblings preceded her in death by cancer, the same disease that claimed her life at 76), I was reminded of the ways in which growing up in parsonages marked me. More than that, though, I marveled at how surprised I was to learn so little from that interview, because more than any other musician, I felt like I knew her from her music.

That may be the most preacherly thing about Aretha. During my relatively brief career in ministry, I frequently heard that people experienced me to be two different people: the one in the pulpit, who they felt like they knew; and the one they met the rest of the week, the private person who always seemed to hold them at a distance. I remember feeling this about other preachers I admired: the better they were at drawing me in to their sermons, the harder it was to relate to them when they weren't preaching. (Conversely, some of the friendliest pastors I've known were no great shakes in the pulpit.) Reading about Aretha's life this weekend, I understand her so much better. I'm astonished at her ability to channel her difficult life into such powerful, transformational music--but then, that's what preachers do.

I know I'm not the only musician/music lover with Aretha in high rotation in my car and home stereo now. That's what happens whenever any great performer dies: we catch up on songs we've always loved, and introduce ourselves to some we didn't even know she sang. I encourage you to dig in to Aretha's gospel music now. It's not just a fitting tribute to a singer who never lost touch with her gospel roots: it's a way of having church, giving Aretha an opportunity few of us get to preside over her own memorial service. And who knows? You might find yourself experience a spiritual awakening, as those chords, that choir, and that voice draw you into deeper relationship with the ineffable.

Sing on, Queen Aretha, sing on.


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