Home > ARETHA FRANKLIN IN A WORD: QUINTESSENCE!

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ARETHA FRANKLIN IN A WORD: QUINTESSENCE!

“G’way an’ quit dat noise, Miss Lucy--

    Put dat music book away;

What’s de use to keep on tryin’?

  Ef you practise twell you’re gray,

You cain’t sta’t no notes a-flyin’

  Lak de ones dat rants and rings

F’om de kitchen to de big woods

When Malindy (Aretha) sings

…Fiddlin’ man jes’ stop his fiddlin’,

  Lay his fiddle on de she’f;

Mockin’-bird quit tryin’ to whistle,

  ‘Cause he jes’ so shamed hisse’f.

 … When Malindy (Aretha) sings.

She jes’ spreads huh mouf and hollahs,

  “Come to Jesus," twell you hyeah

Sinnahs’ tremblin’ steps and voices,

  Timid-lak a-drawin’ neah;

Den she tu’ns to “Rock of Ages,"

  Simply to de cross she clings,

An’ you fin’ yo’ teahs a-drappin’

  When Malindy (Aretha) sings….”

-Paul Laurence Dunbar-

 

            After the marathon “chuuch” service for Aretha Franklin, what else is there one can say?  I decided to try to do so after taking a cue from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poetic description of “Malindy.” However, it only takes one word to describe Franklin’s singing, i.e., quintessence.  This is so because Aretha Franklin remains the most perfect example of soul music.  No, not “soul” as in the commercial category in which some Black musicians’ works are placed for commercial purposes, but soul as in using a song to express the most significant dimensions of a human being.  Accordingly, what follows are merely variations on the quintessence theme along with a few short riffs.

Although her songs addressed universal human truths, Aretha Franklin personified Black aesthetics as she rendered widely shared truths through the prisms of Black culture and life.  She composed her music the same way she prepared “soul food,” i.e.., by [1] engaging in “a pinch of this, a handful of that…;” [2] intuitively mixing the ingredients just so, never doing things exactly the same way; and, for example, [3] the result being that the food tasted sooooooooo good it made folks cry every time they were fortunate to consume her spirit-guided compositions!   

Aretha Franklin used a “cooking from scratch” as well as the “pinch process” with the singing of her songs and, hence, every recording was different and contained a rarefied quality that riveted folks’ souls.  Listen to her nuances in singing “Dr. Feelgood” and you will experience the result.  Commentators have noted that she was so good at breathing originality into words that “Aretha could sing the alphabet.  Aretha could sing the telephone book.” She could sing every emotion, from joy to jealousy, from that which accompanies secular downfalls to sacred salvation, from hate to hope and “rock us to our foundations” as she did so.

If you wish to witness the cultural contrast which springs from the wells of the Black church experience, then listen to Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin singing “Amazing Grace.”  Consider also the redefining of Carole King co-authored and sung “Natural Woman.”  Aretha Franklin’s traditional Black church influenced singing “brought down the house” when she sang “Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center in 2015, leaving King, President Barack Obama and many others in tears.  Indeed, as “Natural Woman” was being written, King had in mind the song being sung in a way that only Aretha Franklin could sing it.

True to the Black aesthetic, Aretha Franklin was not simply a singer, but also an artist committed to the deliverance of her people from American bondage.  She was revolutionary Black theology!  Just as ministers “preached the word” to their parishioners, Aretha Franklin “sang the word” as she ministered to “everyday people” --both sacred and secular.

With her people down in “Egypt,” weary from the centuries of abuse heaped upon them, seeking basic dignity, and yearning to be free, Aretha Franklin sounded her “trumpet” and rocked the Black world with “RESPECT.”  Simultaneously, she struck a chord for women’s liberation.  She went on the road with Martin Luther King Jr. and did her part in motivating the people by singing lyrics such as “I’m pressing on the upward way, new heights I’m going every day, still praying as I onward bound, Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.” 

Aretha Franklin was so vital to the civil rights movement that as, President Barack Obama stated in 2015, “American history wells up when Aretha sings.  Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll - the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope."  Like Saul, she blew her “trumpet” throughout the land and urged the people to build “bridges over troubled waters.”

As did ministers and other church leaders, Aretha Franklin ministered to the “sick and shut in,” those “down and out.”  With “Try a Little Tenderness,” she left no doubt regarding what the soul needed when it got weary --how a few “soft words spoken so gentle makes it easier to bear.”  She energized people by singing even though they were “…born by the river in a little tent” and “just like the river…been running ev'r since, a change was gonna come!”

Growing up in my home church, Mount Sinai Baptist, “testifying” was the time people told truths “from the bottom of their hearts” and the “depths of their souls.”  Testifying times were moments when being earnest was personified.  Regarding the quintessential nature of Aretha Franklin, initially we witnessed testifying by living U.S. Presidents, every major newspaper, every major news network, civil rights leaders, and an inestimable number of social media commentators.  Indeed, she was mourned around the world because, as Nikki Giovanni might have made the case, Aretha Franklin was “…so perfect, so divine, so ethereal, so surreal…”   And if any doubt remained, then the August 31, 2018 “going home service” testimonials made it crystal clear that Aretha Franklin = Quintessence! 

P.S. Aretha, I love you.

 

Jack L. Daniel

Co-Founder, Freed Panther Society

Pittsburgh Urban Media Contributor

August 31, 2018

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