People Get Ready

Speaking of classic Motown… nothing is more classic than Aretha Franklin. To say that they don’t call her the Queen of Soul for nothing would be dismissively pat. There are few musical artists who have gained a similar cultural status, few who could legitimately be called national treasures, as she has. She’s come to be seen, through the power and breadth and scope of her work, as a one-woman Smithsonian Institution of American musical heritage for the latter half of the 20th century. Her career has encompassed almost every style of music available to a vocalist, but where she came from was the church, and she learned her trade as a gospel singer. I can’t claim to know enough about Franklin to guess where her deepest passion lies as an artist, but if I had to guess, I’d guess that it’s the gospel tradition that everything else lies on top of. We don’t usually speak of Aretha Franklin as folk singer, because when we speak of ‘folk music’ we imagine some gentrified version of white guys with banjos, but what is gospel but one of the deepest American folk traditions? And, unlike the Scots-Irish folk tradition that gifted us Mumford & Sons, gospel music is still very much alive at the heart of the communities that birthed it. Because, obviously, African-Americans, unlike the Scots-Irish, are still forcibly ‘othered’ as a group. The gospel music that came out of the churchgoing black community has been assimilated into pop culture and its influence in the mainstream has been widespread, but its history goes, unbroken and unforgotten, straight to the first African-Americans, who created culture out of the darkest possible human condition, slavery. The history of gospel is the history of a people, and yet it remains a living art. That’s one hell of a legacy for one person to harness, but is seems that Aretha Franklin has taken her place representing the past 50 years of history (and all the weight of the history behind), whether she would have claimed that position for herself or not.




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