Aretha Franklin Sings of God and Freedom

by James M. Wall

In the retirement community where we live, I work with a committee to select, promote, and show feature films each Sunday night. We draw from new releases, classics, and films evoking memories of the past, old and recent. 

The Blues Brothers was initially scheduled for our community film showing the week of December 3, placed there to celebrate the 200th birthday of the state of Illinois, our home state.  It was named the top film made in and/or set in Illinois, by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum; the State Journal-Register newspaper, and the Illinois Bicentennial Commission.

When news arrived that Aretha Franklin died Thursday, August 16, we changed the booking and brought The Blues Brothers forward to open our fall season on September 2. We wanted to honor the life of Aretha Franklin, and to celebrate the Land of Lincoln’s 200th birthday.

It is an appropriate pairing, the Land of Lincoln, named for the President who freed the slaves, and Aretha Franklin, who was a major leader in the freedom movement for women of all races.

Aretha Franklin’s musical genius graces The Blues Brothers in a four-minute segment early in the film. Her appearance is one of a series of musical segments assembled by Director John Landis for The Blues Brothers. It is Aretha Franklin’s film debut. After she appeared in a sequel to this film, she made no other films. 

“Aretha Franklin deservedly will be remembered in an array of tributes reflecting the immense legacy of her life and music. Her voice is ingrained in the canon of American music, and she’s had a number of staggering accomplishments,” Adam Gustafson, Instructor in Music, Pennsylvania State University, wrote on the site, The Conversation.

For Gustafson, one period of Franklin’s life “stands out as the most significant: the years after she left the world of gospel music. Her jump to mainstream music meant a move into a segment of the industry that was dominated by men who had very specific assumptions about how a woman should sing – and what she should sing about”.

His conclusion: “Franklin’s ability to assert control over her career was a watershed moment for female artists seeking to find and maintain their own artistic voice.”

“Think” fits perfectly into her role as the wife of a musician who declares he is going to leave home to join Jake and Elwood, the Blues Brothers. He will go on the road with “the band” which Jake and Elwood are “putting back together”.

Her response to his declaration is to grab him by his shirt, as she sings in her unique strong, vigorous and aggressive style. It was that style she developed over the years in a career that began from her start as an 8-year-old gospel singer in her father’s Detroit church.

Among the lyrics are these lines which she belts out while dancing:

It don’t take too much high IQ’s, To see what you’re doing to me. You better think (think) Think about what you’re trying to do to me. Yeah, think (think, think). Let your mind go, let yourself be free. Oh, freedom (freedom), freedom (freedom). Oh, freedom, yeah, freedom. Freedom (freedom), freedom (freedom). Freedom, oh freedom.

Jon Pareles, chief popular music critic for The New York Times, wrote, ” she freed other singers to let their voices fly”. Freedom manifests itself in many ways. It was the central theme in the life of Aretha Franklin, “universally acclaimed as the ‘Queen of Soul’ and one of America’s greatest singers in any style”.

In her indelible late-1960s hits, Ms. Franklin brought the righteous fervor of gospel music to secular songs that were about much more than romance. Hits like “Do Right Woman — Do Right Man,” “Think,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Chain of Fools” defined a modern female archetype: sensual and strong, long-suffering but ultimately indomitable, loving but not to be taken for granted.

When Ms. Franklin sang “Respect,” the Otis Redding song that became her signature, it was never just about how a woman wanted to be greeted by a spouse coming home from work. It was a demand for equality and freedom and a harbinger of feminism, carried by a voice that would accept nothing less.

Franklin was a leading figure in the civil rights movement. She first met many key figures in that movement in her father’s various parsonages.

She began her singing in churches. After she made the move to secular music, she  retained her church style and frequently returned to gospel music. The Times‘ Pareles again:

Ms. Franklin’s airborne, constantly improvisatory vocals had their roots in gospel. It was the music she grew up on in the Baptist churches where her father, the Rev. Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, known as C. L., preached. She began singing in the choir of her father’s New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, and soon became a star soloist.

Gospel shaped her quivering swoops, her pointed rasps, her galvanizing buildups and her percussive exhortations; it also shaped her piano playing and the call-and-response vocal arrangements she shared with her backup singers. Through her career in pop, soul and R&B, Ms. Franklin periodically recharged herself with gospel albums: “Amazing Grace” in 1972 and “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism,” recorded at the New Bethel church, in 1987.

Her involvement in presidential events began in 1977, when she sang “God Bless America” at Jimmy Carter’s Inaugural Gala. She performed at the pre-inaugural events for President Bill Clinton in both 1993 and 1997. The Washington Post recalls that Franklin sang at President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009:

She brought the usually stoic Obama to tears in 2015, when she performed at the Kennedy Center Honors in a tribute to Carole King. Her fur-throwing, bring-the-house-down version of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” had the president on his feet — and dabbing at his eyes.

On the morning of her death, President Obama wrote on his Twitter feed:

Aretha helped define the American experience. In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade—our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect. May the Queen of Soul rest in eternal peace.

To which we may all wish to say, Amen.

In the picture at top, Aretha Franklin sings “My Country ’Tis of Thee” at President Barack Obama’s 2008 inauguration. The picture is by Damon Winter/The New York Times. The picture of Franklin with Jake and Elwood is on the set, not the movie.


About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
This entry was posted in Aretha Franklln, Human Rights, Movies. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Aretha Franklin Sings of God and Freedom

  1. Patricia says:

    A nice tribute..

  2. AWAD PAUL SIFRI says:

    Thank you, Jim, for your awesome article that celebrates Aretha Franklin’s life, and also renews HOPE among Palestinian people, and all people around the world, who are occupied, or discriminated against, or oppressed, or abused.
    Let us pray that Aretha’s spirit will inspire all to carry on with the fight for freedom, justice, and human dignity.

  3. Samia Khoury says:

    Thank you James for a lovely tribute to Aretha. May her voice continue to inspire us to work for freedom justice and peace.

  4. Rev. Bob Hannum says:

    Amen, Brother!

  5. Charlton Price says:

    Thank you Jim, former editor of the Christian Century

  6. oldkahuna says:

    And the People said in one voice, “AMEN!”

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