Falling in love. Finding a passion. Feeling drawn to a particular place. These are common human experiences that play a significant role in the ultimate trajectory of a life. They happen well outside the domain of logic and intentionality. Even in a culture like ours that places such high value on linear thinking, we all know what it means to be recruited into these unpredictable states, often by energies we can’t quite name or describe.
Maybe adolescence is the most porous stage of life by design, a time when love and music and affiliation happen to us with an alchemical intensity. I fell in love with art making during my first drawing class when I was 17, and all my previous plans to become a mathematician went up in smoke on the spot. I was also an adolescent when I fell under the spell of Aretha Franklin. From the first moment I came across a random album at Tower Records in 1967 with an unknown female singer in a spangled dress on the cover, I have never lost the thread of my passion for her music.
My adolescent self did not understand the rich ramifications of her breakthrough musical style. I just loved her voice. She was raised up in the gospel tradition but then stepped out of that pure ecclesiastical path. Following the example of Sam Cooke who also came up through gospel music and then broke out, she created a sound that blended gospel, R&B, soul, jazz and pop.
After having achieved significant commercial success, Aretha made a bold choice at the height of her career to return to her roots and record a pure gospel album. In 1972 she joined with gospel legend James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir to record Amazing Grace, the best selling gospel album of all time.
Performed in a small storefront church in Watts, the recordings happened over two nights before an audience of parishioners and a few well informed music lovers like Mick Jagger and Keith Richard. Aretha was all business during those two days, very focused on creating a stellar recording rather than performing for the small but enthusiastic audience. It is a revelation to watch how she enters into the world of each song. As many times as I have listened to Amazing Grace, the power of that transformation is exhilarating to see as well as hear.
Sydney Pollack was brought in to film the event. Somewhat new to filmmaking at the time, Pollack did not understand the technical requirements for aligning the visual and audio tracks. After it was all over, no one was able to figure out how to synch up the two. As a result, those 20 hours of prime footage sat on a shelf for 40 years.
After years of technical as well as legal challenges, the concert film of Amazing Grace was finally released in 2018. At a recent screening at the MFA, two remarkably engaging music scholars–Renee Graham and Emmett Price—gave the film a richer context by sharing their insights on the music industry, gospel traditions and the particularly difficult life of the undisputed Queen of Soul.
Many of the topics they discussed overlap with ideas included in a new play currently being performed at the Huntington Theater’s Calderwood Pavilion. The Purists, written by Dan McCabe and directed by Billy Porter, is a story told in the context of music, in this case primarily rap and hip hop. Two founding hip hop artists, Lamont Born Cipher and Mr. Bugz, are now in their 40s and grappling with midlife-style challenges like caring for aging parents, managing their reputations in an ever changing musical scene, and the slow devolution of their long friendship. Their neighbor Gerry is a white, gay, Cole Porter-loving male who has no interest in their music (he refers to it condescendingly as “rippity-rap.”) Also in the mix of denizens that appear on this Brooklyn block are two young female rappers. Val is Puerto Rican and Nancy is white, and they are both passionate hip hop fans. (The entire cast is terrific, by the way.)
So many of the musical themes that float to the surface in the play feel familiar. Who “owns” a musical tradition? What does being authentic mean? Can a style maintain its “pure” form without being co-opted? How are gender and racial inequalities addressed (if at all?) What happens when a musical form drifts out and loses connection with its essential musical roots?
Rap, like gospel, came out of African American communities. In both cases the music’s appeal made it irresistible, and it burst out into a thousand different variations. What was once the self-styled musical expression of a particular group or culture became a worldwide phenomenon.
Hip hop was the music my kids grew up with and where they found their connection. It is their equivalent of my coming of age with Aretha, The Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell. But those 50 years haven’t done much to change a music industry that still has a reputation for being cold blooded, abusive, draconian in the speed with which it moves on to the next bright shiny thing, the ease with which it can destroy a career overnight.
And then there is the issue of secrets. The Purists story line has a career-ending secret given the unacceptability of being gay in the tough ethos of street machismo. At the screening for Amazing Grace, Renee Graham revealed a brutal secret about Aretha and her famous Baptist minister father C. L. Franklin, the dapper “Million-Dollar Voice.” He fathered Aretha’s first child when she was 12, and went on to father yet another child with her. His abuse of under age girls in his congregations was known at the time and yet he was relocated from Memphis to Buffalo to Detroit rather than being brought to justice. (A similar contemporary example of systemic support for predation is described with clarity in She Said, the recently released account of exposing Harvey Weinstein, written by the two journalists at the New York Times who broke the Pulitzer-prize winning story, Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor.) The dark side of the Franklin family story was not something Aretha would ever talk about. Her lifelong bouts of depression, concert cancellations and dysfunctional relationships can now be more easily seen as coping mechanisms rather than the absence of discipline.
Aretha’s music had its fist up moments, like her version of Otis Redding’s Respect or her plea for equality in Do Right Woman, Do Right Man. But she was a product of her era, and accommodation was more common than defiance. On that score, hip hop has long been called out for its violent and misogynistic lyrics. McCabe makes a hopeful nod to move beyond that state of the art by staging the play’s essential rap battle performance between the two women. It is a small gesture, yes, but not without significance.
When you know better, you do better. Or so I continue to hope. Musical forms reflect life, and the lyrics to contemporary music can be a harsh mirror to how slowly these things change. In discussing gospel music as a form, Emmett Price pointed out that the gospel style of Amazing Grace, while an essential element in this landmark recording moment, is now considered dated by current gospel singing standards. “That choir sounds so 70s!” he said. This fundamental form of spiritual expression keeps evolving while it still holds a place of significance in the African American community. As an example of its ongoing power, a woman seated a few rows behind me was called out to perform an unrehearsed, spontaneous a capella rendition of a gospel song. She didn’t cower for a minute, walking right up to the center of the stage. She sang spectacularly, this unnamed member of a gospel choir from somewhere in the Boston area. What a rich tradition that made that moment possible.
A new generation of pop, hip hop, jazz, R&B, soul and indie female singers, so many of them inspired by Aretha, have more license and leeway than ever to sing in a truthful, female-centric manner. There are so many of them, some joyously emulated in the all-female performance of Six at American Repertory Theater: Beyoncé, Ariana Grande, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Adele, Sia, Missy Elliot, Lil’ Kim. I applaud their bravado and hope for a future music that is more inclusive, balanced and honest. Even so, there will always be a place in me for the music that came into my life when I was at my most impressionable. Aretha’s singing was sourced in great sorrow, but the transcendence in her voice will never be out of date.
The Purists is at the Calderwood Pavilion through October 6.