As with any devotion, many out-of-the-way paths must be trod before we arrive at a destination we could not have known until we arrived there. Before I found the Arabic oud, I had fallen into the depths of musical bewilderment at the spells of Chet Atkin’s finger-style guitar, classical Indian raga, Jerry Garcia and the Dead, and the one and only Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.
When it comes to death and dying, burials and funeral, folks have so much trouble believing in soul. But when Aretha Franklin sings, how can you do anything but testify to the majestic power of soul that all human beings are endowed with. The rare bird, Aretha, makes a temple of her life, her heart, her lungs, and her chords, for soul to resound in the world – revelation.
Aretha earns her place as the greatest of the generation for her work pioneering the genre we call “soul” music. But if you do not know it, learn swiftly now, that Aretha’s mighty power was brought up in houses of God. Her father was a preacher, and Aretha joined his choir as they caravanned, practicing, learning, mastering the art of listening and singing – soul.
In 1972 she recorded the most successful gospel album of all time, Amazing Grace, with Reverend James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir. Words can do no justice to the magic in these recordings, but you can listen here.
These recordings were foundational to my musical soul, and they are a deep influence on our services at The New Shul.
How is it that a rabbi could be so profoundly influenced by a gospel record, Jesus and all? Soul music transcends boundaries. When we pour out soul, the barriers around us dissolve. When Aretha sings, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” you can’t help but fly alongside the harmonies of her band of angels, and open your soul to the beauty of her spirit, which she gives to the world – free.
What is soul music?
Soul music is beyond genre. It rises at the meeting point of rehearsed and free, at the balance of brokenness and joy. It sounds like silence erupting from melody, fire, and groove. These are the rules of soul music, as I have come to learn them. Thank you dearest Aretha for being our teacher of soul. We will miss you dearly, and we will honor your being by our music.
Rabbi Zach Fredman