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6 September 2019

I went to church three times this week – and the final time, I watched Aretha Franklin fly

By Tracey Thorn

I’ve been to church three times this week. Once for sorrow, twice for joy.

The first is joyful: a christening at a C of E church in a small country village, gentle and welcoming, faintly comical in places. The vicar has that would-be casual, slightly bumbling vibe, reminiscent of Rowan Atkinson in Four Weddings and a Funeral. Terrified of solemnity, he’s keen to make his words sound ordinary, not too serious – not too religious, if we’re honest. There’s nothing here to alarm the atheists and given that I’m one of them, it’s the kind of service I can manage.

The whole thing teeters on the edge of chaos: toddlers crawling towards the choir stalls, an embarrassed hurrying through the prayers, a clip-on microphone which is repeatedly thumped by babies being dangled over the font, making a loud WHOOMP that reminds me of the moment when Madonna fell over at the Brits that year. What holds it all together is the simple fact of celebrating new life.

My second trip to church is more sorrowful: the memorial for Guardian journalist Simon Ricketts. He died a few months ago and is much missed, especially on Twitter, where he was loved by many. We gathered round him like a campfire. He was often irreverent and often silly, but always wise and always witty. Being opinionated on Twitter is easy, being funny is welcome; being beloved is rare indeed. Simon was that, and at St Brides Church in the heart of Fleet Street we get together to mark his passing. A glorious choir sings him out and in the pub later we bang him out, in fine old journalistic tradition.

After all that, my final church experience happens in a cinema, where I go to see the film Amazing Grace, which documents the recording of Aretha Franklin’s seminal 1972 gospel album of the same name. Filmed over two nights by director Sydney Pollack, it is a transcendent experience and a document of an artist at the height of her powers.

It all takes place in a Baptist church in LA. Aretha is at the front and behind her a huge painting of Jesus looms over the scene. He is wading through water, his arms lifted in supplication, and he is a white Jesus, although the audience is mostly black. At the back stand Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts. It’s not all that long since they released Sympathy for the Devil.

In between Jesus and the Stones stands Aretha, dressed in a long white smock studded with rhinestones that glitter and blaze as the lights catch them, mirroring the beads of sweat on her forehead, which sparkle like diamonds.

Her whole face is alight with sweat: it runs down her neck, trickles down her cheek like tears. Her blue eyeshadow creases and gathers in the folds of her eyelids. Mid-song, her father mops her face with a handkerchief. She never pauses. Sings on through it all.

The women watching her are in their finery, 1970s style: wide lapels, big sunglasses, huge floppy-brimmed velvet hats. One gets up and dances in a short A-line dress and high-heeled sandals, James Brown-esque fancy footwork, and another woman has to be helped to her seat as she is overcome by emotion. And the emotion is demonstrative, performative, defiant in its demand to be heard, its refusal to go quietly.

Aretha sings of God, and to God, her voice rising up to the heavens, and what hits me is the constant unexpectedness of her singing. As a musical form, gospel has its repeated motifs, but she soars above them all. “How does she DO that?” you ask yourself, as she comes in on some note you didn’t anticipate; as she leaves a breathing space longer or shorter than you expected; as she swoops up to a note, and then on beyond it, up and up, higher and higher still, leaving you behind, earthbound, watching her fly.

On everyone’s face, pure love and devotion. “Just look at her,” they say. “And listen. Listen to her.” They shake their heads in wonder. They are there to praise their God, but also to celebrate their queen. They clap their hands, and it becomes a precisely syncopated art form, and they echo back her words. For a moment you see what church is for, and amen to that. Amen. 

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This article appears in the 22 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit earthquake