In the most humble of starts Aretha Franklin was born in Memphis – where else but the south? Her birthplace is a barely preserved tiny house in Lucy St Memphis. A plaque was put up last year and I expect in no time at all it will become a shrine to the Queen of Soul and pilgrims of music will be flocking there in much the same way Gracelands has become a shrine for Elvis. Memphis is one helluva town – you can see the entire music industry ecosystem of a bygone era on every corner, outfitters to the King, through the Gibson guitar factory, Beale Street holds the memories and sounds which became the bedrock of 2oth century cultures and sub-cultures. But without the songs of the slaves being drawn out of the swamps and all along the Mississippi we wouldn’t have any of it. Memphis is a place I would not have thought of visiting but it was the first stop on a gospel singing tour I did with Tony Backhouse in 2016. I learnt a lot in Memphis and I bow down to their contribution and showing the world their talents.
Music is such a healing force in my life. I can’t imagine what it would be like without music or the capacity to make music. When I make music with others there is a visceral and involuntary bonus of community that holds me for a moment. Singing in my local acapella gospel choir is the best medicine. I grew up with singing around the piano to show tunes from My Fair Lady to Godspell, to songs from family stories like Galway Bay and Tie me Kangaroo Down, to songs of a generation penned by Lennon and McCartney or Rodgers and Hammerstein. Later in life (my teens and early twenties) this music was replaced by the rock gospel of Jesus Christ Superstar and American evangelical songwriters like Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill and Keith Greene. There was the inevitable St Louis Jesuit set as well as these were needed in the repertoire for church services. Eventually Australian composers got a bit of look in, but the majority were from the US. Going to Memphis I was able to put it altogether – I got to the DNA of rock and roll, hip hop, soul and R & B – it was in Africa. The slaves had bought their music and the back beat and syncopation, the pathos and driving rhythms, the pounding confidence in a higher authority – it was all there – in Memphis.
The appropriation was there too. I could no longer listen or sing with enjoyment to Peter, Paul and Mary or even Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie without realising they were on the back of this tradition. I had to go to the source to understand. Like the practice of hermeneutics in theology (where you apply a set of principles of interpretation to look for what is and isn’t in the text by what is visible and what I say is sewn in the seams), I discovered this is true in music too. All music is from the streets, the fields, the transit stations, threshold moments in personal and corporal history. When you hear, or read a line, that says she went back to her husband, you know that means she left her husband; when you hear I told her we couldn’t keep meeting like this, you know that means there were meetings of an intimate kind … these are the ways a story is revealed, but not spelled out. When we hear Aretha sing Otis Redding’s Respect we know there was no respect first. Aretha made this song her own and it became an anthem. She spelled it out R E S P E C T. There was nothing left to find still hidden in the seams, she made sure it was writ large with all the savvy and sass Memphis could squeeze out of her. And writ large, is how I hope as a sign of respect, her first home in Memphis will be made visible to the world.
Aretha’s version of Respect is on high rotation. It is a song that is deeper for me, now because of having gone to Memphis and understanding the town and their music a little more than I did if I hadn’t visited. In this time of wake, I reverently bow to Aretha and all the people that brought her music to the world.
I find myself in this year of self-compassion, giving thanks to those invisible behind the scenes who have brought me to places and spaces, sounds and sights and opening me up to self-respect. To respect yourself and give yourself the same acclaim, admiration, regard as you would any one else is perhaps one of the key ingredients to self-compassion. I have a natural aversion to feeling pride and taking credit for anything, because I know nothing, absolutely nothing is down to your own devices. Maybe respect is not pride, and instead, the surety of acting with integrity to yourself and with the trust and conviction of the horn section in Respect (a riff that can’t be unheard once heard). Standing up for yourself and your interpretation of the lyric and the sound, is a way to respect yourself, to tell your story as you see it and hear it. Respect is commanded because of your self-respect and sometimes you do have to spell it out so you can sing your own song and go back to your roots and find the strength in those foundations, unappropriated, raw and ready for release.
Thanks Aretha, Otis and all the crews at Atlantic Records for inviting us to the conversation for a little respect.