Great Music Changes Us
In 1972, soul singer Aretha Franklin released a record that is her finest album. Amazing Grace sold over two million copies in the United States, and in 1973 she won the Grammy for Best Soul Gospel Performance. Recorded live in the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in January 1972, Amazing Grace showcases not only Franklin’s gospel roots but also her command of vocal range and phrasing.
If you can listen to only one Aretha Franklin song, this should be it: “Amazing Grace” on the 1972 Amazing Grace album illustrates every feature of Franklin’s artistry. No other recording demonstrates the range of her voice, her ability to get inside of notes and stretch them to wrench every emotion out of listeners, her brilliant piano playing, and her devotion to the power of music to evoke love.
Franklin’s performance may be the very best illustration that gospel music transcends divisions and boundaries, both musical and social. When we listen closely to her performance, it changes us. We can no longer listen to “Amazing Grace” the same way again, for once we’ve listened to Franklin’s version, other versions lack the passionate engagement with the song’s themes of hope, mercy, love, and joy (the final verse of the song radiates the joy of God’s enduring love, and the enduring love we are to share with others). Once we’ve listened to Franklin’s performance of the song, we can no longer promote division but seek instead to erase lines of hatred that make others less than human. Great music changes us. Great gospel music changes how we live.
(Listen to Aretha Franklin sing "Amazing Grace" with James Cleveland and The Southern California Community Choir from the 1972 album 'Amazing Grace'.)
Spirituals and gospel songs are especially powerful evocations of faith, hope, and love. The very music itself, while often familiar to its hearers, transcends the anxieties and plodding uncertainties of daily life. These songs acknowledge the hopelessness and the despair of everyday life while at the same time lifting us out of ourselves to another plane. Spirituals are born out of the field shouts and hollers of slaves in the American South and are characterized by a repetitious call and refrain that offers the singers—for spirituals are songs that we should be singing and not just hearing—a way to identify with the pain of others, as well as a way to fly away above it. Spirituals and gospel music developed first in the black church and then evolved in white Southern churches in forms referred to as country gospel and bluegrass gospel, each of which has its own style. But no matter the particular gospel style, the music has despair, salvation, love, hope, and transcendence at its core.
Excerpted from Fifteen Spirituals That Will Change Your Life by Henry Carrigan—available today!