‘Amazing Grace’: Aretha Franklin, Gospel Music and its Unsettling Roots
Writer and DJ Chris Sullivan explores how ‘Amazing Grace’, the new Sydney Pollack film finally released nearly 50 years after its original due date, got him thinking about the origins of Gospel music.
I admit that I have never been fond of live performance movies. To be honest, the only one I have ever liked is ‘Jazz on A Summer’s Day’, while the much-celebrated ‘Las Waltz’, directed by Martin Scorsese, left me cold.
So, when invited to see ‘Amazing Grace’, a film directed by Sydney Pollack and Alan Elliot on Aretha Franklin recording and performing an album of gospel in front of a live audience over two evenings in 1971 at The New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, I was less than enthusiastic.
It was only that this was the Queen of Soul, replete with kaftan and minifro, backed by the great Atlantic Records rhythm section including Bernard Purdie, Pancho Morales, Chuck Rainey and Cornell Dupree, that got me to the screening. ‘Amazing Grace’ is also the biggest-selling gospel album of all time. Whether you are a flat-out ‘God bod’ or a devout atheist like yours truly, it is a truly astonishing piece of work. And the film isn’t too shabby either.
I realised how much I love Gospel music – despite its adoration of God and all that this represented.
Indeed, after Aretha, joined by the great Reverend James Cleveland, completes any one of her renditions, I was almost compelled to stand up and clap such was the power, sincerity and the beauty of her voice. Her version of ‘Amazing Grace’, backed by the Southern California Community Choir, is more like a miraculous jazz scat that could reduce a grown man to tears.
The film itself, initially shot as part of a double-bill to be released with ‘Superfly’ in 1972, has laid in Warner Bros vaults for years – because Pollack had failed to use a clapper board to synchronise picture and sound at the beginning of each take. It was stalled further when Franklin sued Alan Elliot for using her likeness without permission.
‘Amazing Grace’ is, at last, seeing the light without any technical trickery or tomfoolery and simply features Aretha singing as nobody has done before while, all around, the congregation (including Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts) scream, holler, howl and weep.
Of course, Gospel is an anomalous form. A music that intended to honour the Christian God, it is also responsible for spawning what some still call the ‘Devil’s Music’ – jazz, blues and rock ‘n’ roll. Both these forms cause folk to dance which, as the famous quote reminds us, is a “vertical expression of a horizontal desire”. In other words, it is an expression of sexuality and temptation and, to many, the Devil’s Work.
Rock ‘n’ roll was also African American slang for sex, so ministers denounced it from pulpits. However, the music’s origins lie, in part, with the animated Southern Pentecostal churches, where among many others, Elvis, Little Richard, Ray Charles and James Brown, and other pioneers of the genre, worshipped as children. One could say that, without Gospel, there would be no rock ‘n’ roll.
Yet the curious incongruity should come as no surprise, especially when one considers that Christianity itself was forced on millions of slaves who had been ripped out of their homeland in Africa and taken to a foreign land to undergo hideous cruelties inflicted by white Christians who, regarding them as sub-humans, then forced them to abandon their traditional African religions and adopt Christianity.
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Slave masters encouraged their slaves to become Christians to hold out for the promise of a better after-life in heaven if they didn’t kill or rebel and became a submissive workforce. This was nothing new.
In the 4th Century, the canons of Dynod declared that slaves had a “Christian obligation” to submit to their masters and that anyone preaching abolitionism should be anathematised.
In 1452, Pope Nicholas V granted Afonso V of Portugal the right to reduce any “Saracens, pagans and any other unbelievers” to hereditary slavery.
Others, however, saw that this concept undermined everything that Christianity stood for. In 1815, Pope Pius VII demanded of the Congress of Vienna the suppression of the slave trade, and Gregory XVI condemned it again in 1839.
Slave masters encouraged their slaves to become Christians to hold out for the promise of a better after-life.
At the same time, Anglican missionaries were having a tough time forcing Christianity on slaves who still held onto traditional African beliefs and rituals such as polygamy and ‘idolatrous dancing’.
Even those who did succumb, fused Christianity with traditional African rites –supernatural ecstasy brought on by repetitious music, drums and chanting that resulted in ‘possession’, where he or she becomes the divine.
Thus, slave Christianity became a curious patchwork of its own that, during the ante-bellum, took another turn. Both former and slave evangelists went against slave masters by emphasising the Book of Exodus in the Bible – that God would free them from their bondage as he had the enslaved the Hebrews and thus a whole genre was born that still exists today.
Watching Aretha Franklin’s amazing performance in this film, I realised how much I love Gospel music – despite its adoration of God and all that this represented.