Aretha's Bridge: One Song That Carries The Weight Of Gospel And Soul History Amidst an instantly historic performance in 1971 that led to one of her best-known albums, Aretha Franklin's rendition of a single song carries inside it the weight of pop, soul and gospel history.
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Aretha's Bridge

Her 1971 performance of one song carries the weight of gospel and soul history

Aretha Franklin performs at the Fillmore West in San Francisco on March 5, 1971. Robert Altman/Getty Images hide caption

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Robert Altman/Getty Images

Aretha Franklin performs at the Fillmore West in San Francisco on March 5, 1971.

Robert Altman/Getty Images

If one way of understanding gospel music is to trace its emergence in the midst of the African-American Great Migration — from south to north, from rural areas to urban regions, from agrarian culture to industrialization, then so too can we hear Aretha Franklin traveling miles and miles in her luminous cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water." With each magnetic pass that she took through this song, we can hear Queen Re mediating the gospel space between traditional spirituals and blues-inflected musicality, bringing the Holy sounds of her Baptist upbringing closer to the secularized lyrics of folk hero Paul Simon.

In her extraordinary live performances of this track which she first performed on the Grammys telecast in 1971, Aretha Franklin becomes a bridge, phantasmagorically elasticizing the wondrous instrument that is her vocal body across musical genres — soul, gospel, folk. Most remarkable was how she drew out the deep spiritual grooves of Simon's "Bridge" in March of that year at concert promoter Bill Graham's Fillmore West, a rock and roll palace where Hendrix's psychedelia and Grateful Dead jam band bacchanalia had been flourishing since 1968. Resplendent in her flowing, earth-toned gown and a supremely Haight-Ashbury slouchy hat, she took a seat at the piano and became the first African-American woman artist to headline a concert event at the venue, home of the "long hairs" as some would refer to it.

The journey that Aretha takes us on this song is one in which she wraps her arms around an ode to deeply enduring friendship and solidarity in times of trial. This was a moment too in which she also tapped into the traces of songwriter Paul Simon's love of gospel greats the Swan Silvertones and their own re-reading of the spiritual "Mary Don't You Weep," itself a tune that folds together Old and New Testament tales of exodus and re-birth. It was a tale she surely knew well, as the daughter of legendary preacher C.L. Franklin, and she invoked all that knowledge to mine the "Bridge" for its many cultural and spiritual resonances. Along the way, just as she did with Otis Redding's "Respect," she made it all her own.

Like fellow Detroiter Diana Ross, Aretha makes a bid to "reach out and touch somebody's hand" across an ocean of ardent, colorful tie-dye clad fans. And in doing so, those Fillmore West performances — released just a few months later as her second live album — became instantly historic in that they assert the multiracial and cross-gender possibilities of early 1970s rock and roll counterculture that so often went unrealized. As she stretches herself out in the lyrics of the song, the Queen laid the ground for making deep well statements about the politics of trust and coalition building in the face of historical uncertainty, as black liberation changed its pace and tenor, as the anti-war effort grew evermore dire.

Over three sold out nights, Aretha Franklin would play in the round with King Curtis and the Kingpins, one of the tightest rhythm sections other than James Brown's JBs, setting off each evening on her own distinct version of Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," a song that marked what turned out to be a crucial period of her transformation as a musician.

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"Go ahead 'Retha!" The adoring crowd embraces Aretha the vocalist and pianist as she hails her powerhouse band, a group featuring late great Curtis Ousley on saxophone and the convivial Billy Preston sitting in as guest player at the organ. "Play Billy!" Aretha calls out to her fellow musician as her incandescent cover slowly unfolds, as she wades ever so gracefully into still waters that run deep, as she moves gently and yet fearlessly into the center of Preston's thick, bright, atmospheric keyboard universe flanked by her backup singers, the Sweethearts of Soul.

Aretha's vocals radiate with the effulgent heat and the ethereal energy of the gospel tradition as she worries lines, improvises impassioned moans and carefully, elegantly puts to use a thing called the melisma, the artful, spiritually-rooted technique of stringing a series of notes together in one syllable so as to stretch out one's vocal phrasing.

Hanging on words, pulling out phrases and turning them over and over so as to wring them for multiple meanings, Aretha here lets us know, without breaking a sweat, that she is still the innovator who birthed a brand of soul music that made spectacularly audible existential and spiritual self-discovery and affirmation, all at the site of her virtuosic vocalization. The philosophical intelligence of her musical phrasing and narrative interpretation set a new standard of excellence in pop music.

"When you're down and out / When you look up and see yourself on the street / When evening falls so hard / I'll be there to comfort you / I'll take your part / I'll take it when darkness comes / And there's no one you love around."

Aretha the conduit. Aretha the medium. Aretha the surrogate figure for the masses. She was, especially at this point in her career, between 1971-1973 (called by critics, her "artistically mature period"), a kind of performer who was able to "shap[e] her intimacies with the skill of a dramatist," as Ann Powers has beautifully put it. Like a great "method actor" who slips into the specific landscape of a particular song to fully inhabit it, Aretha both disappears into the emotional terrain of her "bridge" and unveils a protagonist who expresses herself in the most intense emotive registers.

"Don't trouble the water... Why don't ya just let it be"

Yes, there are rumors that Simon wrote "Bridge Over Troubled Water" "for Aretha" or "with Aretha in mind." All speculation, but certainly we can hear the ways that the song would operate as a crossroads in her career, a prescient recording that would forecast her historic transition, her own personal and professional bridge from pop superstardom back to fully immersing herself in the music of the church.

"Bridge Over Troubled Water" is, after all, a gateway song — not simply a cover of a gorgeously wrought proclamation of harmony, intimacy and understanding shared between two New York City folkies — but a song that reaches back to a gospel classic which, in turn, draws its inspiration from the Bible.

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Listen carefully to the Swan Silvertones' classic version of "Mary Don't You Weep," and one hears the famous line that would inspire Paul Simon to write a song about a bridge as wells as the seeds from Exodus that inspired that line.

"Mary Don't You Weep" gives us the story, from the Gospel of John, of Mary of Bethany, a woman who, along with her sister Martha, mourns over the death of her brother Lazarus. When Jesus arrives at their house, he meets with both sisters. Before raising their brother to new life, he instructs Martha to draw on hope and faith. To Mary he offers added counsel and addresses her tears: "When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled."

So sing the Swan Silvertones: "Oh Mary don't you weep. Tell Martha not to moan."

"Mary Don't You Weep" started out as a Negro spiritual, entrusted in the 20th century to the likes of the Fisk Jubilee Singers to deliver the Good Word to the segregated masses, and it is a song that has subsequently been picked up by artists as varied as Pete Seeger, Nat King Cole, Bruce Springsteen, Aaron Neville and Take 6 throughout the 20th century .

As Aaron Cohen points out in his book on Aretha's Amazing Grace, the version that would seemingly have the most overt impact on her is the 1958 recording by The Caravans, the phenomenally influential gospel group of the '50s and '60s, founded by Albertine Walker and a launching pad for a run of future superstars of the genre: Shirley Caesar, James Cleveland and Inez Andrews to name but a few.

But the Swan Silvertones' version from 1959 is the only one that features the marvelous lead singer Claude Jeter's forthright interpolation: "I'll be a bridge over deep water if you trust in my name." It was a line that would stick with Paul Simon and one with roots to the greatest escape tale of all time.

Sings Jeter, "Pharoah's Army got drowned in the sea, but Jesus said Mary, your little sister Martha don't have to moan .... Now can I get a witness."

The Swan Silvertones version of "Mary Don't You Weep" folds into its musical story the narrative of Exodus, one of the most famous passages in all of the Bible — when Moses, led by the Lord, saw the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.

"Mary Don't You Weep" bridges this holy miracle into the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in the Gospel of John. In doing so, it is a song that testifies to the wonder of heavenly power to comfort, to protect and to revive mortal souls.

"I'll be a bridge over deep water if you trust in my name." Jeter's line recalls the second half of the Exodus passage when the Israelites traveled for three days, battling heat and sun, thirsting for water. With their faith tested, as the tale goes, the "people grumbled against Moses, saying, 'What are we to drink?' And the Lord turned bitter water into the sweetest of drink, assuring the people that 'I am the LORD, who heals you.'"

Many people remember this passage from Exodus (with or without the Cecil B. DeMille special effects from the Ten Commandments film) because of the way that it so spectacularly showcases the might and power of the Almighty, bringing the waters of the Red Sea over Pharaoh's army, turning bitter water into the sweetest of drink.

Oft-overlooked yet just as crucial to the Israelites deliverance are the women on hand who witness and musically testify to the extraordinary turn of events in their midst:

"Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her, with tambourines and dancing. Miriam sang to them: 'Sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea.'"

Like a bridge, Miriam and the women repeat in song this hallowed flight to freedom. With a "joyful noise," their voices reanimate the "rock on which Moses stood" to "lead the Hebrew children through." They are the ones who, like those sisters at the close of Toni Morrison's Beloved, "buil[d] voice upon voice until they found it, and when they did it was a wave of sound wide enough to sound deep water and knock the pods off chestnut trees."

We might think of how Aretha picks up the frequency of Claude Jeter singing "I'll be your bridge over deep water if you trust my name," so crystal clear that Paul Simon can hear his truth. And it's she who can hear Miriam and the women's truth as well as they amplify it, sustain it, make it manifest using "the right combination, the key, the code...."

Aretha the code breaker sings through this history, and she also ultimately re-centers that history in a legacy of black women's agency and conviction.

As Cohen reminds, it is Inez Andrews' "bluesy vamp and original sermonette about Lazarus rising from the tune" in The Caravans' version of "Mary Don't You Weep" that Aretha would potently bring to life during the historic Grace recordings at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, some nine months after her Fillmore concerts. In that epic, earth-shaking performance, we hear the voice of a black woman actively folding together into one the sacred, secular and sonic histories of the black radical tradition and reminding us of the woman-centered foundations of that tradition. On "Mary," Aretha follows the road that she'd set for herself on a bridge and carries the congregation through the storm.

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This is paradigmatic soul at the apex of masterful storytelling. Worth recognizing then, that if in soul performance the very of-this-earth James Brown would make famous the line "take it to the bridge" — an emphatic way of egging his band on and signaling his own virtuosic ability to carry a song from the verse to the chorus to the climax — if in these moments James Brown was announcing his gift of stamina, fierce performative determination, improvisation, and ingenuity, we hear all of this on Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace as well.

In Aretha's stunning performance of "Mary," alone, we hear Motor City black Baptist royalty meeting New York City Jewish folkie Simon, and we hear Simon meeting Kentucky-born coal miner turned gospel great Jeter. We hear her carrying both men back to Alabama gospel role model Inez Andrews in song, melding together the spiritual and the worldly, Old and New Testament tales of perseverance and faith. We hear her responding to the call made by Miriam, summoning those old school Biblical women's sonic circuits of energy, and channeling and translating Inez and Paul and Claude.

"I'll be your bridge over deep water if you trust my name."

The larger lesson for me in that tiny verse in Exodus and its various rippling echoes in The Caravans and the Swan Silvertones' versions of "Mary," rolling on through Aretha's "Bridge" and on into her own Amazing Grace performance is that Aretha Franklin is calling out to us to respond and bear witness to the foundations of her soul music revolution. Her music will forever hold the potential to bring the richest array of peoples together in a kind of humanist collectivity that, at its core, celebrates the sound of black womanhood as a site for radical social, spiritual and philosophical possibilities.

No time like now to take that bridge once more.