Aretha Franklin’s Living Memory: an essay on the collective loss of historical memory

Soul music has always seemed to me the music that people need when they’ve been sufficiently beaten down by the world, and just need something that can put them back together again. Whether it’s Al Green’s ‘Let’s Stay Together’, Sam Cooke’s ‘Just For You’, Etta James’ ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ or Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’, these are the songs that never fail to move or to heal.

Country music is where you go to put your feelings into words, but soul music is where you go to soften those words and wounds.

It also has an uncanny ability to talk about the hard stuff; the feelings we are ashamed of; the things we shouldn’t have done; the parts of ourselves we hide in the shadows, but in such a way, that doesn’t make you feel sad or depressive. It lifts you out of the darkness and allows you to feel it all fully. Whether it is the instrumentation or the melody or just the soulfulness of the singer, you always, always feel lighter and more together than you were when you put the record on.

With Aretha Franklin’s passing, it is not the music that has gone because that will always be there, forever and ever, or until the world slowly burns out. No, it is the sadness that one more living memory has been extinguished. One more person that will have remembered the civil rights movement, one more person who will have remembered what making music was like then, one more person who will have carried the memories and the stories of all those who have gone before her – her parents, her grandparents, her siblings, and their own stories and histories as well as the hundreds of other musicians, artists and activists she met along the way. It is the loss of one more person who will have had their own memories and their history.

Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and March For Our Lives are continuations and the contemporary sisters to the civil rights movement, the feminist movement and peace movement from the last century. The continued and sustained attacks on the free press; the upswing of sexism and misogyny; the racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and rampant nationalism that are sweeping Europe in the form of Brexit in the UK, The League in Italy and the Freedom party in Austria among others. In America with the election of Donald Trump, the rise and growing influence of Breitbart, and the continued media poison that is Fox News, are again not new things. But they are very much new to us as the younger generations. A collective assault on what is good and what we hold dear, and perhaps, what we have taken for granted.

It is no coincidence that these things are rearing their ugly heads at the same time that those who would have remembered what 1930’s Europe will have been like are no longer present.

As the human rights lawyer Philippe Sands has said, There has been a collective loss of historical memory. People do not remember. Those in government do not remember what happened in Europe in the 1930’s.”

This is what we should hold onto with Aretha’s passing. Her music undoubtedly, but much more importantly and much more necessary if we want to keep intolerance and hatred at bay, is her memories, her experiences, her battles, the messages in her music because, and to steal from George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Let us respect Aretha Franklin’s memory and steadfastly not allow history to repeat itself.


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