I think you first get into soul music because it makes you move, but I think you stay with soul music because it moves you. It connects us to something beneath (or past) the rhythms, swooping vocals, and tight horns. To quote Sam Cooke, it sends you—but sends us where? Heaven, yes, but also to church: to pews and carpets, angels and robes. Well, at least that’s real soul music.
You know real soul music, right? This is the place where the ache and the exuberance meet up inside the high note. It’s where the pain is threaded in between bass notes. And a groove; there’s always a groove. It’s the feel, the ride you take with the drums—it’s when you want to dance right after a good cry. It’s Aretha. Otis. Stevie. Marvin. You don’t even need full names. Soul music takes you from the top to the bottom—it’s rags and riches, the dance and the dirge. Every season of life is represented in soul music. The cold winter of “A Change Is Gonna Come” can match fluidly with the sweet summer of “Twistin’ the Night Away”—both unquestionably filled with soul. A soul artist doesn’t make soul music, they have soul. And they bring that soul to the ballad and the groove and everything in between. There’s no season soul music does not know, which is why it moves you, sends you, no matter what is happening around you.
This is the music that moves your soul, too, which is why people do all kinds of things when they hear soul music. After hearing Marvin Gaye you want to protest and make love. You’ll cry and dance with Aretha. And if you can take the journey with Stevie through Songs in the Key of Life, you’ll simultaneously want to be a father and player. You’ll just want life and life to its brim. The whole thing. You move to it, but only because it moves you first. We’ll never know how they do it, but I think we can know why…
All of Life Is about the Spirit
Acouple of months ago, the soul artist Lee Fields was interviewed on the podcast Heat Rocks with Morgan Rhodes and Oliver Wang (the best music podcast out there right now, FYI). He was on the show to discuss Sam Cooke’s compilation Portrait of a Legend, released posthumously from ABKCO Records in 2003. Fields himself is an incredible singer, coming into his own during these past few years with his backing band, The Expressions.
The Heat Rocks crew asked Fields which songs he would cover off of Portrait of a Legend. His reply: the gospel classic, “Hem of His Garment,” based off of the remark from the bleeding woman in Matthew 9:18-26. Cooke, like so many soul musicians, cannot be understood outside of his formation in the Black church. After his start in the Soul Stirrers, Sam Cooke took the church with him through his whole career, his whole life. “Hem of His Garment” is just one of the more obvious examples.
God (the Spirit) is what Fields finds most foundational to the essence of Sam Cooke’s work. And he sees it in his own music too, which is why he wanted to cover the gospel classic in the first place. “All my life has been about the Spirit,” Fields says in the interview. “It’s always been about God. I talk about God all the time…I guess it’s what I witness everyday…it always comes back to the God thing.”
And this is really the intangible nature of soul music. Its etymology is, after all, inextricably linked with spirituality. It’s weird, but there are a lot of bands who have been billed as soul music, but don’t have any soul. There’s something someone must possess that’s deeper than the technical aspects of the rhythm section. You must be possessed by something, Someone.
This was what people saw in Charles Bradley, hands down the greatest soul musician of the last 20 years. Captured perfectly in the documentary, Charles Bradley: The Soul of America, he didn’t just perform soul music—he had soul.And that’s real soul music. It assumes God is within the reality of life—all of your life. Dancing and dating are in the same universe as politics and poetry—this is all God’s world, anyways.
Without getting into everything (just go watch the documentary), Bradley’s life was filled with pain, abandonment, homelessness, and constant poverty until, in his fifties, after he had given up on his dreams of being a singer, he was discovered and rocketed to fame. Passing away far too early, his final years of life fulfilled what he knew to be true about himself: he was a soul man.
In an interview on the website Pop Matters, Bradley was asked about his positivity and hope for his country, America, which has given him more abuse and hardship than blessing. Bradley quotes the King James Bible: “When Jesus was walking on Calvary, he said one thing, ‘Father why dost thou forsake me?’ And when he found the true love of being in heaven, he said ‘God forgive them. They do not know what they do.’ I was born in America. I was raised in America. And America truly has done me a lot of dirt, a lot of horrible things that I never will forget, but I know this is where I was born at. I just pick the pieces up and keep on going.”
Charles Bradley both performs soul music and has soul, not just because he’s had a hard life, not just because he has suffered, but because he has suffered within the context of a larger history: the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Black church in America is the great witness to this reality of life: that by sharing in Christ’s sufferings, we also share in His resurrection. The Apostle Paul understood the suffering of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus as just two sides to the same coin—you can’t have one without the other. He asked “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10).
The Range of the Soul
Soul artists have always created albums that show us such a two-sided life: one of suffering and hope, of loneliness and exuberance—the exhaustion and the ecstasy of being alive. It’s how Wilson Pickett can open 1966’s The Exciting Wilson Pickett with “Land of 1000 Dances” and nearly close it with “It’s All Over.” It’s how Aretha can hit you with “Respect” on track one and “Drown in My Own Tears” on track two of I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967). I mean, c’mon…it’s unfair. But it’s real. It’s life.
And that’s real soul music. It assumes God is within the reality of life—all of your life. Dancing and dating are in the same universe as politics and poetry—this is all God’s world, anyways. There’s no need to draw lines here. Real soul artists can take you from the tambourines of praise to the tears of repentance without really allowing us to notice it. White people need “transitions” in their worship services, but go to a Black gospel church, listen to the rich tradition of gospel music from which soul music comes, and you can move seamlessly from a praise dance to sackcloth and ashes, you can groove and grovel in a matter of minutes.
Soul music sees God everywhere no matter the season. To Bradley or Fields, Sam Cooke or Aretha, God’s presence permeates our world—there is nowhere He is not. There is no soul music without the Black church. The relationship between the two is inseparable and it comes through the music.
For gospel and soul artists, God is pervasive, expansive, even obvious to all of life. Marginalized communities understand this in a way majority cultures do not. Those of us in majority cultures have trouble understanding how the meek could be blessed, how being poor in spirit might be an advantage. It’s our brothers and sisters in the gospel tradition that pull the curtain back on life: God is both pain and joy, sorrow and spectacle, cross and empty tomb. There is nowhere he is not.
The Church Doesn’t Leave You
Soul music’s ministry is to bring us back to church through the side door. The trove of soul music’s message is a way we reap God’s goodness in this world during all seasons of life. While most soul musicians started in the church, by the time they cut their records, they were not singing about God directly. And maybe that’s just it: to know God is the experience Him, to feel His weight—that is, His “glory.”
It’s the job of a preacher like me to tell you about Jesus, but I can’t always make you feel Him. You can always hear about God in church, but if you want a feeling for what God is like, soul music will take you there. Soul music doesn’t make you want to go to church, but it does help you realize you might already be there. For as much as soul artists leave the church, the church cannot leave them—and this is their ministry to us now.
Some can’t stomach walking into a church. Some have too much hurt or anxiety to sit in a pew. But if you really listen to “Mississippi Goddam” or “What’s Going On?” you’ll be led to the altar. In the torture and the tenderness of these songs, we might, without knowing it, be coming back to God.
Amazing Grace is the documentary about Aretha Franklin’s 1972 recording of her legendary gospel album. Reviewing the film for The New Yorker, Emily Lordi wrote, “It is by now commonplace to say, as C. L. Franklin says of his daughter in the film, that Aretha “never left the church.” But the film reveals the equally crucial sense in which the church—that certainty of support, as steady as breath and as deep as a moan—never left her.”
Soul music started in the church, but it also carries the church with it every time you hear it. Whether with Sam Cooke in 1964 or Charles Bradley in 2014, the Gospel operates like salt or yeast: hidden in plain sight. Soul songs may be about a lost lover, but God is not separate from the romance and the pain of it, because, as David Bentley Hart has famously said, God is the most obvious thing in the universe. Soul takes for granted that God is everywhere all the time, never disinterested in any part of human life. We are reminded that the most overlooked thing about human life is God’s presence. God himself moves seamlessly through the varying seasons of life, undeterred by the change in weather. These soul artists testify to the always-on-the-move nature of God. He simply should not be missed. If soul music doesn’t move you, you might be immovable.