On a crisp, sparkling day in January 2009, Aretha Franklin stood on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, an ample figure swathed in a spectacular ensemble of coat and hat in two shades of grey, singing My Country, ’Tis of Thee to her new president.
All around her, and down the full length of the National Mall, the vast audience included African Americans with tears in their eyes, celebrating the inauguration of Barack Obama. She was facing west, as hundreds of thousands of slaves had done when they landed on a bitter shore at the conclusion of their portage from Africa. “Let freedom ring,” she sang, in the anthem’s famous exhortation, and many millions watching on television around the world could not help but share the resonance of a historic moment.
Franklin, who has died aged 76, sounded exalted that day. She almost always did, even when handcuffed to unsympathetic material. Her voice could scald or soothe, singing with equal intimacy and intensity to her God or a faithless lover. She was both the heir to the sacred tradition of Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward, frequent visitors to her childhood home, and the lineal descendant of the very secular Bessie Smith and Dinah Washington.