My dad claims he doesn’t believe in God. And if I’d grown up in the kind of impoverished circumstances he did, with masses in the church praising Jesus while the landlord kicked their teeth in, or watching bible quoting Christians cheer as dogs were set on people who wanted the right to vote, I’d be right there with him.
I’m not sure I believe in God. For years I answered the question with, “I believe in something,” which is a great phrase for deflecting. But I’m not sure that’s true either. Still, I tilt in the direction of belief more often than not, and I believe there are moments where we open ourselves up and something holy comes through.
So maybe it’s just that holy spirit that I actually believe in, which might be nothing more than us having a shining moment where we reach, and then surpass, the potential we thought we had. We seem to become, in those moments, the greatest version of ourselves. And here’s where my belief kicks in—in denial of that pinnacle. I don’t think those moments are our highest selves, but just a glimpse into what could be normal for us.
I have my own ways of denying that we’re limited by what we can see. I talk to my dead relatives, particularly my mother, and I don’t think that’s a strange thing to do. It’s a form of prayer, which is how I feel about music at certain moments. John Coltrane, who happens to be from the same town as my dad, believed in the soul reaching power of music. It was a language that let him speak to the ethereal, holy power sitting inside of us. He believed in that, and I have to say that listening to great music is the most regular religious experience I’ve taken into my life.
But if I do believe in in a capital-G God, one of the places that spirit lives is in Aretha Franklin’s version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
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I’ll state the obvious here, which is that Aretha Franklin was one of the great performers in the history of music, with a supernatural ability to channel her voice into great songs and make them her own, from “Respect” to “The Weight” to “Eleanor Rigby.”
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” is possibly the best song Paul Simon ever wrote, and even though he wrote it with Art Garfunkel’s voice in mind, he’d later state that he was thinking “Boy, I bet Aretha could do a good job on this song.” The Simon and Garfunkel rendition is the one I grew up hearing, and it still has enormous power for me. But at some point in my early 20’s I heard the Franklin version and felt what I guess Art Garfunkel heard when he said that Aretha took the song “back to church.”
I lived in New Orleans for years, and I would sometimes stand outside of the St. Augustine church in the Treme, listening to the music coming out of the doors on Sundays. I’ve seen the music from that building pour out into the streets and flood them with light. I get that same feeling when I listen to this version of “Bridge,” especially at the moment the song explodes with a holy fire.
The moment that gets me comes at 3:35 into the song. On both the first and second verses, the band slows and breaks after the third line—a short pause before moving back into the tune. But on the second verse (the third in Simon’s written version, and the verse he was always most uncomfortable with), the unexpected happens. We’ve been prepared by the pause in the first verse, and by Franklin’s extended keyboard opening, for something with a slow power. But something different happens. The band fades out on the line, “All your dreams are on their way.”
And then…And then the angels sing.
See. How. They. Shine.
This is where the song crosses that line from beautiful and powerful to holy. There simply isn’t a language for what happens. Those four words come on four consecutive beats. Four syllables, pouring out of the voices of the backup singers first, before Franklin joins them. And it’s perfect. It’s beyond perfect. I rarely hear those voices without my breath shifting and all the hairs on my arms coming to attention. You want a moment to grow wings and carry you? This, for me, is that moment.
And it keeps building. Listen to the way the backup singers raise their voices on the following lines, like they’re accompanying the song into the sky. It’s not a vocal performance. It’s a miracle.
It makes me believe.
Aretha Franklin performing at Fillmore West.
As the song opens, Franklin says, “If you’ll only believe.” It’s a challenge, and one I still take personally. This is a song about belief, and there are no illusions that her own belief is earned. The challenge is asking you to find your way to that mountain.
It’s curious how we say, “I’d like to believe…” I don’t understand why belief has to be a complicated thing this way. I feel sometimes that if I want to believe something I should just be able to believe it. But it doesn’t work like that. It wouldn’t be worth much that way.
You want the real thing? You have to find your way there. And you have to be willing to stand over your own doubts, recognize them, and keep standing there.
It’s right there in the song. Belief is a bridge. Belief takes time. It takes a solid structure to stand on. It’s an island you build a span to over everything raging underneath, and you walk across in spite of the chaos below. “I’ll be there to lay me down,” she sings. If you can’t believe in yourself, she says, then believe in me.
And I do.