Responding to the call - Madonna Magazine

Responding to the call

Julian Butler SJ 25 May 2023

The first time I stepped into Cherry Bar on a Thursday night, down Melbourne’s slopping bluestone AC/DC Lane, I was overcome. The music took me, all of me. It was infectious, I wanted to move to, but it felt more than superficially satisfying. The music was intense, the beats catching and the passion in the vocals arresting. This was soul music.

As a kid I had been transfixed by that rumbustious film, The Blues Brothers, with wonderful cameos from Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Ray Charles. The Queen of Soul and two of the music genre’s pioneers shared the film with some of the greats of rhythm and blues, gospel and funk.

Indeed, Brown as the Reverend Cleophus James, pastor of the Triple Rock Baptist Church, suggests the cross over between soul and gospel music. Aretha Franklin herself started out as a gospel singer, her live album Amazing Grace, recorded in her father’s California church, is a tour de force.

Cab Calloway appears magnificently in The Blues Brothers leading the call and response in his 1931 hit, Minnie the Moocher. The call and response became a part of soul music in part through this kind of blended vaudevillian jazz as through gospel music. These various generous share contiguous boundaries. The lines aren’t hard and fast.

Soul music differentiates from gospel by being less explicitly religious or spiritual, and sometimes very much secular; from rhythm and blues by its emphasis on vocals and some of the spiritual concerns of gospel; from funk by its softer beats with less reliance on sharp rhythm.

Soon after my first encounter with DJs spinning soul 45s, vinyl records playing at 45 revolutions per minute, I experienced a live gig at the Prince Band Room in Melbourne’s St Kilda. Eddie Floyd, one of the starts of one of the great soul record labels Stax Records, played a captivating gig. He was about 70 at the time but he had the energy of a 20-year-old strutting across the stage as he sung. He sung hits like Knock on Wood and Big Bird and songs he’d written for Stax stable mate, Otis Redding.

My delight in African American music of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, and especially soul music, was confirmed. Stax was instrumental in the emergence of southern or deep soul, my favourite subgenre. There’s just something about this music. The way my body wants to move to the music, the way the lyrics speak to things deep and personal, the longing and the loving. In this sense the descriptor for the music, soul, makes sense.

Our souls are of bodily beings, not an ethereal addition, but immaterial form bound up with our materiality. Souls are individual and particular; they help describe and explain something of the experience of being me and my not being you. Sometimes Scripture speaks of soul as it encompasses the whole person, but not in a way that denies the bodily. The human body might be said to be human precisely because it has a spiritual soul.

Like soul music and its relations to other genres the lines between the material and immaterial aren’t so straightforward. Our souls relate intimately to our bodies just as they provide the connection we have in spirit to God.

The soul is the deepest point, giving ‘form’ to the person and connecting her at that depth to God. The philosophy and theology that surrounds these terms are rich and complex. The intellectual architecture that seeks to account for the human, and so the soul, is thoughtfully reasoned. It gives us confidence we are on the right track understanding ourselves in this way. But that track, inexorably, leads us to mystery. At some point we must allow ourselves to feel that mystery.

That need to feel and experience the mystery is why soul music is, for me, so aptly named. Soul music picks up the way we long for love, sometime in our desire to encounter God directly, but more often in the way we seek to experience something of God’s love in our desire for relationship with others. In both cases our whole self comes to these desires and longings, and to the loving they foreshadow.

To speak of someone being soulful is to speak of someone engaged with, feeling, the depths of their reality in a way that inherently connects them to their bodies, and to the bodies and souls of those around them. Listening to soul music helps move me into this space, connecting me with others who are doing the same. For most it won’t be soul music, or any kind of music, but finding some expression in art that moves you to feeling deeply, in your bodies, connecting you with a community of souls, is a beautiful thing.