Frank Lawton

Religion provides the rhythm

From the Gospel journeys of Aretha Franklin to the late-life monasticism of Leonard Cohen, the great musical artists of the 20th century were often quasi-religious figures

Aretha Franklin performing onstage c.1969. [Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images]

Music is an art of time: songs play to a rhythm, giving shape to the seconds as they pass, charging the present with a pulse we can feel. But as music takes us forward through time it also takes us back – to the moment of its composition or recording; to a particularly resonant time in our own past; and yet further, summoning the echoes of older music contained within a song. In new books by David Remnick and Michel Faber we get two different approaches to writing about something ephemeral yet emotionally adhesive. One of them made time fly, and one of them made time slow until the only beat I could hear was the sound of my own head against the desk.

In Holding the Note, Remnick, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and long-serving editor of the New Yorker, collects 11 of his essays on the greats of 20th- and 21st-century music, from Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen to Aretha Franklin and Mavis Staples. The majority of Remnick’s subjects were in their seventies or eighties at the time of initial publication. Most are now either dead or heading the queue for the last great gig in the sky.

In that sense, the essays read like advance elegies: loving, expansive, taking in the full sweep of each artist’s life, stitching together the voices of the subjects and those that have known them best. They are also elegies for the traditions these artists built on, and a sense of time passing binds the essays. There is Buddy Guy literally fretting away, fearing he’s ‘the last bluesman’; Pavarotti burdened as ‘the last great tenor’; and Lawrence Lucie, aged 99 and the last person alive to have played with Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club, now playing standards at ‘a coal-oven-pizza joint’ in New York.

If this sounds heavy work, Remnick carries it off with a light touch.

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