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Now that Aretha can afford to be in Detroit for up to two weeks out of a month, she retreats regularly to her twelve-room, $60,000 colonial house to be with her three sons (aged nine, eight and five) and wrestles with her private demons. She sleeps till afternoon, then mopes in front of the television set, chain-smoking Kools and snacking compulsively. She does bestir herself to cook—a pastime she enjoys and is good at—and occasionally likes to get away for some fishing. But most of her socializing is confined to the small circle of girlhood friends with whom, until a couple of years ago, she spent Wednesday nights skating at the Arcadia Roller Rink.
The only other breaks in her routine are visits to her father, her brother Cecil —now assistant pastor of the New Bethel Church—or sister Carolyn, 23, who leads Aretha's accompanying vocal trio and writes songs for her. Another sister, Erma, 29, is a pop singer living in New York City. Sometimes, with her family, she opens up enough to put on her W. C. Fields voice or do her imitation of Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula ("Goodt eeeeeevnink, Mr. Renfieldt; I've been expectink you!"). But Cecil says: "For the last few years Aretha is simply not Aretha. You see flashes of her, and then she's back in her shell." Since, as a friend puts it, "Aretha comes alive only when she's singing," her only real solace is at the piano, working out a new song, going over a familiar gospel tune, or loosing her feelings in a mournful blues:
Oh listen to the blues, to the blues and what they're sayin' . . .
Oh they tell me, they tell me that life's just an empty scene,
Older than the oldest broken hearts, newer than the newest broken dreams.
Hollers & Blues. Negroes have been sifting their sorrows in songs like this for centuries. It started, says Mahalia Jackson, who is now 56, with "the groans and moans of the people in the cotton fields. Before it got the name of soul, men were sellin' watermelons and vegetables on a wagon drawn by a mule, hollerin' 'watermellllon!' with a cry in their voices. And the men on the railroad track layin' crossties—every time they hit the hammer it was with a sad feelin', but with a beat. And the Baptist preacher—he the one who had the soul—he give out the meter, a long and short meter, and the old mothers of the church would reply. This musical thing has been here since America been here. This is trial-and-tribulation music."