Thomas Moore writes about it. Aretha Franklin sings with it. But even though they’re approaching it from two different perspectives, they share a unique ability—to touch the deepest part of our being, our souls, through their art.
What is soul? According to the dictionary, it’s “a person’s moral or emotional nature, their sense of identity”—but in reality, we know it’s something that’s indefinable. A soul can’t be seen or touched, it can only be perceived within, and even then its presence is often fleeting.
It is located in a place so deep inside us, it can often be forgotten as we go about our busy lives. Then, in a quiet moment, or when we are immersed in or exposed to certain activities, the soul surprises us and makes itself known.
It can be stirred to life by a book we are reading, by a piece of music we are listening to, even by a small act of kindness that catches us off-guard. It can be awoken by something as simple as watering our houseplants or looking out the window on a winter day and seeing a woodpecker land on the branch of a slumbering tree.
The notion of living a soulful life is at odds with our disposable society. It is the opposite of reality TV programs and manufactured pop music and gossipy discourse. The things that touch the soul are often deeper and have more meaning, and may involve retreating from the world as much as participating in it.
There are some artists with the extraordinary ability to write about the soul, or sing or dance with soul, in a way that directly touches our own souls.
No one has written about the soul more ably or poetically than Thomas Moore. Starting with Care of the Soul, A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life, he has written close to a dozen books on various aspects of the soul, including the soul at work, the soul and sex and the soul in medicine. In the book that started it all, Moore writes:
Care of the soul is not a project of self-improvement…or at all concerned with living properly. We care for the soul by honoring its expressions, by giving it time and opportunity to reveal itself, and by living life in a way that fosters the depth, interiority and quality in which it flourishes. Soul is its own purpose and end.
To the soul, memory is more important than planning, art more compelling than reason, and love more fulfilling than understanding…the most minute details and the most ordinary activities, carried out with mindfulness and art, have an effect far beyond their apparent insignificance.
Which brings me to soul music. It has been called “a combination of R&B and gospel” and it began in the late-1950s in the United States. It was first made popular by Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and James Brown, and in the 1960s by a woman who became known as “The Queen of Soul”, Aretha Franklin.
While some people put soul in the same musical bucket as R&B, in an essay titled “The Evolution of Soul Music”, the writer known as Miss Frank notes the difference: “All soul music can be classified as R&B because of similar stylistic features…but not all R&B music can be classified as soul music.”
There is more passion in soul, more emotion, in both the playing and in the singing. Miss Frank says it is called soul “because it has a strong effect on the listener deep inside.” Soul music touches the soul. As evidence, I close this story with a link to a recent performance by Aretha Franklin at the Kennedy Center. (She begins singing at about the 1:00 mark.) She is truly soul personified.