It should have been the album’s closing song. I don’t know who sequenced it, but they did it wrong and I am prepared to die on that hill. “Baby, I Love You,” the lead single and sole hit record that punctuates Aretha Arrives, should have opened the album. “Going Down Slow,” sequenced as the penultimate track on the album’s Side B, should have been the album’s closer. Even the statement of “Going Down Slow” sounds like the competition of the experience. Aretha arrives, and by the end of the experience, she’s gone. It has a finality to it. And it’s a stone-cold killer blues performance by the Queen of Soul. She’s going down slow and it’s agonizing. Aretha upends this blues record written and recorded by St. Louis Jimmy (James Oden), and makes it a tremendous personal statement, just like the blues is supposed to be.
“Going Down Slow,” was recorded by Oden in 1941. Though the blues are often autobiographical, Oden didn’t write “Going Down Slow” about his own experience. The song is a tale derived from observation. “I’ve never been sick a day in my life,” Oden claimed. The song’s story was inspired by a female friend of Oden’s. She was pregnant and “trying to lose a kid… and she looked like she was going down slow.” For context, “Going Down Slow” was written 30 years before Roe v. Wade. This sort of experience was not unique for women during these times (and unfortunately, may become a reality again considering the state of the world today).
While this origin story was likely unknown to Aretha, she was in her own rough spot by late June 1967 when Aretha Arrives was recorded. Though she’d finally found success at Atlantic Records, she was embroiled in a toxic and abusive marriage to her manager Ted White, which also strained her relationship with her father, renowned preacher Rev. C.L. Franklin. He was her biggest cheerleader and supporter. On top of all that, she was in the throes of alcoholism as she tried to cope with the demons of her past. All of that informs the subtext of how Aretha frames “Going Down Slow.”
She fiddles with the lyrics to transform it into her own personal autobiographical death note. Even in the first verse, which she largely leaves unchanged, she ever so slightly trims the line “my health is failin’ me” to “my health is failing.” She removes the implication that failing health isn’t desired. In the “failin’ me” of the original there’s an implication of resistance to the deteriorating health. By leaving it at “failing,” the statement becomes an accepted and embraced matter of fact.
After the first verse, she flips the second verse, in which Oden directs the listener to “please write my mother.” Since her mother died more than a decade and a half before cutting this record, Aretha sings “somebody write my father, tell him the shape that I’m in.” She continues, “Oh yeah. Ooooo. Wonder tonight would somebody call my father. Tell him, tell him the shape that I’m in. Oh yeah. And while you’re talkin’ to him, tell him to pray for me, and tell him to forgive me, forgive me for all of my sins.” It brings personal truth and a heightened intensity to the lyrics, because her father was a well-known preacher. And while it’s unclear what their relationship was at the time, it could have certainly served as an olive branch given the tension that arose during various points in her marriage to White.
She skips the third verse about sending a doctor, and continues right along to issue directions to pass along to her father. In Oden’s lyrics, there aren’t references to the parent in this verse, but Aretha maintains them. The run she does on “early” at 2:03 is brutal, as she bounces between highs and lows. The verse ends with a reference to standing there and moaning. Aretha turns it into, “All he can do is stand there and moan,” and adds, “And I believe he can do it,” along with a few testimonial “yes he can”’s. She’s giving a nod to the moaning her father was so well known for emitting as he preached. C.L. was one of one when it came to preaching.
Between these two verses, there’s an added instrumental break where Aretha hmms and moans, bringing yet another spiritual element into this deep blues record. For the final verse, Aretha takes elements of the previous verse, and maintains the directives for her father. After she repeats, “and just in case he don’t see my body,” she adds the dark, “let him know his child has gone out of this world somewhere.” Her last cries of “I’m going down slow” are reinforced by some powerful wails. It would have been the immaculate punctuation of the still-underrated second LP for Atlantic Records.
Listen to Aretha annihilate blues standard “Going Down Slow”: