Interdisciplinary Lesson: “Chain of Fools”

Essential Question

Essential Question: How did Aretha Franklin’s foundation in Gospel music influence her recording of “Chain of Fools,” helping to establish a Soul sound and bringing black culture into mainstream America?

Overview

Person: Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin is the daughter of a minister. According to her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, she “inherited” the tradition of Gospel music. As a young girl, Aretha moved with her family to Detroit, Michigan. Her father had been hired as the pastor for New Bethel Baptist Church. Aretha, along with her siblings, would sing every week in the choir at her father’s church. In 1956, at fourteen years old, she released her debut studio album. It was a Gospel record titled Songs of Faith.

At eighteen, however, Aretha Franklin decided to “cross-over” from recording Gospel to popular music. She wanted to follow in the footsteps of Sam Cooke, a member of the Gospel group the Soul Stirrers, who had released his first Pop single in 1957. Her transition from singing about God for a faith-based audience to singing about secular topics (love, romance, heartbreak) was a sensitive one. But her father supported her decision, and in 1960, Aretha moved to New York City to record with Columbia Records.

While at Columbia, Aretha initially recorded a range of styles, including show tunes and popular jazz standards. When she moved to Atlantic Records, however, much of her Gospel heritage resurfaced. As she achieved success as a R&B performer, the Gospel in her performance style would become a defining characteristic in an emerging Soul sound, including her commanding vocals, heightened emotions, and the frequent use of “call-and-response” arrangements between Aretha and her backup singers. All of this is evident in her recording career at Atlantic Records during the late 1960s, including her release of “Chain of Fools” in 1967.


Places: Detroit, Michigan & New York City

At the time of Aretha Franklin’s childhood, Detroit, Michigan was experiencing a major growth in its African-American population, largely spurred by the second wave of the Great Migration which began around the Second World War. Blacks in the South were moving to Northern industrial centers in search of opportunities and jobs. Between 1941 and 1943, more than 50,000 African-Americans moved to Detroit alone. They brought with them traditions from their own communities, including Southern Gospel music. Reverend C.L. Franklin’s 2,500-seat church was growing rapidly during that time, as new African-American residents sought not only centers of faith, but centers of community.

When Aretha was 18 years old, she moved from Detroit to New York City, carrying with her the Southern Gospel traditions that had been a mainstay of her childhood. In the late 1960s, when she was recording “Chain of Fools” at Atlantic Records, her recording career seemed to tap deeply into her Gospel roots. As her producer at Atlantic, Jerry Wexler, once said, “There’s a much stronger influence of Gospel in contemporary Rhythm and Blues, or Soul music, than there is of Blues.” Certainly, Aretha’s catalog reflects this close relationship.


Time:

Through the lens of “Chain of Fools,” we can examine the influence of Gospel music and black style on the mixed-race audience of the 1960s. During the Civil Rights movement in particular, music became a space where ideas and preconceptions about race could be called into question. As African-American comedian Dick Gregory said in reference to Aretha Franklin’s prominence on the radio, “You’d hear Aretha three or four times an hour, you’d only hear King on the news.”

  • 1940 – 1970: THE SECOND GREAT MIGRATION – More than five million African Americans moved from the rural South to the industrial centers of the North, Midwest, and West.
  • AUGUST 1963: MARCH ON WASHINGTON – Several hundred thousand Americans participate in the historic Civil Rights march, which features not only Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but also musical performances by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.
  • JULY 1964: PRESIDENT JOHNSON SIGNS CIVIL RIGHTS ACT – The landmark legislation outlaws racial discrimination in employment and racial segregation in public places, ending the “Jim Crow” era.
  • JULY 1967: ARETHA FRANKLIN RELEASES “CHAIN OF FOOLS” – The song showcases Aretha’s roots in Gospel music and goes on to garner her a Grammy award for Best Female R&B Performance in 1969.
  • APRIL 1968: MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. ASSASSINATED – The civil rights leader, who’d galvanized a movement with his calls for nonviolent resistance, is shot to death by James Earl Ray at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. Dr. King was 39. Aretha Franklin sings Dr. King’s favorite Gospel hymn, “Precious Lord Take My Hand,” at one of his memorial services.

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Objectives

Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • How the Great Migration brought Southern black traditions, such as Gospel music, to Northern industrial cities
    • Aretha Franklin’s roots in Gospel music and how her recording of  “Chain of Fools” blends Gospel with Rhythm and Blues, helping to establish the emerging Soul sound.
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Analyze musical performances and draw connections between different genres of music and culture
    • Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the style and interpretation of a piece of music (Common Core State Standard: Reading 6)

Activities

Procedure:

1. Project a map illustrating African-American population change in the U.S. between 1940 and 1970. Explain to students that this period was known as the second wave of the Great Migration, a term referring to the massive internal migration of Blacks from the rural American South to urban centers in other parts of the country. During this time span, an estimated 5 million blacks left the South. Ask the students:

  • Which areas of the map show an increasing black population?
  • Which areas show a decreasing black population? Which states and cities experienced large African-American population gains? [Please note: Students may identify that Dallas and Houston, both located in the South, experienced a population gain during this time. This reflects how the Great Migration also signaled a shift of African-Americans moving from rural areas to urban centers.]

 

2. As a class, locate Detroit, Michigan on the map. Next, display the graph titled “Change in Detroit’s Black Population (1940 – 1970).” Ask the class:

  • What trend do you notice in the African-American population of Detroit between 1940 and 1970?
  • What do you think were some of the reasons why African-Americans left rural areas for industrial cities during this time? [Answers may include: to look for employment opportunities as the work force became more mechanized, to seek a better quality of life, to leave behind racial injustice in the rural areas, including “Jim Crow” laws that remained in effect in some areas into the 1960s, etc.]

3. Explain to the students that Aretha Franklin was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1942. In 1946, her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, accepted a position as pastor at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan.

Imagine moving to a new city, such as Detroit, during the Great Migration. What role might a spiritual center, like a church, play in your life? How might a major move inspire a feeling of dislocation, or a desire to connect with others? [Answers may include that in addition to spiritual guidance, a church can provide a strong sense of community, you may feel united in music and faith with other congregants, etc.]

4. Explain to the students that although Aretha Franklin came to be known for her career as a Soul singer, Gospel music played a significant role in her upbringing. As a girl, each week Aretha sang in the New Bethel Baptist Church with her siblings.  Play the video clip titled Aretha Franklin and Gospel Influences, excerpted from a 1968 ABC News special. As students watch the clip, ask them to take notes about the ways in which Gospel music is described in the video. [Answers may include that Gospel music has a religious or spiritual feeling, Gospel singing is described as “uninhibited expression,” it is a tradition in Southern black churches that was brought to the North and Midwest with the Great Migration, etc.]

5. Play the 1968 clip of the New Bethel Baptist Choir performing “The Lord is Blessing Me.” While they watch, students should write down any descriptive words or phrases that they associate with this performance and the Gospel tradition. Poll the class for their reflections on Gospel music and list student responses on the board.

6. Divide students into small groups of 3-4 and distribute Handout: Gospel Music History and Glossary. Each student group should read through the handout aloud, alternating paragraphs.

7. In their groups, students will watch a video clip of Aretha Franklin performing “Chain of Fools” in 1968. Groups should discuss the following questions:

  • Why might “Chain of Fools” be considered a secular Soul song, as opposed to a Gospel song? [Answers may include: because the song’s lyrics are not religious in nature or because it is not being performed during a church service.]
  • Although this song is not religious, what possible Gospel influences can you hear in Aretha’s performance of “Chain of Fools”? Have groups share out their answers with the class. [Answers may include a call-and-response dynamic between Aretha Franklin and her backup singers, Aretha’s powerful vocal delivery, etc.]

8. Read aloud the following quote by Dick Gregory, “You’d hear Aretha three or four times an hour, you’d only hear King on the news.”  In their groups, students will examine the “Chain of Fools” Timeline. Groups should discuss:

  • What do you think Dick Gregory meant by his quote?
  • Why do you think Aretha’s success as a performer was significant in the late 1960s? [Answers may include that sometimes music may reach an audience in ways an activist, even one as powerful as Dr. King, could not. With the right song and the right performance at the right time, perhaps Aretha embodied the spirit of a late 1960s fight for racial and gender equality.]

9. Tell the groups that they will work together to compose a short call-and-response refrain. Although their compositions should be secular, remind students that the call-and-response style of singing is an integral part of the Gospel tradition. When sung between a lead vocalist and the congregation, a call-and-response section can foster a sense of community through music.

In their refrains, students must include a “call” (a vocal phrase) and a “response” (a vocal phrase or rhythm the group can reply with). If the students are looking for topics, you could suggest a current event or community issue that students want to address. The call-and-response refrain should be performed over a steady beat, or if possible, using the chords to “Chain of Fools” (Cmi or Emi).

10. Invite student groups to perform their call-and-response refrains with the class; the entire class should take part in the “response” sections. After all the groups have performed, discuss how the call-and-response refrains, although not religious, still utilized a Gospel music tradition to create a strong connection between the vocalist and the audience. Ask students: How was this exercise similar to Aretha Franklin’s recording of “Chain of Fools”?

11. Have the students reflect on the following prompt and respond by writing a one-page journal entry: The emerging Soul sound of the 1960s had close ties to Gospel music and brought black culture into mainstream American life. Why was this important during the 1960s? Why might it still be important today?

Standards

Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading (K-12)

  • Reading 6: Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
  • Reading 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing (K-12)

  • Writing 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening (K-12)

  • Speaking and Listening 3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.

National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity
  • Theme 7: Production, Distribution and Consumption

National Standards for Music Education

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Select: Choose music appropriate for a specific purpose or context.
  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.