INTERDISCIPLINARY LESSON: "CHAIN OF FOOLS"
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?
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.
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.
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.”
Video pages: Aretha Franklin - Chain of Fools (1968) | Aretha Franklin - Aretha Franklin and Gospel Influences, Excerpted from ABC News CloseUp (1968) | New Bethel Baptist Choir - The Lord Is Blessing Me (1968)
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
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:
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:
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:
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?
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading (K-12)
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.
Core Music Standard: Responding
Core Music Standard: Connecting
Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.