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?
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.
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.
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
- 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.
- 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)
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.