Essential Question

How did changes in the Soul music of the early 1970s reflect broader shifts in American society during that time?


The early 1970s were an unsettling time in America.  The nation was divided about U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, and Americans were still reeling from the 1968 assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.  Race riots in cities like Watts, Newark, and Detroit indicated a high level of tension and frustration. During the Civil Rights movement, African Americans had fought hard for equal rights, but in the early 1970s, many of those rights were still unrealized.  Not surprisingly, the Soul music of this era, according to Hip Hop pioneer Chuck D, was “darker,” reflecting national tensions.

Motown recording artist Marvin Gaye addressed some of these realities with his album What’s Going On, speaking directly about Vietnam and the political upheaval of the time.  Meanwhile, Curtis Mayfield, who with his group The Impressions had recorded the hopeful Civil Rights-era anthem “People Get Ready,” began producing new songs that captured the raw facts of ghetto life.  When Mayfield released the soundtrack album for the movie Super Fly in 1972, it seemed to epitomize the direction in which music was moving.  The age of Funk was coming. “The groove was so thick you had to get with it,” recalls Chuck D.  Though Hip Hop would not enter the picture until the late 1970s, this period of “Social Soul” in the early 1970s was planting the seeds for Hip Hop’s deep groove and social awareness.

In this lesson, students will examine photographs, live recordings, video interviews, and a government report in order to learn about the historical and cultural context of the Soul music recorded in the 1970s.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The impact of historical events in the late 1960s, including the Vietnam War protests, race riots, and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy
    • The contributions of musical artists Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield and how their music spoke to social issues of the time
    • The findings of the Kerner Report issued by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders in 1968
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Identify connections between artistic expression and its broader social and political context
    • Students will determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in text and lyrics, including figurative and connotative meanings (CCSS Reading 4)
    • Students will evaluate the speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence, specifically in song selections by Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield (Speaking and Listening 3)
    • Students will analyze a seminal U.S. document of historical and literary significance and identify key themes, specifically within the 1968 Kerner Report (CCSS Reading: Informational Text 9)