SEVENTIES SOUL: THE SOUNDTRACK OF TURBULENT TIMES
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.
Video pages: Senator Robert F. Kennedy - Civil Unrest, Part 2 (1967) | Curtis Mayfield - Freddie's Dead (1973) | Chuck D - The Influence of Curtis Mayfield (2008) | Marvin Gaye - What's Going On? / Save the Children (1972) | Public Enemy - Fight the Power (1989) | Marvin Gaye - How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) (1964)
Image pages: Curtis Mayfield, 1972 | Damage after the Washington D.C. riots, 1968 | Marvin Gaye | Marvin Gaye, 1973 | Police Arrest a Man During the Watts Riots, 1965 | President Lyndon B. Johnson charts riot outbreaks in Washington, DC., 1968 | Protests in Harlem, New York, 1964 | Robert F. Kennedy Addresses A Crowd At A Civil Rights Rally, 1963 | Soldiers Stationed in Washington D.C. After Riots, 1968
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
As students enter the classroom, distribute Handout 1: Entry Ticket Prompt, or write the Entry Ticket Prompt on the board.
Love and heartbreak may be the most popular themes in songwriting, but many songs focus on other topics. Sometimes songs deal with a specific issue in society. Please take a moment to think about a cause that is important to you and answer the following questions.
Ask for three or four students to volunteer their answers. Discuss why music might be a powerful tool to deliver a message (e.g. music is a medium accessible to all, music is a “universal language,” music can unite people around a cause).
1. Distribute Handout 2: Marvin Gaye Lyric Comparison to each student. Explain that they will be comparing two songs by the same artist. Marvin Gaye was a celebrated Motown recording artist who pushed musical boundaries during his career. An extended Marvin Gaye biography is available on our site. Play the students a clip from “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” released in 1964, followed by a clip of “What's Going On” released in 1971.
2. To explore the historical context of “Social Soul” music in the early 1970s, students will engage in a Gallery Walk. The teacher will set up the classroom with four stations using Handout 3: Gallery Walk Photos.
[Note to teacher: one of the stations includes a video of an interview with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy on the Merv Griffin Show in 1967 (Pt. 2). The teacher can elect to watch the video as a class before the Gallery Walk begins.]
3. Divide students into groups. Each student will receive a copy of Handout 4: Gallery Walk Worksheet. Each group will start at a different station and rotate after a few minutes, visiting all four stations. The student will examine the photographs and descriptive paragraphs provided for each station. Students will take a moment to write down their reactions. Then, they will discuss in their groups any common themes they see at the different stations.
4. After the students have visited all four stations, have them return to their seats. Poll the class:
5. To gain a deeper understanding of how these themes reoccur in Soul music, play the full video of Marvin Gaye performing "What's Going On" for a benefit in 1972 (the song was released the previous year, in 1971).
Explain to the students that when the President of Motown Berry Gordy first heard the track, he did not want to release the song. He generally wanted Motown artists to steer clear of making political statements. But Gaye insisted and prevailed. Gaye’s lyrics to this song were partly inspired by stories from his younger brother, Frankie Gaye. Frankie had returned from a three-year tour of duty in Vietnam and would often share with his older brother about the atrocities he had seen there.
After listening to the song, ask:
6. Pass out Handout 5: “Freddie’s Dead” Lyrics. Play the video from of Mayfield performing “Freddie's Dead” in 1973. Explain to the students that they will be listening to a live recording of a song that Mayfield originally released in 1972 for the soundtrack of the film Super Fly. The song depicts a character in the movie that meets his untimely death after dealing drugs. Based on the song and the lyrics, ask the students the following:
Chuck D was the founder and leader of the groundbreaking Hip-Hop group Public Enemy. Play a clip from 2008 of Chuck D discussing the influence of Curtis Mayfield and "Freddie's Dead". In pairs, have the students discuss the following:
Invite pairs to share their Summary Activity answers with the class.
Ask students to consider the subject matter of the different songs they heard in class. Students will select one societal issue that is described in either “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye or “Freddie’s Dead” by Curtis Mayfield. Students will write a write a research-based essay about their chosen issue, describing what factors contributed to its existence in the 1970s. Is it still an issue today? Why or why not?
1. Have students listen to Chuck D’s group Public Enemy perform “Fight the Power.” This song, released in 1989 by Motown Records, is an example of how “Social Soul” songs of the early 1970s had an impact on later Hip Hop tracks. Similar to “Freddie’s Dead,” “Fight the Power” was composed as a soundtrack for a film. In this case, it is Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing which explores racial tension and the inequity of urban life in Brooklyn, New York. After listening, discuss the following:
2. For an extended writing assignment, distribute Handout 6: Kerner Report to the students. Students will read the Introduction Summary of the report issued by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders in 1968. The handout includes the primary text and the following questions:
Due to the length of the Kerner Report text, teachers may want to assign this writing prompt as homework.
College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text
College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language for Grades 6-12
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.