Lessons from the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin

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Aretha Franklin (image courtesy from npr.org)

LEGENDARY singer Aretha Franklin died today. The music icon, who influenced generations of singers with unforgettable hits such as Respect (1967), Natural Woman (1968) and I Say a Little Prayer (1968) has left an indelible mark on the History of Rock and Roll, Civil Rights, and Women’s Right’s Movements.

Franklin cemented her place in American music history with her powerful voice that stretched over four octaves. In her decades-long career, her hits spanned the genres, from soul to R&B, to gospel and pop. She was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and in 2010, Rolling Stone magazine put her at the top of its list of the 100 greatest singers of all time, male or female.

Of Franklin’s dozens of hits, none was more closely linked to her than the empowering 1967 anthem Respect with its inspiring “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” refrain.

Franklin had more than 10 Top 20 hits in 1967 and 1968 and was pictured on the cover of Time magazine. At a time of rebellion and division, her records were a musical union of the church and the secular, man and woman, black and white, North and South, East and West.

Growing up in the 1950s, Franklin was surrounded by civil-rights activists from a young age, and spent her trailblazing career supporting those who fought for equality—and setting an example herself as an American success.

Franklin was raised primarily by her father, C.L. Franklin, a Baptist minister and a civil-rights activist that organized the 1963 Detroit Walk to Freedom, which was the largest civil-rights demonstration in U.S. history until the March on Washington displaced it two months later. Martin Luther King Jr., a friend of C.L. Franklin’s, delivered an early version of his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Detroit march.

In 2016 interview with Franklin, Elle Magazine noted it was written into her contract in the 60s that she would never perform for a segregated audience. Franklin said she was glad that the song became linked to feminist and civil-rights movements. She added that the line “you know I’ve got it” has a direct feminist theme.

“As women, we do have it,” she says. “We have the power. We are very resourceful. Women absolutely deserve respect. I think women and children and older people are the three least-respected groups in our society.”

Aretha Franklin’s lyrics and life story are teaching tools for our students. Whether reading a biography about the Queen of Soul or analyzing her song lyrics, Franklin offers many lessons throughout her music that touch on topics of activism, relationships, and power.

Listening to Franklin’s lyrics one could analyze:

  • What is this song about?  What message is the singer trying to convey?
  • Do the lyrics remind you of anything you have learned about concerning the civil right’s movement and or women’s movement in the 1960s?
  • What craft moves and music elements influences in this song? — Possible answers include call-and-response, complex rhythms between different instruments, and/or a Gospel performance style.
  • What elements of music have popular artists today borrowed, modeled, and mentored from Franklin’s music?

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