After a decade toiling in obscurity, it took a single hit song for Aretha Franklin to become a civil rights hero.
Franklin, who died on Thursday morning at the age of 76, arrived on the national stage in an unusual manner: through her landmark 1967 cover of "Respect," the ballad originally recorded by Otis Redding just two years earlier. As NPR pointed out in 2017, Redding's original take on the song was a soulful dirge about working hard for little pay and scant attention at home; Franklin's upbeat interpretation, in which she inverts the male storyline with her forceful, unapologetic vocals, transformed the song into an anthem of female power.
"Respect," as many have pointed out, embodied the cry for recognition and self-determination that defined the feminist and civil rights movements that were gaining steam amid the counter-cultural eddies of the 1960s. That the song came to encapsulate two different—though intertwined—movements was no accident: As Vanity Fair's Hilary Weaver notes, Franklin was wrapped up in the activism of the civil rights era from an early age thanks to her father, Baptist minister C.L. Franklin. A friend of Martin Luther King Jr., C.L. Franklin most notably "organized the 1963 Detroit Walk to Freedom, which was the largest civil-rights demonstration in U.S. history," Weaver writes (though it was later surpassed by the the historic March on Washington). When "Respect" dropped in 1967, it captured a cultural moment Franklin had herself been fighting to achieve.
"I was stunned when ["Respect"] went to No. 1, and it stayed No. 1 for a couple weeks. It was the right song at the right time." Franklin told Elle in 2016, "As women, we do have it. 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."
In addition to becoming the unofficial anthem of the civil rights and feminist movements, "Respect" also elevated Franklin's platform to deliver another ballad of cultural change in "Chain of Fools," one of her most treasured (and completely original) tracks.
As I noted at Task & Purpose, the song's lyrics—"For five long years/I thought you were my man/But I found out, I'm just a link in your chain/Oh, you got me where you want me/I ain't nothin' but your fool"—were initially intended as a "Respect"-style call for female independence. But according to Craig Werner and Doug Bradley, authors of We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War, "Chain of Fools" quickly took on special meaning in the context of the anti-war movement—especially among African-American service members who "transformed it into an angry rejection of the chain of command."
Franklin's music became the soundtrack for American service members deployed overseas; the song's meaning stopped belonging to her (as happens so often with powerful art). Franklin was fully aware of that shared sense of ownership, and indeed she embraced it. As Lee Andresen notes in his book Battle Notes: Music of the Vietnam War, "[Franklin] fondly recalls how Vietnam vets have expressed their gratitude for how her music helped them cope with the stress of war."
Franklin's impact on service members was especially notable because, prior to her explosion on the scene, American protest music in the '60s had been overwhelmingly white. While the labor movement and Great Depression had fomented protest music around issues on race and class, the Vietnam-era songs that immediately preceded Franklin's arrival were defined by the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Pete Seeger. As far as protest songs went, white people sang about the war abroad; African-American musicians like Franklin and James Brown (see: "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud!") were confined to the war at home.
Just as her induction in 1987 into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as the first woman vocalist broke gender barriers, so did Franklin's "Chain of Fools" help the politics of the anti-war movement take on a previously unheard racial voice. It's fitting that the arrival of "Chain of Fools" in 1967 presaged a triumphant decade for protest music, an era of Dylan's "Hurricane" and Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." The anti-war movement and civil rights movement, somewhat separate in the 1960s, came together in earnest in the 1970s—and "Chain of Fools" embodied the skepticism of the military establishment that would not just emerge from that union, but plague the Pentagon for decades after.
Franklin didn't set out to make a mark on the anti-war movement, but she did so anyway. And if Dylan was the godfather of the protest music that defined a generation of activists a half-century ago, then Franklin was the genre's godmother, even if an unintentional one.