By Lucy Harrison, Tahlia Moses and Charli Davis
Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles just to name a few. These prominent names are some of the most recognised soul artists to date, with their music still being relevant and playing today. However, there is an unspoken history of soul music, and we are here to cover it.
Firstly, what even is soul music? Well, soul music is seen as a collective term for several forms of pop music pioneered in the USA during the mid 1900’s by African Americans. Common themes of soul music include gospel or rich and intense sounding vocals, emphasis on rhythm and large use of horns such as trumpets, saxophones etc. Some examples of the most famous soul music can include ‘I heard it through the grapevine’ Marvin Gaye, ‘Lean on me’ Bill Withers (shoutout to Kuring-Gai) and ‘Respect’ by Aretha Franklin only to name a few. Soul as a genre really came into fruition in the early 1960’s when record labels such as Motown, Atlantic and Stax records, were actively trying to seek out these soul artists and support African American song writers and music. Soul music can be seen as the foundation for more contemporary music genres such as hip-hop, disco, R&B, rap and more, while classic soul music is still being released and played on radio stations and streaming services today.
Soul music can be seen as the baby of traditional blues and gospel music mixed. In fact, many of the most successful soul artists learnt music through performing in gospel groups and this is how you can hear the heavy religious and gospel influence it has in their music. Soul music also depended on the particular region and city, therefore varying the sound and type of soul music produced. For example, Southern soul, which is centred in Memphis aimed to have a more southern influence on the sound, having characteristics of prominent horns, use of an organ and complicated rhythmic sections. Southern soul was also home to the record label of Stax records, one of the major record labels responsible for the production of soul music. Further, you can see how Detroit soul differs. Soul music produced in Detroit had characteristics of a catchy pop melody and slick manipulated production of the sounds, differing from the rich religious sound of southern soul. Detroit is also one of soul’s music capitals as it is home to the famous Aretha Franklin and Jackie Wilson. Finally, New York city soul is the last soul capital. It is said New York city soul differs the most due to the heavier white influence in the music, however still holding the core values of soul being the heavy dependence on jazz and horn instruments. Some notable names who are from New York City include Ray Charles and Percy Sledge.
Apart from being an amazing genre of music, soul played a particularly important role in the 1960’s Black power movement as was a way to urge social and political change through music. Soul music is seen as a promotion of Black pride as well as self-awareness and this was key during the movement in the USA at the time. Lyrics chosen in soul music also advocated for national African American unity and also discussed the social and economic conditions of African American communities, striving for better protection of African American people. The intense and emotional nature of soul songs aimed to
capture the spirit of these African American communities and implement new social, political and economic structures in American society during the civil rights movement, demanding for the same amount of respect and to be seen as ‘first-class’ people, equal to White Americans. Soul music was also a way to protest and demand for social change and aim to abolish segregation between African Americans and White Americans.
Soul music only became more prevalent in society as time went on. In the 1970’s, soul music began to lay the groundwork for funk and disco, and this created the birth of ‘progressive soul’. Further throughout time, soul music has been manipulated and incorporated elements of psychedelic rock, jazz and country music and in turn, became the foundation for many new genres in society today e.g., disco, hip-hop, contemporary R&B and more. Soul music still plays a key role in African American expression of culture as well as social and political importance, advocating for better African American rights e.g., the BLM movement in 2020.
So, we can see how just a catchy tune played a key role in the development of music genres as we know it, as well as act as a catalyst for social and political change during the time. This is why we have to understand the significance of soul music and acknowledge the important role it played in history. So, as Aretha Franklin once said, “All I'm asking' is for a little respect”.