R-E-S-P-E-C-T and the Social Movements of the Sixties from Michael Kramer on Vimeo.

Guided Questions and Worksheet 

1. Close your eyes and use your ears to “see” a song as a historical artifact or source.

  • Who is singing and what emotions do you pick up from her singing style? Is it just one singer or more than one?
  • How do the voices relate to each other? Agreeing and supporting, calling and responding?
  • What is the rhythm like? Driving or slow? Danceable or for sitting still?
  • How do the instruments sound in relation to one another? Are they competing for space or respecting each other?
  • What about the “mix,” or the way the song has been produced? What sounds closer to you and what sounds more far away?
  • Now, if you were to imagine the words and sounds of “Respect” as a play on a stage, what would be happening? What would the set look like? Who would the characters be? What would you see, using your ears?
  • Similarities and differences between each version of the song? Aretha Franklin, “Respect” (Atlantic Records, 1967) and Otis Redding, “Respect” (Stax Records, 1965).

If you would like to listen to additional recordings and versions of this song, please click here.

2. Now describe what you think “Respect” might mean in different historical settings and contexts.

  • Otis Redding with Booker T. and the MGs and the Memphis Horns at a segregated whites-only fraternity party at a Southern university in 1965
  • On a portable transistor radio at the Sanitation Workers Strike/Poor People’s Campaign, Memphis, TN, 1968
  • At the Miss America Pageant Protest, Atlantic City, NJ, 1968
  • At the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island, 1969-1971
  • In the “counterculture” of the late 1960s

3. What do you make of the theme of “Respect” in the social movements of the 1960s?

4. How can music and culture reveal new aspects of history?

5. Can you think of a contemporary song of popular music that has circulated between culture and politics? How would you describe the song itself as history? How would you describe its journeys and circulations?



R-E-S-P-E-C-T & the Social Movements of the Sixties Dr. Michael J. Kramer
Department of History, SUNY Brockport

SLIDE 02 Fade in…

It was the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher—everyone wanted respect. — Aretha Franklin

No audio track.
Fade in…
Clip of Aretha Franklin performing “Respect” in NYC Financial District, ca. 1967 SLIDE 04

Image of Aretha and title of this “history share.”

Audio narration:
That’s the great singer Aretha Franklin performing “Respect,” one of her best-known songs, in a promotional film clip shot in the streets of New York City’s financial district during the late 1960s. The location is a clue that there might be more to the song “Respect” than first meets the eye…or maybe better said, the ear, when it comes to the history of that important decade in American history: the 1960s, or the “sixties” as they are often called.

I’m Michael Kramer, assistant professor of history at SUNY Brockport, just outside Rochester New York, and in this history share video, you’ll have an opportunity to use your ears as well as your eyes to think more critically about the past, in particular about the social movements of the 1960s. We’ll use the song “Respect” to do so.

Image of text for two objectives of the video.

Audio narration:
Of course, there’s lots more to learn about the social movements of the 1960s than we can cover in this short presentation, but for now, we aim to do two things.

Image of text for two objectives of the video.

Audio narration:
First, we want to listen to “Respect” to notice a theme that ties together the many social movements for equality and justice that arose during the 1960s.

Image of text for two objectives of the video.

Audio narration:
Second, we want to explore how you can better use historical sources from popular culture and music to reach beyond just the conventional ones of text and documents, of famous political figures and events. Pop culture matters too, but it requires different ways of considering historical evidence and analyzing it.

Image of first objective, with the background of the crowd at March on Washington, 63

Audio narration:
So first, listening to “Respect” can help us better understand a shared theme across disparate social movements of the 1960s: that theme is the demand for respect. It’s a shorthand way to remember the significance of how millions of Americans—and indeed people around the globe—agitated for racial, gender, class, and countless other kinds of equality and justice during the 1960s. They wanted respect. From the modern African- American civil rights movement to the Women’s Liberation movement to new demands for equal treatment regardless of one’s sexual orientation or ethnic heritage to wealth or age or line of work to a call for the end of imperialism to opposition to US involvement in the Vietnam War—respect for people’s identities and strongly held beliefs was the name of the game. In this way, the song “Respect” put to a beat the thing they were seeking.

Image of Aretha Atlantic Records cover of 45 single. Audio narration:

But wait, you might be thinking, isn’t “Respect” just a song about a romance? Isn’t it just about private life? All the singer wants is, as Aretha puts it, her “propers when she gets home,” after all.

True enough. But if music does one thing, it moves. Not only does “Respect” help us name a shared theme of the social movements of the 1960s, it also reminds us that music matters because it is a special kind of historical evidence. Pop music is especially interesting for how unstable it is, how it refuses to be fixed, how it circulates and mutates through a mass consumer society such as America’s in the 1960s, how people could take a song intended for one meaning and purpose and adapt it for other uses, in other settings, for other needs.

Music doesn’t stand still. If we really want to understand the past fully, we must not only look at it but also open up our ears to listen better to the historical record (as it were). “Respect” helps us not only see, but also hear the past.

Image of text for two objectives of the video.

Audio narration:
So, those are the two goals then: to locate a good shorthand theme you can use to remember about something the social movements of the 1960s and what had in common. And then some new skills you might practice for analyzing sound and music as part of the historical record.

Image of Aretha singing.

Audio narration:
You might know the Aretha Franklin version of “Respect” pretty well. It was recorded and released in 1967. Aretha was the daughter of CL Franklin, a famous African-American preacher who had been singing gospel in his church and on his radio program, based in Detroit, Michigan.

Image of young Aretha with CL Franklin

Audio narration:
She was a childhood gospel prodigy. By the early 1960s, Aretha sought to cross over from the religious world of gospel to pop music, and she succeeded by the mid-1960s on Atlantic Records with a sound that helped to shape the emerging genre of “soul” music, a fusion of gospel’s yearning spirituality with the secular energies of rhythm and blues music.

“Respect” might be her best-known song. It was a number one bestseller on the Billboard Pop Charts in 1967 for Franklin and eventually sold over one million copies as a single, plus many more on albums and compilations. The song still often gets played on the radio or you might hear it in films or commercials. But it’s ok if you don’t really know the song. Let’s give it a listen together.

As you listen, close your eyes and think about the sounds you are hearing. Of course, you can tune in to the lyrics and the meaning of the words, but also try to listen to the sounds that surround the words? These aren’t letters on a page, after all, this is a recorded performance, and a pretty incredible one at that, featuring not only Aretha but also a band of incredible 1960s session musicians such as King Curtis (on the saxophone solo) and Spooner Oldham (on organ) and Aretha’s older sister Erma as one of the backup singers.

So here are some questions you can keep in mind as you use your ears to listen to the past:

  • Who is singing and what emotions do you pick up from her singing style? Is it just one singer or more than one?
  • How do the voices relate to each other? Agreeing and supporting, calling and responding?
  • What is the rhythm like? Driving or slow? Danceable or for sitting still?
  • How do the instruments sound in relation to one another? Are they competing for space or respecting each other?
  • What about the “mix,” or the way the song has been produced? What sounds closer to you and what sounds farther away?
  • Now, if you were to imagine the words and sounds of “Respect” as a play on a stage, what would be happening? What would the set look like? Who would the characters be? What would you see, using your ears?SLIDE 13
    Image of Aretha singing.Audio:
    Aretha Franklin, “Respect” (1967)

    SLIDE 14
    Same image. Audio narration:

Take some time to discuss what you noticed listening to Aretha Franklin’s version of “Respect.” There aren’t wrong answers right now, just observations to gather. You are using your own senses, as a historian, to process a historical artifact.

Same image with wasn’t the original version text.

Audio narration:
So that’s Aretha’s famous version, but guess what? She wasn’t actually the first to record the song.

Image of Otis Redding performing.

Audio narration:
The first recording was by the musician who wrote the song, Otis Redding, a Georgia-born star for the Stax Records label based in Memphis Tennessee. Once Aretha had a big hit with her version of his song, Otis would introduce the number in concert by saying it was a song “that a girl took away from me, a friend of mine, this girl she just took this song.”

For our purposes, Otis’s original version, written in 1965, serves as an interesting contrast to Aretha’s better known one from two years later. Give a listen, and again, close your eyes and use your ears:

  • What do you notice in the lyrics and sounds?
  • How many people are singing?
  • What’s the rhythm like?
  • How are the instruments related to each other and to the voice?
  • If the original version by Otis were a play on a stage, how would that play be different from Aretha’s version? SLIDE 17Image of Otis Redding performingAudio:
    Otis Redding, “Respect” (1965)

    SLIDE 18
    Image of Aretha and image of Otis

Audio narration:
Take some time to compare and contrast Aretha Franklin’s and Otis Redding’s versions of “Respect,” the song he wrote in 1965 and she made far more famous after 1967.

Did you notice how different two versions of the very same song could be? Both are about a romantic relationship between a man and a woman, ostensibly, but the original is from a man’s perspective and the other from a woman’s. He sings to his partner, his lover, maybe about his long day at the factory as he arrives home through the front door, wanting affection (and yes, maybe even asking for sex), which he feels he deserves at home after laboring out in the world. The woman, in the idealized arrangement of American culture after World War II, seems to be a homemaker, greeting the man after his long day at work. Otis sings to her, with the horn section a kind of imaginary chorus of men affirming his request. The music is danceable, a little draggy, after all he’s tired after all from a long day’s work). But also maybe even kind of regal, with those shiny brass trumpet sounds announcing his arrival back at his home. Even if he’s treated like a dog at work, he should be treated like a king in his own home, the music seems to suggest.

Image of Aretha with backup singers

Audio narration:
Now shift to Aretha’s version. Pretty different, right? I picture her not even singing right to her partner in a romantic relationship, but rather talking about him to her girlfriends, those backup singers who respond in rousing agreement to Aretha’s lead vocals. She’s singing about wanting his affection and intimacy, perhaps, just like Otis did, but there’s also a different sense of demanding something in her voice. The music too is a bit faster, as if there’s an urgency and stridency to her tone. We’re getting a woman’s point of view here, in an almost collective way with those backup singers joining in, rather than Otis’s solitary man coming home from work for supper.

You might notice other aspects of the songs too. This just my take on it closing my eyes and using my ears to listen more closely to sounds from the past.

Image of Aretha and image of Otis…multiple settings

Audio narration:
But now for something else important. We’ve been thinking about the song itself, in its different versions. What happens when a song moves out into the world? Where does it go? Do its meanings stay the same, or do they move too, fluctuating and metamorphosing to suit the setting?

Image of Otis with Booker T and the MGs

Audio narration:
For example, Otis Redding used to perform the song in concert, with his integrated Stax Records backing band of black and white musicians, Booker T and the MGs and the Memphis Horns. Sometimes they played for black audiences, sometimes for white in what still the segregated Jim Crow South of the early 1960s

So, what would the song “Respect” have meant performed in 1965 at, say, a whites-only fraternity party at a Southern university, maybe in the Stax hometown of Memphis Tennessee, during the Jim Crow era of segregation? Maybe there, it didn’t have much of a meaning at all, other than being a dance song. Remember, pop music like the song “Respect” was for fun, just like it is now. People enjoy pop culture for pleasure, for dancing, for escape, and “Respect” was no different in this, well, respect. And yet…

Image of I Am A Man protesters, Memphis 1968

Audio narration:
Imagine Otis’s version coming out of a tiny portable transistor radio–those became very popular and ubiquitous during the 1960s–at a march during the Sanitation Worker’s Strike in Memphis in 1968.

This crucial event in the modern African-American civil rights movement saw the almost entirely African-American garbage collectors of Memphis protest to demand better wages and working conditions—in short, to demand substantive examples of respect for their work.

It was this strike that brought Martin Luther King, Jr., to Memphis as part of his Poor People’s Campaign, and where he was tragically assassinated in April of 1968. To hear “Respect” in this setting might make the song not about a domestic relationship at all, but explicitly about a public demand for respect.”I am a man,” as the signs held up by the Sanitation Workers proclaimed in 1968.

Image of Miss America Pageant Protest, Atlantic City, 1968

Audio narration:
What then if, a few months later in 1968, suddenly you heard not Otis’s version, but Aretha’s version of “Respect” coming out of a transistor radio at the Miss America Pageant

protests, one of the first moments in the Women’s Liberation Movement that demanded equality for women in American society in the 1960s. What would the song mean in that context? What would it signify?

A song doesn’t stay still, it circulates. “Respect,” written by Otis Redding in 1965 about a man coming home tired from work, wanting love and affection from his partner, a homemaker, now, via Aretha, has become an anthem demanding “Respect” for women in public life, insisting that Americans embrace new attitudes and practices about women. No more should there be displays of their bodies for men to gaze at lasciviously. No more should they be paid less for their work, or denied equal access to jobs and power in American society.

Respect was what they demanded now, and a pop song that started in the dance halls now took on new meanings in the streets and at the protests and marches of the social movements of the 1960s. Maybe it could even reach the halls of power, like Aretha singing the song so powerfully outside the imposing marble buildings of New York City’s Stock Exchange and the banks in the Financial District on Wall Street that we saw in the 1967 film clip we started with.

Image of Alcatraz occupation, 1969

Shift again. Imagine the song on Radio Free Alcatraz, broadcast from the Native American occupation of the famous Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay from 1969 to 1971. Radio Free Alcatraz was broadcast on various radio stations across America. Imagine hearing Aretha’s forceful singing ringing out just before the closing song of each RFA broadcast, Buffy St. Marie’s “Now That the Buffalo Is Gone.”

What would the song’s lyrics and sounds come to mean in this sixties social movement context? Now it might resound with meaning, over the airwaves, not with the story of a romantic relationship between a man and a woman, but with the need to address the history of the dispossession of Native Americans’ and indigenous lands in what is now called the United States.

That’s a pretty far distance to travel, but pop music can mutate, shift, and move in ways that other texts and documents and historical artifacts cannot.


Image of Guitar Army and list of bands that covered Respect such as the Rationals, Vagrants, Ike and Tina Turner.

Audio narration:

By the end of the 1960s, there were even many other versions of “Respect” too, beyond Otis and Aretha’s versions. They were played by black musicians such as Ike and Tina Turner, The Temptations performing with Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Ramsey Lewis, the Jamaican singer Norma Fraser, as well as white “hippie” rock bands of the late 1960s such as the Rationals and the Vagrants.

“Respect” became part of a burgeoning late 60s youth culture, multifaceted and wide-ranging, that sought out new ways of living. Sometimes participants in that youth culture—the counterculture as it became known—purposely grew disrespectful, fed up as they were with the hypocrisies of their parents and the shortcomings of the society around them. And sometimes they wound up replicating some of the very same problems of those who had come before them in American history—racism, sexism, and worse. Sometimes they even created new problems in their efforts to break free of restraints on dreaming up and living in new ways.

But in the swirl of their efforts, even when disrespectful, even when flawed, one might notice a yearning many had to be, well yes, respected, for their insistence on trying, if imperfectly, to figure out what America was about, exactly—and their efforts to imagine how it might, maybe, move in different directions as a nation.

Image of the Staples Singers Beatlitude. Into the 70s.

Audio narration:
Finally, if we follow the song “Respect” through the social movements of the 1960s, we might notice that it came back to where it started: in African American music and life. During the 1960s and into the 1970s–in a way the thing we call the “sixties” lasted well into the next decade–the concept of respect was key to a push for cultural pride and self- respect, self-determination, and public recognition among black Americans.

James Brown performing

Other songs picked up where “Respect” left off. One thinks of James Brown’s amazing “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” recorded in 1968. In concert, Brown would have his entire audience, whatever their heritage, chant “say it loud” and then the black members of the audience claim “I’m black and I’m proud.”

Image of the Staples Singers Beatlitude. Into the 70s.

Or one hears the idea of Respect resurface in songs such as “Respect Yourself,” written by the Stax Records singer Luther Ingram and songwriter Mark Rice, and recorded by the famed civil rights family band The Staples Singers along with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, an integrated group of musicians much like the Stax studio band. In fact, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section came from Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the very studio where Aretha Franklin had herself found her sound and become the “Queen of Soul” starting in 1966 and continuing throughout the rest of her life and career.

Image of Aretha with title and objectives.

Audio narration:
So to sum up, then: We’ve explored how the song—and the concept of—Respect offers a way to notice a common demand made by many participants in the disparate social movements of the 1960s.

And we explored how to expand our analytic capabilities to explore the past not only through written sources, but also sonic ones—how to listen to the past as well as see it, and how to notice the way pop music could circulate and travel in elastic and vibrant ways.

So next time, maybe if you are feeling disrespected, you too might turn to Otis and Aretha’s song. If you do, you are joining the many before you, from the 1960s to now, who spelled out, just like Aretha did, their insistence on being treated fairly, justly, properly, and rightly.

I’m Michael Kramer, assistant professor of history at SUNY Brockport, and this has been an exploration of the song “Respect” in relationship to the social movements of the 1960s. Feel free to get in touch with me if you have any questions or comments about this history video share. And I hope you enjoy the great music of Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and others as you investigate the history of the social movements of the 1960s and think about what it means to study culture and music as part of your inquiry into history as a whole.

William Bell quotation
William Bell quotation and Public Enemy, “Revolutionary Generation” (1990) lyrics Audio:

Michael J. Kramer is an assistant professor of US, transnational, public, and digital history at SUNY Brockport. He is the author of The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture (Oxford University Press, 2013) and is currently writing a book about technology and tradition in the US folk music revival, This Machine Kills Fascists: What the US Folk Music Movement Can Teach Us About the Digital Age. He is also at work on a digital public history project about the Berkeley Folk Music Festival and the Sixties Folk Music Revival on the US West Coast. More information about his research, teaching, and public scholarship can be found at his website, michaeljkramer.net.