Pop, Race, and the ’60s

“What the Woman Can Do With a Line”

How Aretha Franklin made Sam Cooke’s greatest song her own.

Soul singer Aretha Franklin poses for a portrait wearing a shroud in circa 1967.
Aretha Franklin poses for a portrait, circa 1967.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

This is an edited excerpt from Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature, presented as part of the Slate Academy series Pop, Race, and the ’60s. Emily Lordi talked about Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield on Episode 2 of the series. Here, she discusses Franklin’s cover of “A Change Is Gonna Come” and some of Franklin’s other recordings.

Aretha Franklin’s version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” in which she accompanies herself on piano, begins with a short prelude: “There’s an old friend that I once heard say/ something that touched my heart,/ And it began this way.”1 This setup seems like a corny show tune convention. But when Franklin launches into the first line of the song, “I was born,” with a heart-swelling ornamentation around the word born, we know that a tour de force is on the way. Because of this introduction, as well as the “he said”s that Franklin interjects into the lyrics (“he said, ‘it’s been a long time coming …’”), Matt Dobkin claims that Franklin creates a “meta-song” that depoliticizes Cooke’s civil rights anthem. According to Dobkin, Franklin’s “Change” is a personal tribute that finally allows Franklin to identify with her idol: “In effect, the song is Aretha’s artistic opportunity to become Sam Cooke, which in a sense had been her crossover goal all along.”2 A comparison of Cooke’s and Franklin’s recordings makes this interpretation untenable.

While Franklin follows Cooke’s lead in omitting the song’s most topically political verse—“I go to the movie, and I go downtown/ somebody keep telling me, ‘Don’t hang around’ ”3—it is not the case that she creates a meta-version of “Change” that renders it a mere personal tribute. Nor is it true that Franklin’s framing narrative subordinates her version to Cooke’s. On the contrary, Franklin’s decision to begin with the pretext of ventriloquizing Cooke dramatizes the process by which she makes the song her own. She performs this “changing of the guard” when she switches the gender of the narrator: “I went to my brother,/ And I asked him, ‘Brother, could you help me please?’/ He said, ‘Good sister, I’d like to but I’m not able …’ ” Franklin’s “good sister” is her own addition; Cooke’s interlocutor does not say anything in response to the request for help. This new “sister” marks the moment when Franklin assumes the “I” of the song. This is not what Cooke “said,” and indeed Franklin ceases to interject “he said” into the lyrics from this point on. It is fitting that Franklin performs this changeover in the bridge, the peak of musical tension and drama before the last verse. This makes the bridge not only a point of musical departure or variation but also a place of passing over and through, from Cooke’s song to Franklin’s version thereof.

Franklin stakes her claim to “Change” not only by literally revising the lyrics but also by interpreting them in her own style. In making her case for Franklin’s “genius,” the poet Nikki Giovanni told fellow writer Margaret Walker, “Just listen to what the woman can do with a line.”4 One thing Franklin “does with a line” is to sing a song text like it would be spoken. As Lara Pellegrinelli writes, “Speechifying a song is like vernacularizing language: putting one’s own stamp on it, making it like one’s own speech.”5 This practice bespeaks Franklin’s connection to the black Baptist church, the primary source of her vocal art. Franklin herself has called the church “a testing ground for me as a singer” and has frequently said she “never left” it: “The church goes with me.” Indeed, when ethnomusicologist Pearl Williams-Jones explains that one of the “basic sources from which gospel singing has derived its aesthetic ideals” is “the rhetorical solo style of the black gospel preacher,” she cites Franklin as an exemplar of this speech-song continuum.6 But while Franklin’s use of this technique implies, as Dionne Warwick states, that in “everything that [Franklin] does, she still carries forth her gospel training,” Franklin’s “speechification” of a song text also allows her to advance her own signature voice, to “[put] her own stamp” on a song.7

On the broadest level and in virtually all her songs, Franklin exploits the relationship between speaking and singing through her use of a vocal register known as the chest voice. The chest voice is the deeper register that uses thicker vocal chords and is associated with contralto, tenor, and bass ranges. It is distinguished from the head voice, the higher register that engages thinner vocal folds and is associated with soprano and falsetto singing. Especially in gospel and popular music, an impressive range is often determined by the range of upper-octave notes a singer is able to sing (or to “belt”) without shifting from the chest to the head voice. One of the most striking things about Franklin’s vocal art is the range she displays in this register—one aspect of what Anthony Heilbut calls Franklin’s “pyrotechnique.”8 Erik Leidal explains it insightfully:

The power in Aretha’s voice results from her being able to carry up enough “weight”—a vocal term that is used to describe the depth of tone in one’s chest voice—to a stunning height, where pitches can still be well-sung and maintained. Few other singers have achieved this so well in any genre: it is a feat of nature in itself, a training that requires conditioning and maturity, as well as a certain amount of raw talent.9

While Franklin’s range sets her apart, her use of the chest voice itself unites her with others, because this is the register in which most people speak. Franklin’s singing stays unusually close to speech registers—closer than singers with a less extensive chest voice range, who must shift into their head voices to reach the notes she reaches, and certainly closer than soprano and falsetto singers, who work primarily in their upper range. Her contralto singing therefore produces a curious form of what we might call audio-sympathy: We are at home speaking in this range, but very few people can sing in it (well or otherwise).

To track Franklin’s speechification of song on a more local, detailed level, we might first listen to the way she sings the line, “And I asked him, ‘Brother, can you help me please?’ ” Adding a caesura before the word brother, she sings the first syllable at the outer limit of her range and then lets the word fall, as if calling to someone. The entire coda, in which Franklin “takes the song to church” against the ostinato pattern of Spooner Oldham’s organ, is a heady display of such speechlike effects. Listen, for example, to her use of melisma to stress and stretch the word real: “Yeah, it’s been an uphill journey! It’s been real hard, every step of the way!” For another example of this technique, we might listen to the second verse of “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” (1967), in which Franklin sings, “The way you treat me is a shame/ How could you hurt me so bad?”10 The first line descends, but the next one jumps the octave to “how could you”—stressing the could and bending it upward. Here Franklin mimics a speech pattern in order to express a sudden outrage, as if the force of the insult had just been borne in on her. This speechifying practice acquires special significance in Franklin’s 1968 cover of Dionne Warwick’s “I Say a Little Prayer.” After riffing on the main theme, Franklin ends the song by singing, “This is my prayer!” Her bluesy accentuation of the word is italicizes the word and works to suggest that the song as a whole has been her prayer.11 Here we can see Franklin poignantly navigating her crossover from gospel to soul music, implying that this secular love song is its own form of sacred expression. At the same time, technically speaking, the way Franklin strains toward that note on is affirms her place in the gospel tradition. As Warwick explains, “We call it ‘squalling,’ when Aretha reaches for a note to express a feeling—that is very typically gospel.”12

Finally, we can hear Franklin’s speechifying gospel aesthetic in her maximalist approach to a song text. She adds several new lyrics to “Change,” using her outstanding musical and poetic sensibility to create the illusion of everyday speech. Franklin’s lyrical flow dramatically distinguishes her version of “Change” from Cooke’s. Whereas Cooke leaves a notable amount of space around each lyrical statement, Franklin fills in all the gaps; she thus emphasizes the song’s rolling 6/8 time signature and makes the song move in a way that Cooke’s characteristically cool, unhurried version does not. The change is gradual, however. In the first verse, Franklin follows Cooke’s version virtually word for word, even pronouncing “I’ve been running every since” just like Cooke does. But she increasingly embellishes the song text as she goes, so that by the time she gets to the bridge, she is singing twice as many lyrics as Cooke sings in that part of the song. She fits new words into the song’s structure by performing a kind of rhythmic and harmonic enjambment whereby each repeated phrase leads directly to the next. Listen to how differently Cooke and Franklin perform the moment when the brother refuses the speaker aid. In the same amount of musical time, Cooke sings, “But he winds up knocking me/ Back down on my knees, Lord!” while Franklin sings, “And when I, when I looked around, I was right back down,/ Down on my bended knees, yes I was, Oh Lord!” This additive process escalates until Franklin is ad-libbing whole extra choruses at the end of the song. One of her more extraordinary embellishments begins with a seemingly unmotivated sometimes. The word seems to come out of nowhere, an isolated adverb that Franklin suspends over Oldham’s wheeling organ pattern, before completing the thought:

Sometimes! … I’ve had to cry all night long, yes I did!
Sometimes! … I had to give up right for what I knew was wrong.
[…] But I believe, I believe, this evening
A change has come . . .

Franklin’s use of the past tense here marks another revision to Cooke’s lyrics: Cooke consistently sings “a change is gonna come.” Franklin’s revision makes sense, however, to the extent that it self-reflexively signifies the musical changeover she has performed.

Ultimately, Franklin’s performance of “Change” both elegizes Cooke and extends the political legacy of his song through her own voice. We hear this political legacy not only in the song’s lyrics, but also in Franklin’s introduction, which, theatrical as it may seem, frames her recording as an act of public mourning. In 1967, the very gesture of publicly mourning black life is a political statement. Franklin’s “Change” emphasizes that the musical and political losses black America had suffered by 1970 (from Dinah Washington to John Coltrane to Medgar Evers to Martin Luther King Jr.) were intimately experienced. Indeed, Franklin’s decision to “surrogate” Cooke’s memory, in Joseph Roach’s terms, is inseparable from her political project in “Change.”13 As she stated in a 1971 interview with Ebony, “I suppose the revolution influenced me a great deal, but … mine was a very personal evolution … of the me in myself”—an experience she reframed, a moment later, as more typical than not: “But then I suppose that the whole meaning of the Revolution is very much tied up with that sort of thing.”14 Like this moment in her interview, “Change” establishes a voice that is at once singular and representative, as Franklin uniquely deploys vocal-textual techniques associated with the performance tradition of which she remains a part. With regard to “Change,” we hear an expressive tradition that is textual not only at the level of the song text but also at the level of the song’s specifically literary archive. Cooke begins with the conventional opening of the slave narratives: “I was born.”

Reprinted from: Lordi, Emily J., Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature, 188–193 and 198–201. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2013. Copyright © 2013 by Emily J. Lordi. Reprinted by permission of Rutgers University Press.


1 Aretha Franklin, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (Atlantic, 1967).

2 Matt Dobkin, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You: Aretha Franklin, Respect, and the Making of a Soul Masterpiece (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004), 178–179.

3 This verse was included on the 1963 version of “Change” that Cooke donated to The Stars Salute Dr. Martin Luther King, an LP designed to raise money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. When it came time to release “Change” as a single, however, the song was about 30 seconds too long; Cooke’s biographer Daniel Wolff suggests that RCA producers pressured Cooke to remove this particular verse (Wolff et al., You Send Me: The Life and Times of Sam Cooke [New York: Quill, 1995], 314).

4 Giovanni and Walker, A Poetic Equation, 79; 80.

5 Lara Pelligrinelli, “The Song Is Who?: Locating Singers on the Jazz Scene” (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 2005), 285.

6 Pearl Williams-Jones, “Afro-American Gospel Music: A Crystallization of the Black Aesthetic,” Ethnomusicology 19.3 (September, 1975): 381.

7 Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul, screenplay by Nelson George, ed. Jody Sheff (A*Vision Entertainment, 1988).

8 Anthony Heilbut, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times (1975; New York: Limelight Editions, 1997), x.

9 Erik Leidal, “Aretha Franklin’s ‘Mary, Don’t You Weep’: Signifying the Survivor in Gospel Music,” GLSG Newsletter 9/2 (October 1999): 5.

10 Aretha Franklin, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You.

11Aretha Franklin, “I Say a Little Prayer,” Aretha Now (Atlantic, 1968).

12 Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul.

13 Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996). See Chapter 4.

14 Part of Franklin’s interview is quoted in Aaron Cohen, Amazing Grace (New York: Continuum, 2011), 36. Her statement is worth citing in full: “The black revolution certainly forced me and the majority of black people to begin taking a second look at ourselves… . It wasn’t that we were all that ashamed of ourselves, we merely started appreciating our natural selves, falling in love with ourselves just as we are” (qtd. in Craig Werner, Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield and the Rise and Fall of American Soul [New York: Crown, 2004], 174).