Soul Music: The Sound of the Civil Rights Movement

For Black Music Month, we explore how soul music moved the civil rights movement.

As various rhythmic expressions of Black life began to permeate mainstream American music taste from blues, jazz and gospel during the 1950s, another style was starting to emerge too. Finding influence from gospel music, soul music is characterized by: intense vocals alongside call and response, emphasis on the rhythm section and large horn sections. Thematically, the genre of music that emerged from the South before making its way to other parts of America populated by Black people usually takes a blues approach by speaking about subjects specifically ranging from love to social issues. It makes sense why soul became one of the largest genres in American music through the 50s, 60s, and beyond.

There’s no soul without gospel music as well. Controversial for its time, blind musician Ray Charles earned a reputation for fostering soul music by lifting gospel songs. For example, Charles turned the gospel standard “This Little Light of Mine” into the 1955 record “This Little Girl of Mine.” Musically, gospel traits like 12/8 meter rhythms, call-and-response structures, improvisational style, and the like were more approachable for dancing.

Jazz: The Sound of New Orleans and Beyond

Regarding live performances, “The Godfather of Soul,” James Brown utilized an excitement-filled, sermon-like quality to deliver high musical dynamics. Classics like “Please, Please, Please” and “Try Me” were more than just popular radio records; they were also theatrical performances when played live. Brown could sing, run a band, and dance incredibly well. His dance style would even inspire icons like Micheal Jackson. Meanwhile, Brown’s soul style also eventually evolved into a new style of music called Funk. Soul reached new heights as an American pop standard that would bridge the gap between white and Black people.

Often referred to as “The King of Soul,” Sam Cooke began his music career by leading the gospel group the Soul Stirrers. Sliding into more secular music with his debut single “You Send Me,” Cooke’s laid-back vocal style hit #1 on both Rhythm & Blues Records and Hot 100 charts. This would lead to several dozen hits before his untimely death in 1964, ranging from “Cupid,” “Chain Gang,” “Another Saturday Night,” and civil rights era standard “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

The Spirituals: Songs of Sorrow, Hope, and Freedom

When it comes to being pop royalty, Cooke was that guy, but women were making significant headway within the soul genre itself, including the “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin. Coming out of the gospel world through her father, C.L. Franklin, in Detroit, Aretha’s profile grew higher once she released secular music and found commercial success around 1966. Franklin would spend the decade earning hit after hit thanks to tracks like “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” “Chain of Fools,” and, of course, “Respect.”

Even if artists like Charles, Cooke, Brown and Franklin pushed for unification between Blacks and whites during that era, they all supported the Civil Rights Movement in various ways. Charles was sued and fined in Augusta, Georgia, in 1961 for refusing to perform in a segregated theater. Meanwhile, Brown was also heavily involved in various aspects of the moment. He performed charity concerts for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the “March Against Fear” rally at Tougaloo College in Mississippi for James Meredith, the first Black student to attend the University of Mississippi. Soul became the pulse of Black movements for national empowerment against oppression. With her Baptist Church background, Franklin had already been touring with Dr. Martin Luther King at civil rights rallies before she was a full adult and sang at his funeral.

Labels catering specifically to soul began to emerge in various ways, from Detroit’s Motown Records to Stax Records in Memphis. When it came to Motown, it also led to a new idea of how Black entrepreneurs like businessman/songwriter Barry Gordy could engage with the music industry.

Soul music throughout the 1970s also helped usher in a new era of Black filmmakers by artists collaborating on the soundtracks for various Blaxploitation films. An early Earth, Wind and Fire helped make Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song blockbuster gold while Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly soundtrack went on to sell millions. Beyond Brown helping usher in Funk, Soul would evolve into other music genres, including disco, rock, pop, neo-soul and even hip-hop.

Latest News

Subscribe for BET Updates

Provide your email address to receive our newsletter.

By clicking Subscribe, you confirm that you have read and agree to our Terms of Use and acknowledge our Privacy Policy. You also agree to receive marketing communications, updates, special offers (including partner offers) and other information from BET and the Paramount family of companies. You understand that you can unsubscribe at any time.