Aretha's North East legacy

18th August 2018

In an otherwise unassuming town in Northumberland, the late great Queen of Soul has left a rather unexpected mark. At regular intervals throughout the day, you might be able to hear the notes of Aretha Franklin’s greatest hit Respect faintly emanating from the local high school.

That’s because the first verse and climactic break of the song are the school bell. Other schools might have a ringing noise or an electronic beep, but here it’s classic soul, day in, day out. It’s played to mark the start of the school day, at the end of every lesson and it bookends every lunch break — in total, it’s played around 10 times a day.

It’s broadcast into every classroom, and piped through speakers, outside, in the school quad; nearby houses might be able to snatch a few lines, if they leave their windows open.

Aretha Franklin’s hit song is played throughout Cramlington Learning Village (yes, that’s the name of the school) image:Matthewdfr

As a student at this school for five years, Respect became a permanent part of my teenage life, embedded into my consciousness like no other song. Even now, the opening beats transport me straight back to Friday afternoons, packing up my bag and heading out the school gates with the weekend stretched out before me.

The song was chosen as the school bell as part of the school’s commitment to teaching its students — you guessed it — to respect one another, a core value in the school’s ethos. Although, I’m not sure what listening to Respect 10 times a day taught me, other than 1. how to spell respect, and 2. how to recognise the tune in 0.5 seconds flat, during the music round of a pub quiz.

But the legendary Aretha Franklin, and Respect, do have so much to teach young people, today. With the devastating passing of the singer earlier this week, I wonder how many students at the school understand just how important the song is, how it helped invigorate social movements and empowered so many.

I’d been listening to this song multiple times a day, year after year, but I knew little about the woman behind the words

It wasn’t until after high school that I truly discovered Aretha Franklin and her phenomenal body of work. I’d been listening to this song multiple times a day, year after year, but I knew little about the woman behind the words I could sing off by heart. I quickly realised that my school bell was actually one of the most powerful records in history.

It’s a revolutionary song, displaying the best of Aretha’s super-charged vocals. She took Otis Redding’s original version, and transformed it, with an urgency and fierceness that are unparalleled — in the New York Times, Wesley Morris described the opening vocals as a “punch in the face”.

She added the famous “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” hook and the iconic “sock it to me” line (which, if you’re wondering, marks the point where the school bell fades out).

But, it’s not for these reasons alone that Rolling Stone named it number five on their list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.

Released in 1967, Respect became a battle cry in a year overflowing with political tension and social change in the US. It was the year of the race riots, anti-Vietnam War protests and the expansion of the women’s equality movement. It was a time in which people from all walks of life were demanding respect, and the song resonated with many — particularly African American women.

In the words of author Evelyn C. White: “With Respect, [Franklin] gave black women an unprecedented voice and visibility.” Franklin, herself, described it as “one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement”, adding, “The song took on monumental significance.” It wasn’t just a musical hit, but a political one too, and no one can truly appreciate the song without understanding its cultural significance and powerful history.

North East England in 2018 might be poles apart from the world Respect was born into back in 1967, but the power and conviction of Aretha’s vocals are still relatable. It’s a song for the marginalised, those in search of empowerment, and that’s something many young people in the face of today’s turbulent political climate can appreciate.

“Respect” is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days, and like with the song itself, it’s easy to lose sight of its real meaning. Whether it’s in an overt context like my high school bell, or on the radio and in movies, it’s important the historical magnitude of the song and Aretha Franklin’s fierce spirit are preserved, as they can teach young people so much more than lyrics alone ever can.

Respect is no school bell — it’s an anthem, and should be remembered as such.

18th August 2018