Our museum is temporarily closed to support the effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. Read a message from our director, and check our website and social media for updates.

Reflecting on the Queen of Soul's reign in American culture

Today we're reflecting on the life of singer, songwriter, diva, civil rights activist, and cultural icon Aretha Franklin. Over 100 of Franklin's records, mostly 45s and 33s, are in our collection, together chronicling the vast expanse and depth of her recording career.

Photo of album cover featuring Aretha Franklin shown in four reflections with stained glass background
Young, Gifted and Black, released in 1972, in the museum's collection

One of music curator John Troutman's favorites is Young, Gifted and Black. Released in 1972, the album includes one of her lesser-known masterpieces, "First Snow in Kokomo."

"Written while contemplating a winter's day in Kokomo, Indiana," Troutman said, "the song is absolutely breathtaking in its quiet celebration of the profound grace, awe, and joy of life. She had a special skill for crafting incredibly intimate scenes of the everyday."

But Franklin wasn't always quiet, of course. She had incredible range.

"There are few singers who shaped so many of our sacred and secular genres with as divine a force as Franklin," Troutman said. "The depth of her songwriting and musical skill, as well as the wit, emotion, and charismatic draw of her voice, enabled Franklin to not only cross over but to transform and make new our most significant musical genres."

Photo of Aretha Franklin performing at Pres. Obama's inauguration, hand raised in the air and mouth open in song. Grey gloves, coat, and hat with large grey bow.
Aretha Franklin performs at the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama. ©Karen Ballard/Courtesy of Photographic History Collection, Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

But for Troutman, there isn't one particular piece that can mark Franklin's influence on American history.

"She has left all of us with so much material to fuss over in terms of what songs and what albums have been the most impactful in American life," he said. "Instead of one song, I'd reflect upon the breadth of her repertoire in saturating nearly all points of the radio dial. Her ability to join us together through exquisitely delightful anthems or heart-wrenching hard-times ballads, and in all the occasions when we need it, to bring the funk, speaks to the range and the impact of her songwriting and vocal prowess."

Today Troutman finds himself listening to Franklin's recent performance at the Kennedy Center as he reflects on the life and work of the acclaimed musician. It is, he said, "an example of her delivering unbelievable performances until the very end. It remains one of the most inspiring performances of hers that I’ve ever seen."

On this sad day, as we reflect on Franklin's legacy and profound influence on American culture, which song will you most remember her for, and why?

Erin Blasco works on the museum's Programs and Audience Development team.