Today, in the wake of the Colin Kaepernick-inspired protests, we’re used to the sanctity of the national anthem being a hot-button issue. However, back in 1968, another African-American celebrity’s treatment of “The Star-Spangled Banner” earned similarly ugly, racially charged reactions from around the nation. The celebrity was the late, great Aretha Franklin, and unlike Kaepernick, she wasn’t protesting the anthem. Rather, she was actually performing it — during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
So, what was her great sin? In the words of David M. Schuller, editor of the Enterprise-Tocsin newspaper in Indianola, Mississippi, she “jazzed it up.” As you can hear in the video below, her performance definitely had soulful stylings, but it’s nothing by today’s standards. Back then, though, you would’ve thought she wiped her butt with the flag based on the backlash. Her “bop-style singing” was called “disgraceful” by the VFW in Lexington, Kentucky and “objectionable” by the Daily News‘ Kay Gardella.
Everyday citizens chimed in as well (in letters to local newspapers, the Twitter of the day) with comments like this:
“Soul has its place — where, I’m not sure — but certainly not in the performance of our country’s Anthem.”
And, if anyone thinks these comments aren’t racial in tone, check out this feedback:
“Yes, give Negroes their rights and opportunities, but let us first be certain they have adequate training and instruction, so that their actions will not be a disgrace and humiliation to all Americans.”
In retrospect, Franklin’s performance was a ground-breaker that set the stage for modern, “hip” interpretations of the national anthem, including perhaps the most famous: Jimi Hendrick’s searing guitar instrumental performance just 10 months later at Woodstock.