“Soul Man” and Identity

Essential Questions

  • How do we shape our own identities?
  • How do stereotypes influence the way we see ourselves and others?
  • What can individuals and groups do to counter negative images, ideas, and stereotypes?

Learning Objectives


  • Students will use the song’s lyrics as a primary text for analysis.
  • Students will briefly explore the influence of the media coverage of the 1967 Detroit Riots as well as the implications of the Kerner Commission Report, and consider to what extent the song “Soul Man” was a response to the times.
  • Students will consider the choices made by the artists responsible for “Soul Man” and reflect on their own connections to the text.


  • Students will create a visual representation of the singer, as well as themselves.

Common Core Anchor Standards for Reading (R), Writing (W), and Speaking and Listening (SL)


In this lesson, students will be introduced to the song “Soul Man,” which was written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter and originally performed and popularized by Sam & Dave. The upbeat melody and lyrics may be familiar to many students, but they may not know that the song was inspired by a tragic moment in US history: the Detroit Riots of 1967. At a time when the American media often linked the black urban working class to crime and violence, Hayes and Porter celebrated a proud, hard working “Soul Man.”

Guiding Questions

  • What sorts of responses can an individual have to injustice? Can making or listening to music be one of these responses? How so?
  • Why was it important for Hayes and Porter to define a “soul man” or a “soul brother” in a positive way?



  1. Warm-up
    • One way to begin the lesson is by having students think about their own identities and perceptions. What influences the way students see themselves? How do they think others see them? What shapes how they think about others? Encourage students to spend some time writing down some answers to these questions. Alternatively, you can ask students to create an identity chart mapping the many factors that shape who we are as individuals and as members of groups.
    • Ask students to share their ideas with partners, small groups, or the whole class. If working in smaller groups, remind students that they have choices about sharing these personal details with the whole class.
  2. Analyzing the Lyrics
    • Some teachers prefer that students respond to the lyrics before they’ve learned about the song’s background. After that, teachers fill in some detail, permitting students to offer quite different reactions to the song.
    • Share with students the “Soul Man” Lyrics so that they can follow along as they watch the video The Stax Music Academy Performs "Soul Man."
    • As they watch, students may annotate the lyrics by marking any lines that they connect with. At the conclusion of the song, have students share memorable lines first with a partner, then with the whole class. Are there words and phrases that students do not understand? Confusion will probably fade as students learn more about the context in which the song was written.
    • Engage in a close reading of the lyrics. You may choose to have students respond to the text-dependent questions at the bottom of the reading “Soul Man” Lyrics—individually, in pairs, or in small groups. These text-dependent questions are meant to guide readers and assess basic comprehension.
    • Discuss the point of view of the song. Who is the narrator? Describe his character. Who is he addressing?
  3. Historical Context/Deeper Understandings
    • Work with the class to create an identity chart for the narrator of the song. Using textual evidence, including lyrics, have students consider words and phrases that describe the narrator. We will return to the chart at the end of the next section to add more detail.
    • Share with your students some information about the era when the song was written, using the reading “Soul Man” Historical Background and the photograph Storefront during the Detroit Riots, 1967. Have them answer the text-dependent questions located at the bottom of the reading. To understand the song in its time, it is important to understand that “Soul Man” was written during the civil rights movement when tensions over injustice too often found expression in large-scale rioting and violence.
    • To provide additional background, watch the video The Origin and Meaning of "Soul Man,” which is from the film Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story. It focuses on “Soul Man” and the different artists who contributed to it. Be sure to preview this clip as some language may not be appropriate for your students. Before students watch the video, ask them to listen carefully to the different inspirations and interpretations of “Soul Man” in the video. You can also provide background by watching an excerpt from Eyes on the Prize: Two Societies (1965–1968) (32:12–40:13). It describes the racial tensions during the sixties in America and the Detroit Riots of 1967. Educator’s note: Although it is not the focus of this lesson, the entire hour-long Eyes on the Prize episode provides useful insights into the riots that scarred a number of US cities in the mid-1960s.
    • Now that students know more about the song and the period when it was written, have them begin to form an interpretation of the song’s message in writing. Consider both the content of the song and its audience. Whom were the artists addressing? What message did they want to convey? You might have students discuss their thoughts in small groups. To assess their responses, consider how students use evidence from the lyrics, film clips, and the background text.
    • As you review the students’ interpretations of the song, you may want to consider the following questions: How did the background knowledge influence their understanding of the narrator? What did the songwriters think a “soul man” was? Consider the choices made by Isaac Hayes and David Porter. What were the different ways that they could have responded to the news from Detroit? How did they choose to respond? How did those choices shape the way people responded to the song?
    • Ask students to return to the identity chart they created for the song’s narrator. Are there any changes they want to make, now that they’ve learned a bit about the men who wrote the song and the events that inspired them?
  4. Outcomes
    • Some educators find that students presented with a figure like our Stickman Template handout promptly sketch a portrait of a character known only from words. See what they make of the song’s narrator. Does he get a big heart to represent the lyric “good lovin’”? Dirty shoes to represent the lyric “dusty road”? Some may enjoy creating a collage with words and images from magazines or the Internet. As students present their work, ask how “Soul Man” countered negative images of black men.
    • Do students believe the song has a timeless message? Does the music still resonate with them? Which images still feel relevant today? Which feel dated? If they were to write a song with a similar purpose today, what words, images, and ideas would they include? Compare the way that different forms of media can counter stereotypes. For example, what can a song do that cannot be done with a newspaper article or a documentary film?
    • To conclude, you may wish to return to the essential questions at the beginning of the lesson and discuss them based on what we have learned. In particular, have students consider how to react when they feel they are being stereotyped or judged unfairly. What kinds of responses can help break down barriers? What kinds of responses seem to further misunderstandings?

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