As sunset draws near,
I look up and see a tree
Beginning to bud
13 May 2021
Mark Kurlansky. Ready
for a Brand Ne Beat: How “Dancing in the Street” became the Anthem for a
Copyright © 2031 M rk Kurlansky
Riverhead Books/Penguin Books
I finished reading Mark Kurlansky’s Ready for a Brand New Beat, his attempt to convince us (and,
perhaps,, himself)of the cultural and
political importance of a pop-rock song, “Dancing in the Street. Composed by a team of Motown songwriters
(Marvin Gays, Willian “Mickey” Stevenson, and Ivy Jo Hunter) and initially
released by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.
Clocking in at 2:46, it peaked at #4 on the pop charts and was #17 on
the 1964 year-end rankings according to Billboard. Looking at the 1964 year-end list, I think
there is a case to be made for it (although I personally would pick The
Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk,” which Billboard has at #20. (It’s clearly a better song than any of the
top 100 from 1963, although Sam Cooke’s “It’s Another Saturday Night” is terrific. I’d put two songs from 1965 ahead of it-The
Rolling Stones, “Satisfaction (#3 for the year) and Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling
Stone” (#41). Still, “Dancing in the Street” is a remarkable song and deserves
the praise it gets.
Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1964 - Wikipedia
Martha & The Vandellas "Dancing in the Streets" - YouTube
Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1963 - Wikipedia
Sam Cooke - Another Saturday Night (Official Lyric Video) - YouTube
Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1965 - Wikipedia
[I Can't Get No] Satisfaction - YouTube
Bob Dylan - Like a Rolling Stone (Audio) - YouTube
But Kurlansky wants to do much more than assert the musical merits of “Dancing in the Street.” His thesis is that “Dancing…” is much more than a great rock song. It is, he argues, a song whose origins (consciously or not) come out of the political and civic unrest that marked the summer of 1964 and that it continued to resonate in the summers that follow. An important part of this part of the story is white flight generally and the very real destruction of Detroit as a major American city. He also, I think, wants to make a case for the importance of Motown (and by extension Berry Gordy) in changing the musical world and providing the soundtrack to the social and political changes that became clear in 1964 and shaped a narrative that helped define the ‘60s.
Detroit got its nickname (The Motor City) because the growth of the population, and the wealth (largely of whites) were driven by the automobile industry. IN 1880, the population of Detroit was about 116,000. It nearly triples—to 285,000—in 1900, nearly doubled between 1900 and 1910, doubled again by 1920 (now over 900,000), and, although the city’s growth slowed, it doubled again by 1950 (reaching 1,8 million, .That, again, is the city of Detroit. After 1950, the city has shrunk,, almost as fast as it grew; the 2020 Census puts the city’s population at 670,000. The Detroit metropolitan area has continued to grow. At 3 million (about 1.1 million outside the city limits) in 1950 (the earliest official data), it’s now at 5.3 million (about 4.6 million outside the city limits. The city is majority Black, while the suburbs are mostly white.
Kurlansky doesn’t treat this population changes in much detail, although he does sketch the outlines.
The Motown story is actually pretty amazing on its own, without any of the political weight that Kurlansky adds to it. The incredible blossoming of talent, and the ability of that talent to break out of being only a niche of the music business—the breakthrough of Black music and performers into the pop charts is an important story, and he tells it well. And telling it requires making it clear that Gordy made household names out of an extraordinary group of talented men and women. Here, he makes it clear than Gordy did not treat his talent very well, leaving some of the most talented basically in poverty while he got rich (at least for a while).
But Kurlansky wants to do much more than tell the story of Motown and the story of a song. He wants to convince us that the song was a catalyst for the rise of a political movement—a galvanizing force behind at least part of the civil rights movement. Especially of the Freedom Rides and the struggle to force states in the south to allow Blacks to register and vote. The outlines of the events themselves are pretty well handled, and, if that part of the struggle obviously continues (with 30or more states now trying to make voter registration and actual voting harder—and not just in the south). I don’t think he makes his case. The argument is that “Dancing in the Street” was heard as (whether it was intended to be heard this way is a much harder case) a call to activism, even to violence. That “dancing in the street” was not—was not thought to be by political activists in 1964 and later to be a nice dance song, but was, indeed, a call to revolution. He cites a few activists who claim (if only in hindsight) to see it that way. But it reads as a stretch, not as an evident truth.
The strangest part of the book is his discussion of the huge number of recorded versions of the song (including, somewhat weirdly, David Bowie and Mick Jagger doing a duet). I think he’s trying to make a claim for the continued vitality of the song. And it has been covered and recorded over and over again. Including a number of weird attempts (the Mamas and Papas? I don’t recommend it. Van Halen? Don’t recommend that either. The Grateful Dead?). I can’t find even an estimate of the number of recorded versions, but it seems to be in the hundreds.
I was absorbed by the book, even as I argued with it frequently. “Dancing in the Street” is a seminal achievement in rock literature. Bu in the end it’s just a great song. It did not change the world. It did not even, really, change the music business. It probably did not make the singers and players rich. But it was an important moment for Motown, making the label ubiquitous and helping to make Berry Gordy rich.