Review of Mark Kurlansky's "Ready for a Brand New Beat"

tags: African American history, music, Motown



Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of The Politics of Baseball: Essays on the Pastime and Power at Home and Abroad.

Beginning with the August 28, 2013 commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the decade will mark a number of fiftieth anniversary dates crucial to the Civil Rights Movement. One of the dates which will probably draw little national attention is the July 31, 1964 Motown release of “Dancing in the Street” by Martha and the Vandellas. Yet, writer Mark Kurlansky in Ready for a Brand New Beat argues that this Motown record provides an important avenue through which to access the racial change sweeping America in the mid-1960s. A popular historian who has written such best-selling books as Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (1997), Salt: A World History (2002), and 1968: The Year that Rocked the World (2004), Kurlansky writes for a general audience, and academic historians will be familiar with much of the historical context he labor to develop in Ready for a Brand New Beat. Scholars will be disappointed that Kurlansky fails to provide endnotes for the volume, which does include a bibliography and interviews with numerous musicians, most notably with Martha Reeves who was the lead singer on Motown’s “Dancing in the Street” and remains an influential figure in contemporary Detroit. Scholars, however, may discover that Kurlansky’s investigation of this rock anthem provides some useful insights into the complex racial culture of America in the turbulent mid-1960s.

Social and cultural historians will likely find the first part of Kurlansky’s book to be familiar terrain as the author traces the segregation of American popular music into the 1950s when Elvis Presley challenged the tradition of white singers, such as Pat Boone, covering black rhythm and blues recordings for white audiences. Presley sounded black and shattered racial boundaries established by the record industry, demonstrating considerable appeal to a cross-over, integrated audience. Thus, Kurlansky asserts that the emergence of rock and roll not only constituted a threat to the traditional music industry, but to the nation’s policies and practices of racial segregation as well. Kurlansky documents that many of rock’s pioneers paid a price for challenging the status quo. Presley was neutralized after his military service through a Hollywood commercial career that was increasingly mainstream and nonthreatening. Other rock innovators, however, faced more serious persecution. Disc jockey Alan Freed was incarcerated for his involvement in a payola scandal, while the sexual exploits of Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry ran afoul of the law. Kurlansky concludes that by the early 1960s rock music was in need of a fresh fusion of talent and energy. This rejuvenation of the rock scene was provided by the British invasion led by the Beatles and the emergence of Motown Records in Detroit -- a black-owned business with black artists targeting a white audience and modeled after the Booker T. Washington economic foundation approach to racial progress.

The second part of Kurlansky’s book chronicles the migration of the Gordy family from Georgia to black entrepreneurship in Detroit. Eschewing interest in the family printing business, Barry Gordy, Jr. dropped out of high school and eventually established the Detroit recording label known as Motown. Kurlansky documents that as Gordy signed black recording artists, he attempted to portray musicians, vocalists, and songwriters as member of the Motown family. In reality, however, Motown’s recording contracts placed most of the money and artistic control in the hands of Gordy.

Recognizing that whites constituted the larger market share which he hoped to tap, Gordy sought to take advantage of racial integration by having black artists record love songs that would appeal to white audiences. Thus, Gordy avoided songs of protest that might directly reference the civil rights movement. Kurlansky, nevertheless, notes that there was still a revolutionary element to the Motown hits of the early 1960s. He writes that Motown artists were singing about love, dating, and sexuality; and “for black people to be singing about these things to white people, and for white couples to be dancing to black people talking about love, and even sex, was a strong political statement that the time for integration, for tearing down racial barriers, had come” (101).

By 1964, however, this formula was questioned by such Motown artists as Marvin Gaye, Gordy’s brother-in-law, who believed that issues such as Vietnam and the racial climate of the nation could not be ignored by responsible musicians and songwriters. In addition, as concepts of black power began to grow among the black population, the integration model of racial progress was challenged by many African Americans. It is within this rapidly changing racial environment that Mickey Stevenson, Marvin Gaye, and Ivy Jo Hunter wrote “Dancing in the Street.” The song was intended for Stevenson’s wife and Motown star Kim Weston. However, the cover copy of the song Martha Reeves prepared for Weston was so powerful that the song was reassigned to Martha and the Vandellas.

Regardless of the songwriters’ original intentions, Kurlansky asserts that within the historical context of increasing violence in America during the mid-1960s, “Dancing in the Street” was subject to diverse interpretation. The traditional African call and response structure of the song seems to embrace a celebratory or party atmosphere, while for others the tune seems to call for a revolutionary occupation of the streets on the part of the people. It is interesting to note that in the latter more radical reading of the song, the word “street” seems to be almost inevitably pluralized. As for Martha Reeves, she told Kurlansky that for her “Dancing in the Street” was always a party song. While Reeves described herself as apolitical, others such as the more revolutionary H. Rapp Brown embraced the song as a call to radical action in the streets. Brown, who often played “Dancing in the Street” before his speeches, informed Kurlansky that he interpreted the song as an appeal for insurrection and black people to take back the streets. In a 2012 interview with Kurlansky, poet and music critic Amiri Baraka essentially agreed with Brown, asserting that “Dancing in the Street” predicted the rebellions of urban blacks in the mid- and late 1960s.

It is this ambiguity, Kurlansky maintains, that has contributed so much to the lasting popularity of “Dancing in the Street.” However, the author concludes that the celebratory rather than the insurrectionary elements tend to better resonate with audiences today. In his conclusion, Kurlansky quotes singer Michael Bolton as praising “Dancing in the Street” and Motown for “music that created unity and made us all feel so good and made white America more appreciative of black America. Here is a revolution that happens from an evolution of mankind. Music has been the great uniter” (236). This narrative, which removes “Dancing in the Street” from much of its insurrectionary context, is perhaps a little too complacent and fails to call out for the racial progress which the nation still requires to reach the American dream outlined by Martin Luther King, Jr. fifty years ago.


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