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No. 7, June 2000
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Motown and the cultural politics of Detroit
Berry Gordy's soul music label and the civil rights movement
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Dancing in the Street - The study by Suzanne E. Smith, HUP.
Get the book from Amazon.com.

For Motown sheet music click here
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Suzanne E. Smith, assistant professor of history at George Mason University, examines the relation between soul music's hit factory and the politics and culture of Motor Town, USA, in Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit.
 
The author refers to the British press which asked Martha Reeves (of Martha and the Vandellas) if she was a militant leader and if Dancing in the Street was a call to riot. The query was absurd because, as she later remarked: "My Lord, it was a party song." It was associated to historical events (e.g. the Watts uprising) taking place at the same moment which the record company could not control. Other such songs were Nowhere to Run and Shotgun. But Suzanne E. Smith argues that Dancing in the Street was "never just a party song". According to her, the Motown songs (and other tunes as well, of course) "clearly illustrate how the sounds of Detroit's streets could articulate the needs of African Americans." The Motown sound was the most celebrated and famous of the 60s. The company transformed the American popular music scene. "Never before had a black owned company been able to create and produce the musical artistry of its own community, and then sell it successfully to audiences across the racial boundaries."
 
"Record companies first began marketing "black" music as "race records" in the 1920s in response to the popularity of blues singers such as Gertrude "Ma" Rainey and Bessie Smith. Billboard magazine monitored these records on its "Harlem Hit Parade", which eventually became the "Rhythm and Blues" chart." Other labels such as Don Robey's Duke-Peacock label in Houston and Vee-Jay Records in Chicago succeeded in the R&R market before Motown, but it was Motown which brought down the segregation of the music industry when its records began to sell outside the traditional black markets.
 
Berry Gordy Jr. founded Motown in Detroit in 1958 with an $800 loan from his family. From the small house on West Grand Boulevard, which the staff quickly dubbed "Hitsville, U.S.A.", Motown's soul music was to conquer America and the world. According to Suzanne E. Smith, it was the civil rights movement which "created the environment in which broader cultural integration - as typified by Motown's wide appeal - could occur." Many have argued that Detroit is not critical to understanding the Motown phenomenon which could have happened anywhere - at least in others cities with a large and vital African American population such as Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh or Cleveland. These people "emphasize individual ambition rather than community life, urban geography, economic structures, or race relations as factors in Motown's rise to the top of popular music."
 
Suzanne E. Smith does not stress Motown's crossover success to white audiences, but its relationship to African American audiences, and specifically to black Detroit. Motown had "a distinct role to play in the city's black community, and that community - as diverse as it was - articulated and promoted its own social, cultural, and political agendas" which reflected the "unique concerns of African Americans living in the urban North". They responded to and reconfigured the national civil rights campaign.
 
The author's analysis is based on "the theoretical concept of cultural formation to understand the role of the black commercial culture in the development of a black urban community." Dancing in the Street starts with Motown's founding in the late 1950s and its dominance on the popular music charts in the mid-1960s and ends in 1973, when Motown left Detroit and its decline already had begun.
 
Besides Motown, African American Detroit of the late 1950s and 1960s produced a series of cultural, economic, political, religious and historical institutions such as the Broadside Press (one of the first black-owned publishing houses), the Concept East Theater (the first black theater company in the urban North), WCHB (the first radio station built, owned and operated by African Americans), the Booker T. Washington Trade Association (one of the largest chapters of the National Negro Business League) and the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement which became the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.
 
The author writes that Berry Gordy Jr. was "extremely wary about affiliating his business with any organization or movement that might negatively influence his company's commercial success. Nevertheless, both Motown's music and its entrepreneurial acumen emerged from an urban black community that regularly asserted its "politics" through cultural and economic means." Like Nat King Cole, Gordy believed that "cause" music did not sell records and avoided it at all costs. But there are also exceptions such as Stevie Wonder's rendition of Bob Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind of 1966, Aretha Franklin's Respect of 1967, I Care about Detroit by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles from 1968 and Motown's hiring of Junius Griffin and and Ewart Abner in order to promote black causes. Motown vigilance is reflected in the fact that the company did not dare to let The Temptations sing the Whitfield song War, but gave it to the relatively unknown Edwin Starr. The song reached number one on the American pop charts in the summer of 1970.

 
Other topics: Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Smokey Robinson and The Supremes, Poets of the Revolution and the anthology New Negro Poets, Henry Ford's assembly lines and hit-production at Motown, the Watts uprising and the Black Muslim movement, Berry Gordy's business practices and the departure of several stars and songwriters from Motown. In her mosaic-like book, Suzanne E. Smith shows these and other black people, movements and efforts and their relation with Motown, America's most successful black business. Unfortunately, there are some unnecessary repetitions in her analysis and the relation between the different subjects does not always become clear. Despite the author's intention, the Motown company and the civil rights movement partly appear as two separate phenomena. Nevertheless, Dancing in the Street contains a lot of useful information
. - Get the book from Amazon.com.

www.cosmopolis.ch
No. 7, June 2000
current edition & archives
Art  Film  Music  History  Politics  Archives
Links  For Advertisers  Feedback  German edition  Travel

Copyright 2000  www.cosmopolis.ch  Louis Gerber  All rights reserved.