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Music

What's goin' on?!

Motown meets Marxism in a searching new study of Detroit roots.

Motown let Marvin Gaye comment explicitly on black reality.
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Published 2/16/2000

Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit
by Suzanne E. Smith
Harvard University Press
$24.95, 320 pp.

Unlike nostalgic histories of Motown such as Berry Gordy’s autobiography, To Be Loved, and Nelson George’s chronological study, Where Did Our Love Go: The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound, Suzanne E. Smith’s new Dancing in the Street neither concentrates exclusively on the stories of Motown’s protagonists nor relegates its interest in Motown to a simple fascination with pop trivia.

Instead, Smith’s book is a political work of anti-nostalgia and de-individualization, an important and necessary disruption of "public memory" regarding Motown that concentrates on the things spectacular consumer merchandise such as The Big Chill and the 1998 Super Bowl halftime show leave out: production and roots.

Dancing in the Street’s analysis takes on the conditions that made Motown possible – many of them established years before Berry Gordy Jr. switched from boxing to songwriting. These conditions, Smith argues, were produced in the streets of Detroit in the years leading to Motown’s ascendance.

A growing black community, locked out of both mainstream politics and mainstream culture, was able to assemble a rich mosaic of strategies to better the lives of black people. It’s within this very specific historical framework, fraught with the hopes, fears and day-to-day realities of black Detroit, that Smith locates the music and politics of Motown.

Smith’s early chapters examine particular movements and moments in black Detroit’s struggle for freedom – such as Detroit’s 1963 "Great March to Freedom" which featured an early version of Martin Luther King Jr.’s "I Have a Dream" speech (recorded and distributed by Motown). She details Motown’s own parallel struggles to establish itself as a black-owned business that produced and distributed the synthesized fruits of black culture.

These sections look at everything from the name and inspiration behind Gordy Sr.’s Booker T. Washington Grocery Store, to the recording career of the Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s father. The grocery allows Smith to make connections between the Gordy family and the key tenets of black nationalism, while the Reverend’s story brings out Detroit’s history of black struggle and sound recordings (Franklin’s sermons were distributed by Chess Records out of Chicago). Thus, Franklin was one of the greatest preachers of his time and one of Detroit’s first major recording stars.

In later chapters, Smith investigates Detroit politics and culture via Motown’s Black Forum subsidiary, a label that produced such un-Hitsville recordings as Poets of the Revolution, Guess Who’s Coming Home?: Black Men Recorded Live in Vietnam and Free Huey! Poets Langston Hughes and Detroit’s Margaret Danner’s efforts to be recorded by Black Forum – despite the parent label’s on-again-off-again interest in the project – are set within the growing violence and frustration in Detroit that peaked in the 1967 rebellion.

Similarly, Smith compares events such as the creation of DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement) by black workers at Dodge Main with the songwriting work slowdowns and stoppages of Hitsville’s most efficient songwriting team, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, creators of "Where Did Our Love Go?" "Reach Out I’ll Be There," "Nowhere to Run," and many other songs. In both situations, Smith argues, black workers fought against working on a production line, whether it was in a factory in Hamtramck or a house on West Grand Boulevard.

These comparisons culminate in Smith’s discussions of why Motown artists Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations and others felt the need to comment more explicitly on their realities as black people, despite the teenage lyrics and themes generally encouraged by the label’s front office. This late-’60s / early-’70s groundswell of message music is one of Motown’s most significant cultural legacies, with Marvin Gaye’s "Inner City Blues," Stevie Wonder’s "Living for the City" and the Temptations’ "Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)" leading Smith’s list.

Dancing in the Street is a wonderful blend of thorough research, firsthand interviews and an impassioned discussion of the music which keeps the book far away from the suffocating reaches of the academy. Smith, a Detroit native, has found in Motown’s apparent order (its arrangements, performers and beats) the perfect juxtaposition to Detroit’s growing disorder (in the riots, police violence and cultural devastation of urban renewal).

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