Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit

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Overview

1960s Detroit was a city with a pulse: people were marching in step with Martin Luther King, Jr., dancing in the street with Martha and the Vandellas, facing off with city police. And through it all, Motown provided the beat. This book tells the story of Motown - as both musical style and entrepreneurial phenomenon - and of its intrinsic relationship to the politics and culture of Motor Town, USA.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Smith (history, George Mason Univ.) uses Motown to examine the shift in African American protest ideologies from integration to separatism. Motown, she argues, sprang from the strong tradition of black cultural and economic self-determination that was at the foundation of Detroit's most important black institutions, such as poet Margaret Danner's Boone House and WCHB, the first African American-owned radio station. Smith chastises Motown for its hesitating to change with the times, as Detroit-based Black Muslims became more vocal in their demand for African American rights and the 1967 riot broke out. She also suggests that the label's relocation from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972 is final evidence of the bankruptcy of its version of African American capitalism. Writing in a somewhat choppy style and using mostly secondary sources, Smith successfully contextualizes Motown within Detroit culture, but she na vely condemns the logical consequences of the entrepreneurial spirit that drove its founder, Berry Gordy Jr., from his Detroit home to an international audience. Recommended for libraries serving social historians.--David P. Szatmary, Univ. of Washington, Seattle Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Edward Morris
Motown Records is an American success story and an African American triumph. To Smith, however, the fabled enterprise symbolizes a great deal more. The assistant professor of history at George Mason University argues that Motown not only took its name and talent roster from Detroit, but that it was shaped as well by the city's general reputation for racial tolerance and a labor-intensive auto industry that gave rise to a black middle-class. The drama inherent in Smith's account is that Motown was born and came of age just as the Civil Rights movement was gaining strength and momentum. That being the case, Berry Gordy, the company's founder and guiding presence until it was sold, faced more than the usual uphill battle all small businesses confront. He also had to walk the gossamer line between grooming his artists to appeal to a white audience with buying power and demonstrating his solidarity with the struggles of his own people.
Although she relies primarily on secondary sources, Smith performs a valuable service in showing that Gordy, rather than being the rugged individualist often depicted, was the product of a hard-working and supportive family, one that had displayed a relentless self-help ethic for generations. She does not spare Gordy when discussing the way he treated his artists and songwriters, providing them a "family" atmosphere on the one hand while taking financial advantage of them on the other. Even as he made timid forays into politics by issuing occasional albums with civil rights themes, Gordy discouraged his artists from taking political stands in their music. Gordy faced his own political and ethical dilemmas against the background of a Detroit that was rapidly changing. It manifested its own forms of racism with community-destroying "urban renewal" programs and police brutality that led to widespread riots. Its auto industry moved to the suburbs and displaced workers (mostly African Americans) with automation. As Motown grew, Smith says, it gradually lost the local character that incubated and first energized it.
To be sure, Smith is mainly concerned with the larger issues, but she does a good job of giving behind-the-scenes glimpses of the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and other Motown myths. While capitalism worked very well for Motown and its principals, Smith concludes, it was a far less effective system in exposing and eradicating the roots of racism.
Foreword
Boston Book Review

The publication of Dancing in the Streets, is an interesting one for an academic press; there's no shortage of general-audience books on the famed soul label, and other books have plumbed the immediate political ramifications of Berry Gordy's family-loan-turned-empire. But Smith aims not to glorify Motown as a can-do parable of black business, but to define it wholly—as a flawed microcosm of Detroit as much as one of black America. At once symptom and synecdoche, Motown is in her eyes the inevitable sum of its influences that somehow reenacted Detroit's external struggles on its own Grand Street stage.
— Peter Rubin

Boston Globe

In her scholarly, informative, Dancing in the Street, Suzanne E. Smith reconsiders Motown, not just as the background music of the city's struggles but as a component of black Detroit's march for civil rights and social justice.
— Renée Graham

Detroit Metro Times
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).
Detroit Free Press

Though we would all count Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandellas and Marvin Gaye among Motown's greatest recording artists, Suzanne E. Smith would add another: Martin Luther King Jr...[Smith] is correct when she says it has become all but impossible to separate what happened in Detroit in the 1960s from the music that was playing when it did: as Norman Whitfield, the producer who replaced Holland-Dozier-Holland as the label's primary hitmaker, put it in a song he wrote for the Temptations, it was a 'Ball of Confusion.' Thirty years later, we're still unraveling it, and Dancing in the Street affords valuable insights to those of us who were there and those of us who weren't...It is fascinating reading for anyone who believes the sound of young America was not incompatible with the sound of struggle.
— Terry Lawson

Times Literary Supplement

[Dancing in the Street discovers] a new approach to what had seemed an exhausted subject. [Suzanne Smith's] self-imposed task is to draw back from the larger picture of Motown's conquest of the international market, setting the company in its immediate context in Detroit, the community from which it emerged and after which it was named, and examining its relationship with the civil-rights struggle...[This book] adds a new dimension to our understanding of the forces that created music which has already outlasted the long hot summers for which it was designed.
— Richard Williams

The Independent

In telling the story of the [Motown] label in its habitat, and telling it as an everyday tale of race in America, Suzanne Smith performs an act of historical rescue.
— Andrew Blake

Billboard

Now, thanks to the publication of the fascinating Dancing in the Street music fans as well as lovers of social history can grasp for the first time the unique nature of Detroit's daily social scheme and its impact on the lives of those who embodied the Motown Sound during the parallel cresting of the civil rights movement...Smith takes readers into the heretofore unexamined sphere of Detroit's sidewalk-level social ferment from Motown's founding in 1958 on through the city's devastating riots in 1967 and the related early-'70s flight from its precincts of the two enterprises central to its modern identity...If you've never heard about the Concept East Theater; or of WCHB, the first radio station built, owned, and operated by African-Americans; or never knew about organizations like the League of Revolutionary Black Workers; or the Freedom Now Part (the first all-black political party in the nation), Smith's text will explain their rich legacies.
— Timothy White

Foreword Magazine

Smith performs a valuable service in showing that Gordy, rather than being the rugged individualist often depicted, was the product of a hard-working and supportive family, one that had displayed a relentless self-help ethic for generations...To be sure, Smith is mainly concerned with the larger issues, but she does a good job of giving behind-the-scenes glimpses of the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and other Motown myths. While capitalism worked very well for Motown and its principles, Smith concludes, it was a far less effective system in exposing and eradicating the roots of racism.
— Edward Morris

Booklist
That Detroit birthed a black music style, Motown, that conquered the white market at a time of unprecedented racial and social upheaval has attracted much comment. Investigation, Smith observes, has concentrated on how a black company, Motown Records, succeeded with white audiences and on the civil rights movement's effect on that success by fostering 'broader cultural integration.' Smite probes deeper...Tough stuff for a pop music book, but Smith answers rationally and evocatively in a serious book about the music biz that is excellent for pop music collections and downright obligatory for serious pop culture collections.
Financial Times
Smith argues that [Motown's] immensely successful black-owned, Detroit-based corporation had an ambivalent attitude towards the changes brought about by Civil Rights campaigners in the 1960s: its music was designed for a multiracial audience, yet engaged with African-American politics.
Awaaz

Smith places Motown in its immediate context in the Detroit black community from which it emerged. She presents a focussed account of the city in the grip of social and political change. It is the approach which will endear the book to readers of both music journalism and historical narrative...Smith has used the rich tapestry of the Motown sound to present a truly exceptional book. It is well-argued and thought-provoking.
— J. Ahmed

New York Daily News

Dancing in the Street, by Suzanne E. Smith, explores 1960s Motown music and culture against the backdrop of Detroit itself. She contrasts the racism that greeted migrating black auto workers with the shrewd way Motown created upbeat music that seemed to erase color lines. As Smith sees it, music and culture had to meet.
— David Hinckley

Q Magazine

While music in white society was seen as a diversion from the real world, Smith argues that in the black community it constituted daily life. Weighty, thorough stuff.
— Lois Wilson

Race Relations Archive
By pulling back "the veil of nostalgia that enshrouds" the Motown sound, Professor Smith provides a clearer and more realistic view of the accomplishments and limitations of Motown, the sound and the company. The study concludes that Motown's historical legacy encompasses outstanding contributions to the history of popular music, to the history of Black capitalism and to the history of the civil rights movement and race relations...This thoughtful and well-documented study will help readers to understand how "cultural politics" operates at grass-roots level. It will also provide them with an informative account of the Motown sound of the 1960s.
Historical Review

Smith details the connection between the rise and success of Motown Records and the more specific histories of Detroit's civil rights struggles…Dancing in the Street does and excellent job of detailing the fine line between the production of goods and the ideology behind that production. Suzanne Smith gives the reader an interesting history of Detroit in the1960s and of Motown and its cultural and musical impact, but she also provides a road map for other studies that seek to use culture as a means to understand larger historical situations.
— Kenneth J. Bindas

Labor History

Suzanne Smith's wonderful new book, Dancing in the Streets: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit, seeks to resituate the Motown sound within the history of the Motor City and, more broadly, to reconnect it to the larger historical moment of African American activism that was the 1960s. As Smith reminds us, a Motown hit like 'Dancing in the Street' was 'never just a party song'. From the outset Smith's engaging narrative immerses readers in the fascinating tale of how Motown rose from its humble beginnings in Detroit to become a corporate conglomerate far from its Motor City roots…she must be given tremendous credit for identifying just how powerful and malleable this record company was as a symbol of the tumultuous 1960s.
— Heather Ann Thompson

Boston Book Review - Peter Rubin
The publication of Dancing in the Streets, is an interesting one for an academic press; there's no shortage of general-audience books on the famed soul label, and other books have plumbed the immediate political ramifications of Berry Gordy's family-loan-turned-empire. But Smith aims not to glorify Motown as a can-do parable of black business, but to define it wholly--as a flawed microcosm of Detroit as much as one of black America. At once symptom and synecdoche, Motown is in her eyes the inevitable sum of its influences that somehow reenacted Detroit's external struggles on its own Grand Street stage.
Boston Globe - Renée Graham
In her scholarly, informative, Dancing in the Street, Suzanne E. Smith reconsiders Motown, not just as the background music of the city's struggles but as a component of black Detroit's march for civil rights and social justice.
Detroit Free Press - Terry Lawson
Though we would all count Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandellas and Marvin Gaye among Motown's greatest recording artists, Suzanne E. Smith would add another: Martin Luther King Jr...[Smith] is correct when she says it has become all but impossible to separate what happened in Detroit in the 1960s from the music that was playing when it did: as Norman Whitfield, the producer who replaced Holland-Dozier-Holland as the label's primary hitmaker, put it in a song he wrote for the Temptations, it was a 'Ball of Confusion.' Thirty years later, we're still unraveling it, and Dancing in the Street affords valuable insights to those of us who were there and those of us who weren't...It is fascinating reading for anyone who believes the sound of young America was not incompatible with the sound of struggle.
Times Literary Supplement - Richard Williams
[Dancing in the Street discovers] a new approach to what had seemed an exhausted subject. [Suzanne Smith's] self-imposed task is to draw back from the larger picture of Motown's conquest of the international market, setting the company in its immediate context in Detroit, the community from which it emerged and after which it was named, and examining its relationship with the civil-rights struggle...[This book] adds a new dimension to our understanding of the forces that created music which has already outlasted the long hot summers for which it was designed.
The Independent - Andrew Blake
In telling the story of the [Motown] label in its habitat, and telling it as an everyday tale of race in America, Suzanne Smith performs an act of historical rescue.
Billboard - Timothy White
Now, thanks to the publication of the fascinating Dancing in the Street music fans as well as lovers of social history can grasp for the first time the unique nature of Detroit's daily social scheme and its impact on the lives of those who embodied the Motown Sound during the parallel cresting of the civil rights movement...Smith takes readers into the heretofore unexamined sphere of Detroit's sidewalk-level social ferment from Motown's founding in 1958 on through the city's devastating riots in 1967 and the related early-'70s flight from its precincts of the two enterprises central to its modern identity...If you've never heard about the Concept East Theater; or of WCHB, the first radio station built, owned, and operated by African-Americans; or never knew about organizations like the League of Revolutionary Black Workers; or the Freedom Now Part (the first all-black political party in the nation), Smith's text will explain their rich legacies.
Foreword Magazine - Edward Morris
Smith performs a valuable service in showing that Gordy, rather than being the rugged individualist often depicted, was the product of a hard-working and supportive family, one that had displayed a relentless self-help ethic for generations...To be sure, Smith is mainly concerned with the larger issues, but she does a good job of giving behind-the-scenes glimpses of the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and other Motown myths. While capitalism worked very well for Motown and its principles, Smith concludes, it was a far less effective system in exposing and eradicating the roots of racism.
Awaaz - J. Ahmed
Smith places Motown in its immediate context in the Detroit black community from which it emerged. She presents a focussed account of the city in the grip of social and political change. It is the approach which will endear the book to readers of both music journalism and historical narrative...Smith has used the rich tapestry of the Motown sound to present a truly exceptional book. It is well-argued and thought-provoking.
New York Daily News - David Hinckley
Dancing in the Street, by Suzanne E. Smith, explores 1960s Motown music and culture against the backdrop of Detroit itself. She contrasts the racism that greeted migrating black auto workers with the shrewd way Motown created upbeat music that seemed to erase color lines. As Smith sees it, music and culture had to meet.
Q Magazine - Lois Wilson
While music in white society was seen as a diversion from the real world, Smith argues that in the black community it constituted daily life. Weighty, thorough stuff.
Historical Review - Kenneth J. Bindas
Smith details the connection between the rise and success of Motown Records and the more specific histories of Detroit's civil rights struggles…Dancing in the Street does and excellent job of detailing the fine line between the production of goods and the ideology behind that production. Suzanne Smith gives the reader an interesting history of Detroit in the1960s and of Motown and its cultural and musical impact, but she also provides a road map for other studies that seek to use culture as a means to understand larger historical situations.
Labor History - Heather Ann Thompson
Suzanne Smith's wonderful new book, Dancing in the Streets: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit, seeks to resituate the Motown sound within the history of the Motor City and, more broadly, to reconnect it to the larger historical moment of African American activism that was the 1960s. As Smith reminds us, a Motown hit like 'Dancing in the Street' was 'never just a party song'. From the outset Smith's engaging narrative immerses readers in the fascinating tale of how Motown rose from its humble beginnings in Detroit to become a corporate conglomerate far from its Motor City roots…she must be given tremendous credit for identifying just how powerful and malleable this record company was as a symbol of the tumultuous 1960s.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674000636
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/2000
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.04 (d)

Meet the Author

Suzanne E. Smith is Associate Professor of History, George Mason University.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: "Can't Forget the Motor City" 1
1 "In Whose Heart There Is No Song, To Him the Miles Are Many and Long": Motown and Detroit's Great March to Freedom 21
2 "Money That's What I Want": Black Capitalism and Black Freedom in Detroit 54
3 "Come See about Me": Black Cultural Production in Detroit 94
4 "Afro-American Music, without Apology": The Motown Sound and the Politics of Black Culture 139
5 "The Happening": Detroit, 1967 181
6 "What's Going On?" Motown and New Detroit 209
Conclusion: "Come Get These Memories" 247
Notes 263
Acknowledgments 307
Index 313
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