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 Gordys autobiography, To Be Loved, and Nelson Georges chronological study, Where Did Our Love Go: The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound, Suzanne E. Smiths new Dancing in the Street neither concentrates exclusively on the stories of Motowns protagonists nor relegates its interest in Motown to a simple fascination with pop trivia.
Instead, Smiths 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 Streets 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 Motowns 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. Its 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.
Smiths early chapters examine particular movements and moments in black Detroits struggle for freedom such as Detroits 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 Motowns 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, Arethas father. The grocery allows Smith to make connections between the Gordy family and the key tenets of black nationalism, while the Reverends story brings out Detroits history of black struggle and sound recordings (Franklins sermons were distributed by Chess Records out of Chicago). Thus, Franklin was one of the greatest preachers of his time and one of Detroits first major recording stars.
In later chapters, Smith investigates Detroit politics and culture via Motowns Black Forum subsidiary, a label that produced such un-Hitsville recordings as Poets of the Revolution, Guess Whos Coming Home?: Black Men Recorded Live in Vietnam and Free Huey! Poets Langston Hughes and Detroits Margaret Danners efforts to be recorded by Black Forum despite the parent labels 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 Hitsvilles most efficient songwriting team, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, creators of "Where Did Our Love Go?" "Reach Out Ill 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 Smiths 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 labels front office. This late-60s / early-70s groundswell of message music is one of Motowns most significant cultural legacies, with Marvin Gayes "Inner City Blues," Stevie Wonders "Living for the City" and the Temptations "Ball of Confusion (Thats What the World Is Today)" leading Smiths 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 Motowns apparent order (its arrangements, performers and beats) the perfect juxtaposition to Detroits growing disorder (in the riots, police violence and cultural devastation of urban renewal).