Feature

Book of the week: Ready for a Brand New Beat: How ‘Dancing in the Street’ Became the Anthem for a Changing America by Mark Kurlansky

The 1964 Motown hit by Martha and the Vandellas is more than a peppy but inconsequential oldie.

(Riverhead, $28)

“Brilliant works of art are flexible enough to ably serve any agenda,” said Jake Austen in the Chicago Tribune. That’s the main takeaway from journalist Mark Kurlansky’s deconstruction of the 1964 Motown hit “Dancing in the Street.” The best-selling author of 1968: The Year That Rocked the World convincingly argues that this song by Martha and the Vandellas is more than a peppy but inconsequential oldie. Released at a time when generational and racial tensions were peaking, the song mattered to a surprisingly wide range of people—including, Kurlansky claims, Black Power activists who saw it as a call to revolution.

“The author treads a long and winding route” to get to that point, said Rayyan Al-Shawaf in Paste. He spends half of the book putting the song in historical context, a process that “feels unfocused and taxing.” Only when Kurlansky finally picks apart the song itself do things get interesting. Though “the notion that it’s a protest song—and even a call to arms—seems flimsy,” some people evidently saw it as one. A 1965 article in Liberator, a Black Power journal, referred to “Dancing in the Street” as a “riot-song.” Poet Amiri Baraka, whom Kurlansky interviewed, contends that its lyrics are an example of “masking”—a use of coded language that has been a tradition in African-American music since the slave spirituals. In truth, phrases like “calling out around the world” and the song’s references to cities with large black populations “do lend themselves—albeit shyly—to a political interpretation.”

Of course, it depends who you talk to, said Rollo Romig in NewYorker.com. When asked by reporters if “Dancing in the Street” was a call to arms, singer Martha Reeves burst into tears. And Kurlansky learns from the song’s two surviving writers that the title was inspired by the sight of children playing near an open fire hydrant. But the third co-writer, the late Marvin Gaye, once wrote that Martha and the Vandellas were unique among Motown artists because they “captured a spirit that felt political to me.” And it was Gaye who had asked the group to record the single. I began reading this book thinking that “Dancing in the Street” was just “a simple song too often pressed into service for an easy jolt of uplift.” At the very least, Kurlansky forced me to revise my views.

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