Cover: Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit, from Harvard University PressCover: Dancing in the Street in PAPERBACK

Dancing in the Street

Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit

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$30.00 • £26.95 • €27.95

ISBN 9780674005464

Publication Date: 05/02/2001


336 pages

6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

18 halftones, 1 map


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[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 Times Literary Supplement

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, Billboard

The publication of Dancing in the Street 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 Book Review

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, The Boston Globe

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, The Detroit Free Press

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).The Detroit Metro 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.Financial Times

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, The Independent

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, Awaaz

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, Foreword Magazine

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 an 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 the 1960s 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, Historical Review

Suzanne Smith’s wonderful new book, Dancing in the Street: 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, Labor History

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, The New York Daily News

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, Q Magazine

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.Race Relations Archive

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.’ Smith 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.Booklist

A finely rendered history of the storybook success of the ‘Motown Sound,’ arguably the most resonant cultural development of its time, within the localized context of urban turmoil and the civil-rights struggle… Relying on primary sources and on the recollections of Motown’s acts, employees, and session players, Smith touchingly captures the industrious determination of a cultural community whose ambitions were underwritten by social cohesion and a generations-strong work ethic… She captures the spirit of this exciting time by focusing on individuals (Nat King Cole, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Motown discoveries like the Supremes and Marvin Gaye) whose actions were central to their era’s cultural and civil-rights triumphs. More sobering is her re-creation of events leading to Detroit’s 1967 riots, when intransigents on both sides of the color line overrode more moderate, conciliatory factions, leading the city toward a conflagration that permanently sundered the region’s black and white communities. This reconstruction of Motown’s meteoric popular rise during an era of fractious social division is compelling and informative for both aficionados of the music and students of American urban history.Kirkus Reviews

Suzanne E. Smith investigates the connections between music and a positive force: civil rights. Smith’s compelling work depicts the exponential growth of the Motown recording company and reveals its role in shaping the civil rights movement in the urban North.Publishers Weekly

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