Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ready for a Brand New Beat

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ready for a Brand New Beat

Article excerpt

By Barbara Spindel for The Barnes & Noble Review

In 1967, after a turbulent summer of violent uprisings in Detroit, Newark, and other cities across America, singer Martha Reeves went on tour in Britain. At a stop in London, a reporter confronted the Motown star about the urban riots, demanding to know whether her hit "Dancing in the Street" was a call to arms. Reeves, who always insisted that her signature song was nothing more than "a party song," burst into tears.

Mark Kurlansky, best known for micro-histories including "Salt" and "Cod," now turns his attention to Reeves's iconic song, written by Marvin Gaye, Mickey Stevenson, and Ivy Jo Hunter and recorded by Martha and the Vandellas in 1964. The book, Ready for a Brand New Beat, is crammed with intriguing material, even if its subtitle, "How 'Dancing in the Street' Became the Anthem for a Changing America," promises more than the author ultimately delivers.

One problem is that Kurlansky takes too long to get to "Dancing in the Street," padding the book with overly detailed background on everything from Elvis to Beatlemania to Detroit's influx of black families from the South.

Another is that by the time the author finally does arrive at the song's 1964 release and its continued popularity during the tumultuous years that followed, he has little more to bolster his case than recollections (albeit fascinating) by '60s radicals like Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) chair H. Rap Brown, writer/activist Amiri Baraka, and Weatherman Mark Rudd, all of whom saw the song as having a hidden meaning promoting revolution and recalled its being played during riots and rallies. (Kurlansky's awkward way of spelling out that meaning is to ask a series of labored questions: "And did not 'calling out around the world' mean a call for revolution, and didn't the song include a list of cities, each with important black communities that were likely to have 'disorders'? What did it mean to be calling out to these cities for people to go dancing in the street now that summer's here and the time is right?")

Kurlansky alludes more than once to rumors that radio stations banned the song, fearing its potential to incite rioting, but he acknowledges that "no one has come up with a concrete example of a radio station outlawing it." By the time he reaches his final chapter, an assessment of the song's current cultural standing, he seems almost desperate to seal its historical status when he follows a paragraph about President Obama hailing "Dancing in the Street" as "the sound track of the civil rights era" with an even more thorough description of an obscure "American Idol" contestant performing it on the singing competition because she believed it to be "an anthem for the civil rights movement." Let's not even get into that chapter's strange profusion of quotations from Michael Bolton. …

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