Ready For a Brand New Beat: How “Dancing in the Street” Became the Anthem for a Changing America

by Mark Kurlansky

(Penguin/Riverhead, $27.95, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

With many books to his credit, it’s likely that you know who Mark Kurlansky is. But you may not know that he was born in Hartford in 1948 and went on to work for the Miami Herald, The Philadelphia Inquirer and the International Herald Tribune in Paris before concentrating on writing books, many of which were best-sellers. He’s well-known for books such as “Cod” and “Salt,” which explore one culinary subject about as deeply as can be done, and his other books include “1968: The Year That Rocked the World,” “The Big Oyster,” “The Last Fish Tale, The Food of a Younger Land,” “The Eastern Stars” and “Edible Stories.”  Kurlansky lives in New York City.

What is this book about?

In this book, Mark Kurlansky tries, and pretty much succeeds, in proving that one song could have the power to change the country, or at least, change the way people think about what America is really all about. In deep detail, he gives us the history of the “Dancing in the Street,” written in 1964 by Marvin Gaye, William “Mickey” Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter and recorded for Motown, in two takes, by Martha and the Vandellas. Released in mid-summer, it was meant to be an infectious dance tune, but, due to the burgeoning cultural and political changes of the ‘60s, it became that and much more. With such iconic events as the arrival of the Beatles, the Mississippi Freedom Summer, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the growing Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Act, the country was changing in 1964, and Kurlansky makes the case that the song became an anthem of the need for different ways of defining what America was and could be.

Why you’ll like it:

Summer’s here, and the time is right for reading about “Dancing in the Street,” and I defy you to read about this book without humming along to that tune. But this is a serious book about what was intended to be a light-hearted song, and while reviewers aren’t all singing the same tune about whether Kurlansky draws the correct conclusions, they agree that his research is impressive. Reading this book now, during another summer of discontent and arguments over whether more radical change is needed and if so, just what kind and led by whom, will give you some valuable historical perspective. At the very least, it just may make you want to get up and dance.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “In 1964, Motown, a little record label from Detroit, grew into a voice for a generation, releasing, according to Kurlansky, “60 singles, of which 70% hit the Top 100 chart and 19 were #1 hits.” Kurlansky deftly chronicles the story of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street, ”a Motown song that made the transition from the early to late 1960s—from hope and idealism to urban riots and the escalation of war in Vietnam. In meticulous detail, he tells the story of the song itself Released in August 1964, “Dancing in the Street” climbed up the Billboard charts to reach the #2 spot by October. The song’s lyrics had different meanings for different audiences—many white listeners heard it as a party song, while many black listeners embraced it as a song of liberation and revolution. Enduringly popular, “Dancing in the Street” has been covered at least 35 times, by musicians from the Grateful Dead and Van Halen to Ramsey Lewis and Laura Nyro, and its opening riffs inspired the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

Says Library Journal: “….”Dancing in the Street” had an infectiousness that really did make you want to dance. (I can sing every word.) But upon its release in 1964, with Mississippi Freedom Summer, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, and the Civil Rights Act in the forefront and escalation of the Vietnam War in the offing, it took on deeper meaning and became a true American icon. So argues Kurlansky, who can give real dimension to things like cod and salt and also wrote “1968: The Year That Rocked the World.”

“Fascinating but flawed, the latest from Kurlansky suggests that not only was the Martha and the Vandellas’ hit the anthem for a time of profound change, but a call to arms for rioting militants in its “invitation across the nation.” The author is on solid ground when he keeps a tight focus on Motown, Berry Gordy and the hit machine the mogul established in Detroit along the lines of the city’s automobile industry: “A bare frame of a street singer could go through the Motown plant and come out a Cadillac of a performer.” He shows how Gordy got rich, his artists got famous, and his studio musicians and some of his songwriters got shafted. He explains how Motown’s changes reflected a changing America, as dreams of integration shattered with the King assassination, the rise of Black Power and the rioting in the streets. “It was also suggested that the popularity of the song ‘Dancing in the Street’ had encouraged people to take to the streets,” writes Kurlansky in an oddly passive construction that proceeds to cite a “rumor” that the hit was banned from the airwaves. Plainly, change was in the air, and to overload this one hit with too much revolutionary significance in a 1964 that also gave the world “The Times They Are A-Changin” and “A Change Is Gonna Come” blurs cause and effect. …An ambitious thematic arc, but the devil’s in the details,” says Kirkus Reviews.

 “Fascinating stuff . . . [Kurlansky] has a keen eye for odd facts and natural detail…. there is a tiny but significant detail that does make a political reading of “Dancing in the Street” more plausible. The word “street” is singular in the title and in Ms. Reeves’s lines, but when the Vandellas respond, they say “dancing in the streets,” which is different: “Street” describes a block party, whereas “streets” suggests a whole city erupting. So the song can be taken either way, even though clearly the emphasis is on joy and, well, dancing. This is the kind of thing that drives academic theoreticians wild with joy, and Mr. Kurlansky is right to call attention to it,” says The Wall Street Journal.

“Brilliant… Journalistic skills might be part of a writer’s survival kit, but they infrequently prove to be the foundation for literary success, as they have here. …. Kurlansky has a wonderful ear for the syntax and rhythm of the vernacular… For all the seriousness of Kurlansky’s cultural entanglements, it is nevertheless a delight to experience his sophisticated sense of play and, at times, his outright wicked sense of humor,” says The New York Times Book Review.

When is it available?

Dance over to the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Blue Hills branch to borrow this book.

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