Nearly 60 years after Martha and the Vandellas belted out “Dancing in the Street” in a Detroit studio, the song remains one the greatest dancing songs.
But, according to author Mark Kurlansky, the Motown hit became much more than the party song that perhaps it was intended to be.
In his new book, “Ready For A Brand New Beat: How ‘Dancing in the Street’ Became the Anthem for a Changing America,” Kurlansky said the song became a musical symbol of the profound change that was coming.
And its lyrics came to mean different things to different listeners.
“Calling out around the world
Are you ready for a brand new beat?
Summer’s here and the time is right
for dancing in the street”
Marvin Gaye, William “Mickey” Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter, the songwriters, then “list all these cities that had large, and at the time, volatile black communities,” said Kulansky. “Was this really just about dancing? I find that hard to believe. Of course, I couldn’t talk to Marvin Gaye, but it’s ironic that he was always arguing with Berry Gordy because he wanted to sing about what was going on. Ivy Jo Hunter denies it. Mickey Stevenson says, ‘Yeah, it was about integration and black and white kids getting in the streets together.”
It could mean anything.
“Amiri Baraka and lots of other people say, ‘I don’t care. This is what this song is about to me.’”
Kurlansky will be in at Decatur Library, 215 Sycamore St., on Wednesday at 7:15 p.m. to discuss the song and its influence.
Kurlansky recently talked about a wide range of topics including race relations and songs and their influence:
On race relations:
…This country still has a profound bigotry against black people. There was this debate in the mid-’60s about this whole idea of integration, and there were a lot of black people saying that integration does not get you equal rights. … Integration doesn’t mean black and white people are treated equally.
On why he wrote a book about one song:
Well, first of all, I very much remember the song. It came out when I was in high school. Originally, I heard it as great dance music, and I was always happy at school dances. Any fool can dance well to ‘Dancing in the Street.” It’s almost impossible to dance badly to it. Then, the Vietnam War came along and the Black Power Movement. I was a college student in the 1960s, and I was interested in getting in the streets. Then I heard the song completely differently.
On why the song means different things to different people:
When you look at the history of African-American music, and it goes back to Africa, really, there’s the idea of masking. You have a song with an upbeat message for the white people and whomever was in control, then there is another meaning. In “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” white people saw it as these jolly Negroes going drinking, but the drinking gourd was actually the Big Dipper and if you followed the drinking gourd, you got to the North.
On why Atlanta wasn’t included in the song:
That’s one of the many things I would love to ask Marvin Gaye. But remember, Marvin Gaye didn’t mention Detroit. Ivy Jo Hunter said, “What about the Motor City?” and it went into the song. I don’t know why he didn’t do Atlanta. People of the black power wing of the movement were very anti-Martin Luther King Jr., and that may be why he didn’t do Atlanta, but I am only guessing. The only Southern city they included was New Orleans.
On what song he would select for the Occupy movement:
You could do the old Bob Dylan song, “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.” (Note: This is actually the first line of the song. The song title is “Maggie’s Farm).
Mark Kurlansky will discuss and sign copies of his new book, “Ready for a Brand New Beat: How ‘Dancing in the Street’ Became the Anthem for a Changing America.”
Georgia Center for the Book event
Decatur Library, 215 Sycamore St.