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American Quarterly 53.3 (2001) 518-525

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Living for the City

Steve Waksman
Smith College

Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit. By Suzanne E. Smith. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. 319 pages. $24.95 (cloth). $15.95 (paper).

"Well the Motor City is burning/Ain't a thing in the world that I can do. . . . My home town is burning down to the ground/Worster than Vietnam." So sang John Lee Hooker in 1967, only shortly after his home of Detroit had been beset by one of the most damage-inflicting urban racial uprisings of the twentieth century. Hooker was not known as an expressly political singer, but in his own words, he understood the spark that had generated the fire. "We all could go together in Detroit, everybody the same," he remembered. "It was racial, but they kinda tried to smother it, you know what I mean? It finally got so hot, people got so fed up, that the riot broke out." 1 The bluesman's musical account of the "Great Rebellion" of 23 July 1967 was sung from the perspective of one who was inside the events, but observing, not participating. When high-energy Detroit rock band the MC5 later covered "Motor City Is Burning" on their "live" recording debut, Kick out the Jams, they infused it with a spirit closer to rejoicing in the damage that was done. Indeed, local activist and MC5 manager John Sinclair had described the event as "Robin Hood Day in merry olde Detroit, the first annual city-wide all-free fire sale, and the people without got their hands on the goodies." 2

While Detroit burned, the city's main hit-making musical establishment, Motown Studios, remained open and continued to record. [End Page 518] Although located in close proximity to the center of riotous action on Twelfth Street in downtown Detroit, the recording studio emerged from the scene more or less unscathed--but not untouched, as Suzanne Smith asserts in her fine cultural history of Motown, Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit. None of the principals at Motown engaged with the surrounding destruction as overtly as did Hooker or Sinclair, but those affiliated with the company were affected by the uprising and its aftermath in ways both large and small. Martha Reeves and the Vandellas were performing at the nearby Fox Theater, where they were asked to stop the show after singing their appropriately titled hit, "Dancing in the Street." 3 The Funk Brothers, Motown's acclaimed studio band, lost their favorite musical hangout, The Chit Chat Club, to an arson fire that showed the undiscriminating nature of the Great Rebellion's destructive impulses. Both "the outsider 'whitey' establishments and the familiar, community-based 'Soul Brother' businesses and nightclubs" became targets as circumstances spun out of control, which leads Smith to wonder whether the salvation of Motown came because of "race pride or pure luck" (198-99).

In Smith's account, the underlying uncertainty concerning why Motown was spared says as much about the ambivalent relationship between the company and Detroit's racial politics as it does about the confusion engendered by the Great Rebellion itself. Under the direction of founder and company head Berry Gordy, Jr., Motown generally refrained from overt political engagement as civil rights issues heated up within the city and nationally. Gordy was a businessman first and foremost, and taking too vocal a stance on some of the most divisive issues of the day carried too much of a risk of alienating the wide, interracial consumer base that Motown music was made to target. Yet it was precisely the success of Motown as a black-owned business venture that made the company such a powerful political symbol over the course of the 1960s, especially for the African American political, economic, and community leaders who were seeking to address the shifting structures of racial inequality in Detroit. Leaving aside the issues surrounding Motown's status as a "crossover" success--as a company of black producers and performers who were able to find overwhelming...


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