Author and journalist Mark Kurlansky has a knack for writing about unlikely subjects that end up having a major impact on the culture, even the world. This is a man who has achieved renown penning histories about the world-changing properties of such humble subjects as salt and codfish.
For his latest, Ready for a Brand New Beat: How "Dancing in the Street" Became the Anthem for a Changing America, Kurlansky set his sights on the immortal 1964 Martha and the Vandellas single and how it went from being a lively party-starter to the theme song for angry black Americans.
"[The song] has taken on a lot of different meanings," says Kurlansky, on the phone from New York. "It's a great way of getting at the interconnection between the black rights movements and the emergence of R&B and rock 'n' roll music. And it's also a great way of talking about what's important to a song and what makes the song endure."
Kurlansky, 64, spent a couple of years tracing the history of the song (co-penned by a young Marvin Gaye) and talking to the many people who were involved in making it (including lead singer Martha Reeves). But he also broadened his lens to look at R&B music in general. In his book, Kurlansky emphasizes how R&B spawned the wild-and-crazy music of the '50s, music that got teenagers dancing and older folks scared out of their wits.
"This whole trajectory of music, from R&B to rock 'n' roll, which has really shaped American culture and American music, happened the way it did because of other things that were happening," he says. "If there had been no civil rights movement, if there had been no emerging race issues, none of this would've happened in this particular way. I mean, the so-called crossover music, R&B music for white people, was about the whole idea of inspiration."
"Dancing in the Street" was released by Motown, the legendary black-owned label that focused on making crossover R&B music. But, as the '60s wore on and America became a racially tense nation, resulting in uprisings and riots throughout the country, the song took on another purpose. While being used as music for nonviolent rallies, it was also blamed for the Watts riots. Soon, it became an anthem for freedom and change.
"This music, black music that was for white people, that excited people, came out at an incredibly political moment, in the summer of 1964," says Kurlansky. "This song came out just before the first urban, racial explosion—which was in Harlem—the first of many. In 1967, there were over a hundred [urban riots] that summer. The song came out two days before the Vietnam War started. It was just an incredible moment."
"Dancing in the Street" would go on to be covered by a bevy of popular artists, including The Kinks, Little Richard, Michael Bolton and the Grateful Dead. In 1985, David Bowie and Mick Jagger memorably recorded a version that premiered at Live Aid. But as Kurlansky notes in the book, these covers still can't top the original—especially in how it continues to be interpreted by people.
"Barack Obama actually called it an anthem to the civil rights movement, which is not exactly right," Kurlansky says. "The civil rights movement had anthems. But he meant that it was an anthem to the changing times, which Martin Luther King talked about also.
"This song that got people to their feet—you know, 'Calling out around the world/Are you ready for a brand new beat?'
"It was powerful and it was connected with powerful movements and ideas—and that's why it endures."
This article appeared in print with the headline "An invitation across the nation."