Can an R&B song change the world? That's the question at the heart of Mark Kurlansky's new book, "Ready For A Brand New Beat." Cord Jefferson has this review.


MARTHA AND THE VANDELLAS: (Singing) Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand-new beat?

CORD JEFFERSON: The song is "Dancing in the Street," by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, released in the summer of 1964. It's an explosive time in American history. JFK was dead; pressure was mounting in Vietnam; racial tension in the Deep South, and race riots in cities all over the country. But in Detroit, at the Motown record label, the staff stayed out of politics. It was a decision by the head of the company, Berry Gordy. The songs produced by the all-black stable of artists were mostly bouncy, flouncy love songs.

This is the world of Mark Kurlansky's new book, "Ready For A Brand New Beat." Unfortunately, most of the first half feels like filler. He writes pages of detail on the history of jazz, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, Detroit, the auto industry, even the Warren report. But the second half of the book is about the song, and that's where it really starts to pick up.

According to Martha Reeves, it was just supposed to be a party song, a nice ditty about celebrating where you want. But listeners heard a protest song. It was about airing grievances in the middle of the biggest, most unequal cities.


MARTHA AND THE VANDELLAS: (Singing) Philadelphia P.A., dancing in the street. Baltimore and D.C. now, dancing in the street. Can't forget the Motor City...

JEFFERSON: Civil rights activists played it before their rallies. The Liberator magazine wrote, "We are coming up, and it's reflected in the riot song." Soon, reporters were asking Martha Reeves if it was meant to be a call to arms. The question would bring her to tears; she hated being associated with any kind of violence.

In the end, the book doesn't really give an answer about what the song was supposed to do. But it does have some interesting historical tidbits, and a good look at the difficulties of cultural interpretation.

I'm also glad that it mentions the fact that Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown, abandoned a lot of the original artists when his company moved to L.A. Even Martha Reeves got left behind, her contract cut without a word. "Dancing in the Street" may have bolstered a great many protests but at Motown, in the 1960s, it was more of the same.


MARTHA AND THE VANDELLAS: (Singing) This is an invitation across the nation, a chance for folks to meet. There'll be laughing, singing and...

CORNISH: The book is called "Ready For a Brand New Beat: How 'Dancing in the Street' Became the Anthem for a Changing America."


MARTHA AND THE VANDELLAS: (Singing) ...dancing in the street. Baltimore and D.C. now. Dancing in the street...

CORNISH: Our reviewer is Cord Jefferson, West Coast editor of the website Gawker.


MARTHA AND THE VANDELLAS: (Singing), sweet music. There'll be music everywhere. There'll be swinging, swaying and records playing, dancing in the street. Oh, it doesn't matter what you wear, just as long as you are there. So come on every guy, grab a girl...

CORNISH: This is NPR News.

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