Friday, January 16, 2009

Motown at 50

Now for something totally unrelated to my most recent posts. This week marks the 50th anniversary of Motown Records in Detroit, Michigan. "So what?", you say. I say its an important thing to remember.

I found the following article by our neighbors to the north to be very insightful:

On Jan. 12, 1959, helped out by an $800 US loan from his family, a moderately successful songwriter named Berry Gordy Jr. founded Tamla Records in Detroit. The next year, the enterprise became better known as Motown, short for "Motor Town." Perhaps inspired by his city's auto industry, Gordy created a hit factory, a musical assembly line that churned out a quality product combining rhythm and blues, pop and soul.

Motown advertised itself as "The Sound of Young America." That was no overstatement. The label dominated the pop charts in the '60s, releasing countless three-minute epics about love: anticipating it, losing it or trying to regain it. Both black and white kids were listening, dancing along to the sleek soundtrack. One could argue that Motown advanced the idea of racial integration as much as any politician.

Did you catch that last sentence? I think that there's more truth to that than most people realize.

As a kid approaching my tenth birthday my family moved from our gritty, blue-collar community in Minnesota to Charlotte, North Carolina. It was a time of great social upheaval -- the Vietnam War was in full swing, college students were burning draft cards, MLK was dead, black power was on the rise, and rebellion was in the air. School desegregation (by force) was being implemented in Charlotte as it was across much of the South. So as a fourth grader I was suddenly thrust into a new setting where half of my classmates were black as were a good number of teachers and other employees at our school. I walked to this school but the black kids ages K - 4th grade were bused to this school. In grades 5 & 6 things were reversed with white kids riding a bus. So in fifth grade I rode a bus across town to an inner-city school (this would've occurred in sixth grade but my dad changed jobs and we moved out of state). Many white families rebelled against this and relocated to more distant communities.

My parents took another tack: they took me and my brothers aside and told us that there was nothing different between us and blacks. Their advice was quite simple and it was the same advice of Martin Luther King. When it comes to race treat everyone equally -- in fact remain colorblind. So even though half of my class was black I got along with them just like I did with the whites. I can still remember a black kid named Tyrone (I had never heard anyone in Minnesota with that name) who could outrun me by half a step. He was the fastest kid in our class and I was second. I still smile when I think of him needing to change shoes and put his "tenny pumps" on so that we could take laps around the field.

I also remember one of the black ladies who washed dishes in the cafeteria who was about the same age as my grandmother. One day as I returned my dishes and tray to be washed she made a comment that stunned me. As I put my silverware into the chute where it would slide into the sink below, she said, "You are one of the most polite children around here." At first I didn't know what she meant and I mumbled a "Thank-you." However, upon further reflection I realized that some of the white kids made a game of trying to stab those workers by looking down the chute and firing their forks down whenever they saw a hand or an arm.

Back to Motown and its music. At this age I had my own transistor radio and listened to Motown music as much as anything else. It reinforced what my parents told me as much as it helped me see the commonality between the races. As I grew older Motown music grew on me. Sure I liked rock music and could rattle off a bunch of bands that I enjoyed. But I always enjoyed Motown music and spent a lot of time listening to it on the radio. Part of its attraction were the incredible vocals. Another attraction was the instrumentation and beat. Many songs were about love -- love that was lost, love that was unrequited, love that was undying. But Motown artists had other themes too including politics and protest.

What's my favorite Motown song? That's hard to say. It depends on my mood. Here are some of my favorites (in no particular order):

"Superstition" - Stevie Wonder
"Ain't Too Proud to Beg" - The Temptations
"I Heard It Through the Grapevine" - Gladys Knight and the Pips
"Let's Stay Together" - Al Green
"Hot Fun In the Summertime" - Sly & the Family Stone
"Dance To The Music" - Sly & the Family Stone
"Ain't No Mountain High Enough" - Marvin Gaye
"Signed, Sealed, Delivered" - Stevie Wonder
"Thank-You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" - Sly & the Family Stone

Songs of protest or with a political theme are also top contenders.

"Papa Was A Rolling Stone" - The Temptations
"Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)" - Marvin Gaye
"Living For The City" - Stevie Wonder
"Superfly" - Curtis Mayfield

Sometimes Motown songs drew on biblical themes. Curtis Mayfield's "(Don't Worry) If There's A Hell Below We're All Going To Go" is a powerful interpretation of the truths found in Romans 1:18-3:20 (with a call to repentance included).

I could go on and make other comments but let me cut it short. My all-time favorite Motown song is "Everyday People" by Sly & the Family Stone. Much of my enjoyment of this song comes from having lived it out. The lesson my parents taught me as a 4th grader has served me well. Yet it grieves me that the song is still so relevant for today.

For a nice article summarizing Motown's 50th anniversary click on this link: Motown at 50

Feel free to comment on your own favorite Motown hit.


Jeannette said...

I loved the Motown music while growing up, and I and still do. "I Heard Through the Grapevine" is probably my favorite. I even had that song for my ring tone on my first cell phone. Good memories!

Jeannette said...

Aferthought: Part of the attraction for me was the smooth choreography. :)