More “delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse”, à la McClary and Small—in this related post I both make a disclaimer and explore the point of venturing beyond familiar territories.
On soul, apart from classics like
- Nelson George, Where did our love go? (1985),
I’ve been admiring
- Stuart Cosgrove, Detroit 67: the year that changed soul (2015)—
not just to educate myself about the music, but to admire compelling writing about history, and the nexus of society and culture.
For background (if you’re on another planet, like me—I guess if you know much about soul, you’ll have better things to do than reading this blog…) it’s worth revisiting the fine BBC documentary R.E.S.P.E.C.T (from the Dancing in the street series), here in four parts—they should segue automatically:
The film also covers the southern scene, no less important—and more edgy. I now look forward to reading Cosgrove’s Memphis 68: the tragedy of southern soul.
* * *
In 1967—just as the Cultural Revolution in China was becoming even more violent, and ritual specialists were keeping their heads down; shortly before the crushing of the Prague Spring; while I was primly learning Brahms and Ravel in a youth orchestra in suburban London, with little idea that there might be any other kinds of musicking in the world—Detroit and Motown were entering a pivotal phase of turmoil.
Cosgrove’s focus on one year is a most effective device. At a time-remove from the “one-year” rule of anthropological fieldwork, he takes 1967 as a microcosm of festering race relations, social upheaval, and musicking.
Incredulous as we are at the current travails of the USA, it’s also a reminder that they have a long history.
This was the year of Sgt Pepper (for all popular [Anglo–American, that is!] genres that year, see here). Indeed, the soul movement had had to react to the market challenge from British groups like the Beatles, and to maintain crossover appeal; but Sgt Pepper itself was a retreat from the innocent lyrical messages they had been crooning on their frantic touring life.
A fine piece of thick-description ethnography from a distance of time and space, the book is based on the troubled relations of Berry Gordy and his protégées the Supremes, with a focus on the ill-fated Florence Ballard. But Cosgrove adroitly weaves in portraits of individual figures with their back-stories; the automobile industry, social change, race, housing, poverty, crime, and the police; civil rights, Vietnam, hippy counterculture, bikers, and LSD.
There was the hippie Steering Committee, the young rock gods of the Grande Ballroom, the disgruntled officers of the Detroit police, and a legion of car-assembly workers drawn from the tense communities of Polish and African-Americans. There were disenchanted young men who moved from unemployment to Vietnam, the radical soldiers of Black Power, the independent producers who saw soul music as their Klondike, and the caravan of older gospel Christians who had seen their homes destroyed to make way for freeways.
Youth culture was fragmenting into a mosaic of different tribes.
Half a million people had migrated to Detroit between 1940 and 1943, mostly African-Americans from the southern states. Already by 1959 its image as a boomtown was wearing thin, but migrants kept arriving.
As anti-Vietnam protests grew, in 1965 came a wave of self-immolations. By 1967
the area around Twelfth Street had witnessed complete transformation in twenty years as white residents fled to new buildings, better neighbourhoods or the encroaching suburbs. In a contemporary survey by the University of Michigan’s Psychology Department, the area was described as a community of high stress where an overwhelming majority of the residents were disenchanted with their living conditions. […] It was a blighted area about to take centre stage.
Still, the social milieu for Motown was aspirational. In March, Berry Gordy’s mother hosted a coffee evening in her role as past Exalted Ruler of the Lady Camille Temple of the Michigan Elks:
Floral handbags, matching frocks and elegant hats turned the room into a chorus of colour. […] This was a room of elegant elderly women who valued status, took pride in their families, and cared deeply about emancipation.
In June the Supremes, “in a bubble of fame, increasingly out of touch with the new militancy in the black community and the rising fury of their hometown”, made an ill-judged appearance in LA for a beleaguered President Johnson.
The July riots, including the appalling Algiers Motel incident (on which see John Hersey’s book), were a flashpoint—and again there’s plenty of youtube footage. As with the violence in towns throughout China at that very time, the turmoil had deep social roots.
As Motown abandoned Detroit for LA, African-American music kept moving.
Detroit’s wooden-porch image as the home of soul music had been damaged to the core, and the family image that had been so crucial to the Motown story was brutally displaced by darker visions of a charred city under martial law. […] The nightclubs, the bars and the independent studios that had been the foundations of Detroit’s soul scene had been burned to the ground, ransacked, or destroyed. […] The generation that had shaped one of the greatest periods in the history of popular music had seen its city devastated. For the Supremes and others within Motown, the riots were to become a metaphor for ruined harmonies and wrecked friendships. In a broader sense, the disturbances were also a requiem for Detroit’s great industrial achievements and its declining manufacturing base.
Meanwhile John Sinclair and MC5 feature regularly, and there are cameos from Muhammed Ali and Martin Luther King. The latter observed:
Perhaps the most tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population… So we have repeatedly been faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.
It was his assassination in 1968 that would mark a definitive turning point for both society and music.
Singers, songs, music
The Motown sound emerged from the background of the incredibly rich talents brought up in gospel, blues, jazz, R&B, and so on. Cosgrove explores the nuances of changing style, documenting the host of composer-arrangers, choreographers, backing groups, instrumentalists, recording execs, and lawyers.
And decorum coaches—the Motown Finishing School (great scenes in #2 of the R.E.S.P.E.C.T. film)! Some of the singers took readily to Miss Maxine Powell’s training, while one of the Temptations complained “I don’t want to learn how to be white”.
To some, Motown resembled a hit machine, an assembly-line like the city’s car plants, producing polished feel-good tracks—a saccharine soundtrack to a convulsive era. It was “predicated on a compromise”. Gordy had
softened the rough edges of R&B, draped the music in the familiar cadences of teenage love, and his girl groups […] pioneered a highly addictive from of “bubblegum soul” that lent itself perfectly to the still-segregated radio stations of America.
It was in every respect an art of repetition: familiar backing tracks were refashioned, everyday phrases repackaged and the anxieties of young love were played out as memorable drama.
In fact even I heard The Supremes on Top of the Pops in the mid-60s, though they felt alien to me. Of course, they were—but countless other British kids were hooked.
Cosgrove also weaves in the stories of
- Martha and the Vandellas, Dancing in the street—“an otherwise innocent piece of teenage pop [that] became inextricably linked to social unrest”:
- Marvin Gaye—Ain’t no mountain high enough, with Tammi Terrell:
And the roots of What’s going on were firmly in 1967: “masterpiece of the inner city, echoing the events of the Algiers Motel killings, the ‘trigger-happy policemen’, the lives of returning Vietnam vets, the emotionally devastated mothers who had placed their faith in the benevolence of God, and the scattered fragments of a war-torn city”:
- Aretha Franklin (R.I.P.) came from Detroit, but wasn’t part of the Motown stable, getting snapped up by other labels. And she was also more readily recruited to the civil rights movement. Respect, her version of an Otis Redding song:
I say a little prayer was originally written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David for Dionne Warwick, but Aretha, along with the Sweet Inspirations, transforms it. Not so homely as the dreamy opening suggests (it’s about the singer’s anxieties for her man serving in Vietnam), it’s both ecstatic and defiant, with a real gospel call-and-response feel:
This live version from 1970 is just amazing too:
(Talking of how naturally performers learn the complex rhythms of flamenco clapping, I guess no-one even had to think about the triple-time bar inserted into the chorus here (you’ll stay in my heart / we never will part—see also here)… Actually, why did Bacarach write it thus? It’d work perfectly well to maintain the duple beat throughout—but in Aretha’s version it creates greater urgency and a feeling of spontaneity. I am in awe of everything about this song.)
- Otis Redding (one of many sadly short-lived artists in the story) also features in the book, though his story belongs with that of southern soul. And James Brown was leading the way forward with that common blend of musical brilliance and unsavoury personal relations.
Behind the glossy stars and glamorous hype lie gruelling touring schedules (indeed, The Supremes were rarely in Detroit), drug habits, internal disputes, and personal breakdowns—like a New York orchestra, a Chinese shawm band, or indeed any group.
Tedious legal wrangles invariably take up considerable space in such books on the popular music business. Motown seemed like a cosy family, yet
the close-knit relationships forged in postwar Detroit were destined to be dismantled as success and dysfunction tore the surrogate family apart.
Here the style and lyrics of such love songs seem quite detached from the realities of personal and social life. That’s common in music worldwide, though anguish is often paraded too, in genres like flamenco deep song, Bach Passions, or Daoist funeral liturgy…
In many world genres, links between culture and politics may be opaque. The book’s social context is compelling, but the commercial pressures that drove the music seem estranged from social change. In the end the music inevitably, suitably, takes a back seat, though the songs remain intoxicating.
I had remarkably little idea of any of this, either then or later. Better late than never, eh. Detroit 67 is just the kind of in-depth study of social and musical tensions to which ethnographers aspire in documenting any genre—whether “art”, “folk”, or “popular”.