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How 'Dancing In The Street' Became A Protest Anthem

Jul 7, 2013
Originally published on July 9, 2013 12:37 pm

Fifty years ago, protesters were taking to the streets across the United States. Philadelphia and Harlem, N.Y., saw race riots. Atlantic City, N.J., saw picketers screaming outside the Democratic National Convention, and in Washington, D.C., anti-war activists took over the National Mall. It was a tense and volatile time.

The soundtrack to it all was one song: Martha and the Vandellas' 1964 hit, "Dancing in the Street."

The song was released just days before the War in Vietnam escalated as a result of the USS Maddox engaging the North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin. Weeks later, race riots broke out in Philadelphia. The pop song of the summer was quickly repurposed as a call-to-arms for protesters in the streets.

Mark Kurlanksy has written a new history of that protest anthem, called Ready for a Brand New Beat: How 'Dancing in the Street' Became the Anthem for a Changing America. In it, he writes about the song's Motown origins and traces its rise after the summer of 1964.

Here's Martha and the Vandellas performing on the Ed Sullivan show in 1965:

Since then, the song spread like wildfire through the music industry. Kurlansky says it's a "great song that everyone wants to do, but it's not easy to pull off." It has been covered by dozens of bands, from The Mamas and the Papas in 1966:

To Mick Jagger and David Bowie in 1985:

As for whether "Dancing in the Street" has lost its protest roots, Kurlansky says the song was never meant to be one thing to all people.

"This is a song that gets people on their feet and it can be used for whatever you want," he says. "It just inspires people."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCING IN THE STREET")

REBECCA SHEIR, HOST:

50 years ago here in the U.S., protesters were taking to the streets. Philadelphia and Harlem saw race riots, Atlantic City saw picketers screaming outside the Democratic National Convention. In Washington, D.C., anti-war activists took over the National Mall. And the soundtrack to it all was one song: Martha and the Vandellas' 1964 hit, "Dancing in the Street."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCING IN THE STREET")

MARTHA AND THE VANDELLAS: (Singing) Down in New Orleans. Dancing in the street. In New York City. Dancing in the street. All we need is music, sweet music. There'll be music, everywhere.

SHEIR: Mark Kurlanksy has written a new history of that protest anthem which he says has spread like wildfire through the music industry and been covered by dozens of bands.

MARK KURLANKSY: Van Halen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCING IN THE STREET")

VAN HALEN: (Singing) Callin' out around the world. Are you ready for a brand new beat?

KURLANKSY: Everly Brothers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCING IN THE STREET")

EVERLY BROTHERS: (Singing) Summer's here and the time is right for dancin' in the street.

KURLANKSY: Ramsey Lewis did my favorite cover, but he did, you know, it was a jazz trio and just completely turned the thing inside out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCING IN THE STREET")

KURLANKSY: Michael Bolton, Neil Diamond, not one of my favorite ones.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCING IN THE STREET")

MICHAEL BOLTON: (Singing) And all we need is music, sweet music, there'll be music...

KURLANKSY: French and Finnish and Danish.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KURLANKSY: It's just a great song that everybody wants to do but not that easy to pull off. In fact, the only recordings that have made it into the top 10 was the original, Martha and the Vandellas, and Mick Jagger and David Bowie, which is a recording that everybody either loves or hates.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCING IN THE STREET")

DAVID BOWIE: (Singing) Australia, Germany, Africa...

SHEIR: Well, in your book, you proposed that "Dancing in the Streets" was an iconic song of the summer of 1964 - an anthem, as you say, in your title. And as we know, that summer was a pretty turbulent time in American politics. We saw the arrests of civil rights demonstrators, the burning of black churches, not to mention everything that was happening with the United States and Vietnam. And yet today, I'm sure people listen to the song and many of them would just say it's a pop hit. It's a party song. So I'm curious, how did the tune become the protest song of that summer back in the '60s?

KURLANKSY: Well, I think the key to the history of the song is that it's a song that inspires you. It makes you feel like doing something. And so it all depends on what it is you want to do. That summer, when it came out - it was released July 31, two days before the Vietnam War began during the height of the civil rights movements, Mississippi Freedom Summer. So it was a time that begged for meanings.

SHEIR: So do you think its original legacy is lost then, that idea of it being a protest song?

KURLANKSY: I went and tried to watch all of the movies that have used it. Now, there's this Whoopi Goldberg movie, "Sister Act 2," which, you know, it's not a film that's often brought up in serious discussions of cinema, but there's an interesting moment. She plays this Vegas singer who's hiding out as a nun, and she's trying to raise money for a glee club. She goes out in the street in San Francisco, and to raise money for the glee club, she sings "Dancing in the Street."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SISTER ACT 2")

WHOOPI GOLDBERG: (Singing) It doesn't matter what you wear just as long as you are there. So come on. Every guy grab a girl everywhere around the world there'll be dancing...

KURLANKSY: And that's exactly right. You know, this is a song that gets people on their feet, and it can be used for whatever you want. It can be used for black power, it can be used for feminism, it can be used to raise money for a glee club because it just inspires people.

SHEIR: Mark Kurlansky's new book is called "Ready for a Brand New Beat: How 'Dancing in the Street' Became the Anthem for a Changing America." Thank you for joining us, Mark.

KURLANKSY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.