The American Historian

Mark Kurlansky, Ready for a Brand New Beat: How “Dancing in the Street” Became the Anthem for a Changing America (New York: Riverhead Books, 2013)

Michael J. Kramer, History and American Studies, Northwestern University

In Ready for a Brand New Beat, Mark Kurlansky, author of more than a dozen books of popular history, sets out to demonstrate how one song, the 1964 single “Dancing in the Street” by Martha and the Vandellas, became what President Barack Obama called (along with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” 1971), “the soundtrack of the civil rights era” in 2011. The book’s breezy, quick-moving narrative contains many colorful anecdotes, suggestive quotations, and illustrative facts as it toggles between the production of “Dancing in the Street” at Motown Records’ “Hitsville, U.S.A.” studio in Detroit, the political context of the 1960s, and the song’s strange afterlife in its circulations through the culture industries.

What the book lacks, however, unlike the tune whose history it so lovingly depicts, is a satisfying hook. Kurlansky describes how “Dancing in the Street” became an anthem, but his survey’s many details are like scattered riffs, never consolidating into one compelling argument as to why the song has resonated so powerfully. We learn that “Dancing in the Street” was ambiguously, but never definitively, linked to calls for urban insurrection during the 1960s, that it was increasingly heard at many black power rallies and other radical political gatherings, and that it can be understood as a revolutionary tract when heard through the “masking” tradition of African American cultural expression. We also learn that the song was simply intended for, and most of the time received as, nothing but a catchy call for fun and togetherness. Kurlansky implies that “Dancing in the Street” was ultimately denuded of any political meaning whatsoever. H. Rap Brown used it to pump up crowds for his fiery speeches in the 1960s, but so too, eventually, did the Disney Corporation employ the song as a gag in its animated cartoons. In 2012, even conservative Republican candidate Mitt Romney played the song at campaign rallies. This was a party song that, it turned out, could not belong to any one party line. 

Kurlansky’s book is chock full of ironies such as these, but the problem with Ready for a Brand New Beat is that it lacks a strong interpretation of them. That challenging explanatory task still awaits a historian who might take up the song’s tantalizing “invitation across the nation.”