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American Anthem: 'Dancing In The Street'


This summer, NPR launched a series on songs we know that have become American anthems.


SIMON: Think now of summer, a big city, scalding sidewalks. I think of Chicago and being a kid in the 1960s, walking down North Broadway in the days when parents let their children stroll in big cities. Big things happened all around us - people rising and marching for change, powerful people pushing back and all the excitement, unrest and eloquence spilling into the streets, the steamy streets of America's great cities. People sat in open windows. And out of sweltering apartments and bursting out of radios, a new American anthem.


SIMON: People walked the streets and stepped and bopped along in time.


MARTHA AND THE VANDELLAS: (Singing) Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand-new beat? Summer's here, and the time is right for dancing in the street. They're dancing in Chicago - dancing in the street - down in New Orleans - dancing in the street - in New York City - dancing in the street...

MARTHA REEVES: The song is about love and feeling free enough to dance in the street. You don't have to worry about cars hitting you. You don't have to worry about policemen coming and telling you you can't dance in the street.

SIMON: Martha Reeves was 23, singing in clubs and working as a secretary at Motown in Detroit when she saw the company's biggest star, Marvin Gaye, in a studio, working out a song he'd written with Mickey Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter.

REEVES: So he was singing this song. (Singing) Calling out around the world. Are you ready for a brand-new beat, baby?

You know, so I'm saying, wow. And he looked over and saw me in awe of him and said, hey, man - and these are his exact words - hey, man, let's try this song on Martha.


MARTHA AND THE VANDELLAS: (Singing) Dancing in the street - all we need is music, sweet music. There'll be music everywhere. There'll be swinging and swaying and records playing, dancing in the street.

SIMON: The song recorded by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas on June 19, 1964, is now one of just 50 sound recordings in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry. It was her second take. Martha Reeves believes her first was even better.

REEVES: But the machine wasn't on. I didn't have the tape rolling. And then, they said, well, Martha, can you do it again? And I really - I didn't get angry, but I was so disappointed because I thought I had nailed it.

SIMON: The record became a top seller in the U.S. and U.K., competing with the rise of the Beatles to the top of the pop charts around the world. That summer of 1964 was also when the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, but racism and oppression persisted. Mark Kurlansky has written about the history of dancing in the street.

MARK KURLANSKY: It really was the year that the black liberation movement was under a shift from the civil rights movement to the Black Power movement. 1964 was the year when Malcolm X famously said we will get our rights by any means necessary.


MALCOLM X: That's our motto - we want freedom by any means necessary.


MALCOLM X: We want justice by any means necessary. We want equality by any means necessary.

KURLANSKY: The people in the Black Power movement used this song for rallies, and they used it because, you know, it got people worked up. It got them going.


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

KURLANSKY: I mean, calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand-new beat? And then, listing - every city they listed where they were dancing was a city with a militant black neighborhood and a city where, eventually, riots broke out.


SIMON: Chicago, New Orleans, New York, LA...


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

SIMON: What do you make of the fact that the Black Power movement kind of adopted the song and other groups adopted the song, and people began to read things into the lyrics?

REEVES: I had nothing to do with that. I just sang the song. And, in my heart, I was visualizing people actually dancing in the street.

SIMON: Martha Reeves says she's never heard the song she made so famous as a call for civil unrest.

REEVES: I wasn't singing, you know, doom and gloom, you know, when the sun goes down, let's kill everybody and go steal their property and break in the stores and carry refrigerators home on your back. I was singing bright. I was singing happy, and my soul and spirit is in that recording. And I don't think anybody could think evil of it.

SIMON: But even Martha Reeves says the song reminds her of the trials she faced as a young black teen in Detroit before the dawn of the civil rights movement.

REEVES: We couldn't stand on street corners and sing because there was a police unit called the Big Four. It was, usually, four big white men, and they had clubs and guns. And if they caught a group of black people standing on the corner singing doo-wop as we had a tendency to do, they would jump out of the car and attack you, arrest you or run your home - run you to your house because they didn't want blacks gathering. So "Dancing In The Street" is all of that to me.


MARTHA AND THE VANDELLAS: (Singing) All we need is music, sweet music. There'll be music everywhere. There'll be swinging and swaying and records playing, dancing in the street.

SIMON: Mark Kurlansky says "Dancing In The Street" has grown into an anthem over six decades because its irresistible beat and engaging images - people swinging, swaying and dancing - let people hear their own story in the song.

KURLANSKY: Mickey Stevenson, one of the authors of the song, said that he saw it as a song about integration, about how young black people and young white people could go out on the street and be together. So, you know, a lot of people saw it in different ways.

KENNETH ATKINS: If you listen to the lyrics of the song, it's telling you that when things are rough, you dance in the streets. You have to celebrate victory sometimes.

SIMON: WDET, our station in Detroit, found Kenneth Atkins of Houston at the Motown Museum, home of Hitsville USA, where "Dancing In The Street" was recorded.

ATKINS: And it makes you feel good. I don't know if you ever hear - ever you dance. It gives you a positive energy.

SIMON: Vincent Thames is from Connecticut.

VINCENT THAMES: Music is one thing that brings everyone together. It was saying shed your fears, forget about the political thing and just enjoy life.

SIMON: The Mamas & The Papas and the Grateful Dead have also recorded "Dancing In The Street" over the years. Mick Jagger and David Bowie recorded a duet to benefit Live Aid in 1985, which they began by calling out Tokyo, South America, Australia, France, Germany, U.K....



SIMON: And their version was a hit.


JAGGER: (Singing) Calling out around the world...

SIMON: Part of what's made the original, sung by Martha Reeves, into an anthem is the ring of authenticity for Motown's original studios in Detroit, a cry from the heart of summer in a big city, boiling with energy, turmoil and hope.

REEVES: And I will admit that it's one of the greatest songs recorded at Motown. And I consider it the anthem of the Motown sound because it makes everybody dance. Whenever you hear it, whenever I hear it, I have to almost get up and move.

SIMON: Why don't we all do that now?


MARTHA AND THE VANDELLAS: (Singing) Every guy, grab a girl, everywhere around the world... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.