12 July 2013

Imprint Friday: Ready for a Brand New Beat by Mark Kurlansky

Ready for a Brand New Beat by Mark KurlanskyWelcome to Imprint Friday and today's featured imprint: Riverhead Books. Stop by each week to be introduced to a must-read title from one of my favorite imprints. I know you'll be adding many of these books to your wish list.

It's no surprise to those of you who have been reading Beth Fish Reads that I'm a huge fan of Mark Kurlansky. I love his looks into the food world (Cod, Salt), environmental issues (World without Fish), and even baseball (The Eastern Stars) (click links for my posts). From the moment I heard about Kurlansky's latest work, Ready for a Brand New Beat, I knew it was book for me.

Before I tell you why, take a look at the publisher's summary:

Can a song change a nation? In 1964, Marvin Gaye, record producer William “Mickey” Stevenson, and Motown songwriter Ivy Jo Hunter wrote “Dancing in the Street.” The song was recorded at Motown’s Hitsville USA Studio by Martha and the Vandellas, with lead singer Martha Reeves arranging her own vocals. Released on July 31, the song was supposed to be an upbeat dance recording—a precursor to disco, and a song about the joyousness of dance. But events overtook it, and the song became one of the icons of American pop culture. The Beatles had landed in the U.S. in early 1964. By the summer, the sixties were in full swing. The summer of 1964 was the Mississippi Freedom Summer, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the beginning of the Vietnam War, the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and the lead-up to a dramatic election. As the country grew more radicalized in those few months, “Dancing in the Street” gained currency as an activist anthem. The song took on new meanings, multiple meanings, for many different groups that were all changing as the country changed. Told by the writer who is legendary for finding the big story in unlikely places, Ready for a Brand New Beat chronicles that extraordinary summer of 1964 and showcases the momentous role that a simple song about dancing played in history.
First, a personal note. Being a baby boomer who grew up just across the state line from Michigan, about an hour from Detroit, means I have a soft spot in my heart for Motown. After all, I spent the formative years of my life falling asleep with a transistor radio (my generation's iPod) under my pillow. The station? CKLW, "Home of the Motown Sound." For years after I left Ohio, being in reception distance of CKLW, meant being close to home. In the early 1970s, on Christmas break from college, my brother, friends, and I even took a road trip across the Ambassador Bridge into Canada to visit the station. We were serious fans.

Mark Kurlansky's Ready for a Brand New Beat is a nostalgic and informative look at one of the pivotal years in terms of music, art, and politics for a country and a generation. Although those of us who remember Martha and the Vandellas, girl groups, Marvin Gaye, the British Invasion, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and the Freedom Summer may feel a natural connection to the book, Kurlansky's narrative is accessible to all generations.

One of the principal themes of Ready for a Brand New Beat is the transitional nature of 1964, especially the six months from the spring opening of the New York World's Fair to the fall student demonstrations at Berkeley. As Kurlansky notes:
By the end of the summer of 1964, the entire tone of the 1960s had changed: America was almost a different country, and "Dancing in the Street," born on the cusp, one of the few Motown songs that was not about love and heartache, was going to make the transition to the new and much more harsh America. (p. 156; uncorrected proofs)
Kurlansky covers quite a bit of material, but I was particularly interested in Martha Reeves's take on the song that made her famous. Protected in what was known as the Motown Bubble, Reeves was apolitical. She wanted to sing and entertain. She was less concerned about the activist civil rights movement than she was in bringing people together through her music. For her, "Dancing in the Streets" was a reminder of her childhood, it was call to neighborhood kids to get together on hot (pre-air-conditioning) nights to listen to music, dance, and have fun.

But with rioting in Watts, the deaths of some of the Freedom Riders, and America's growing involvement in Vietnam, the song might have had a very different meaning. Was it really a call to rise up against the government? Did the song affirm our parents' worries that "today's music is harmful to our children"? Kurlansky discusses the possible interpretations of the lyrics and how the song has been used by covering artists, the movie industry, and television over the last fifty years.

Ready for a Brand New Beat, however, is not just about a song. It's also about the growth and decline of the Motown label, the changing music scene, and the interplay between music and the other arts. In addition, Kurlansky writes about 1964 in terms of the links between popular culture and political movements, changing technology, race issues, and the increasing power of the country's youth.

Mark Kurlansky is a master at finding the most unexpected connections. For example, I was surprised to learn how Berry Gordy used lessons from the car industry when he started building his music empire, including the Motown label.

Ready for a Brand New Beat is written in Kurlansky's signature easy-to-read style. It's sure to appeal to anyone interested in music and civil rights. History and social commentary were never more entertaining and accessible.

Just in case you've never seen Martha and Vandellas sing "Dancing in the Streets," here you go:

For more about Mark Kurlansky, visit his website, where you can learn about his books, read his blog, and check out his tour schedule.

Riverhead Books is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For more information about the imprint, visit the Riverhead website. While there, explore their terrific book list, check out authors in the news, and view some fun videos. Stay in the know by following them on Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter.

Published by Penguin USA / Riverhead, 2013
ISBN-13: 9781594487224
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy).


rhapsodyinbooks 7/12/13, 7:53 AM  

I also am a big fan of Kurlansky and can't wait to read this book, although I'm thinking an audio version might include the music?

bermudaonion 7/12/13, 7:58 AM  

I am VERY excited about that book! I love that song and never thought of it in terms of those tumultuous times. I was young then, but I do remember my parents watching the news with concern.

Shannon @ River City Reading 7/12/13, 7:56 PM  

I grew up about 30 minutes outside Detroit, so I've been excited for this book for similar reasons. I can't wait to pick up a copy!

picky 7/13/13, 9:50 PM  

This sounds fascinating, particularly as I love this period of music and American history. Thanks!

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