The Martha and the Vandellas song "Dancing in the Street" was originally supposed to be a summer dance hit. But then the 1960’s happened, and the song took on a whole new meaning. Author Mark Kurlansky wrote a new book about the song, called Ready for a Brand New Beat: How “Dancing in the Street” Became the Anthem for a Changing America.
This segment originally aired on July 10, 2013.
Mark Kurlansky, his choice to focus on “Dancing in the Street” as a singular focus:
It seems to me that the history of this song was a great example of two things. First of all, it was a great example of why songs are important. And it also is a great example of how the great R&B and great rock ‘n’ roll that came out the sixties — whether it meant to or not — had everything to do with what was going on with black rights.
On how “Dancing in the Street” took on a different meaning from its original intent:
Here’s this song, and it’s about dancing and a party and having a good time. And Martha Reeves will tell you to this day, that’s what the song’s about. But right about the time this song first came out was the first Black inner city explosion in Harlem — with many more to follow — so that every summer at the approach of summer, everybody talked about, “Is this going to be a long, hot summer?” This feeling of dread — what’s going to happen this summer? Here’s this song. It says, “Summer’s here and the time is right for dancing in the street.” And then, it goes on and lists all of these cities with important Black communities.
On how the movie Sister Act 2 and the Black Power movement used “Dancing in the Street” in a similar way:
[Whoopi Goldberg] plays a Vegas singer hiding out as a nun. She’s trying to raise money for the school glee club. So she has this rally and what do they do? They play “Dancing in the Street.” And everybody forks over money. In a strange way, that’s the truth about this song. This song will get people on their feet and get them moving for whatever your cause is. The Whoopie Goldberg character in this movie uses this song in the exact same way that H. Rap Brown did for Black Power rallies.
Watch three versions of "Dancing in the Street":