(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The accent in the title of Gerald Early’s book should fall on the phrase “and American Culture,” for this essay, expanded into book length from an original appearance in The New Republic, is neither another history of the Motown Music Corporation of Berry Gordy, Jr., nor critical analysis of the “Motown sound.” Instead, One Nation Under a Groove: Motown and American Culture is an intelligently argued reflection on the Motown phenomenon as a major cultural episode in recent American history, one that has everything to do with the history of civil rights and race relations, youth culture, the aspirations of the black middle class, and the rapid growth of the popular music industry.

Perhaps another accent should fall on the phrase that begins the title: “One Nation.” Arguably the most significant achievement of Motown music was its eradication of the boundaries that had separated rhythm and blues (known early in the 1950’s as “race music”) from so-called pop music, which had meant “white” until at least the late 1950’s. Motown music was the self-proclaimed “sound of young America” during the 1960’s, the decade that elevated “young America” into iconic cultural status. The music transcended racial lines at precisely the time American law refused the logic of segregation—though Early reminds readers, in carefully reasoned passages, that black audiences experienced the music in significantly different ways from whites.

Early, director of African American studies at Washington University in St. Louis, is the author of essays on a variety of topics concerning race and popular culture, including Tuxedo Junction: Essays on American Culture (1989) and The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture (1994). The latter study is echoed in several passages in the present book, as Early is wont to use Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali as figures who represent black pride and dignity. In his introduction, Early reveals a wary attitude toward popular culture as a realm of expertise, a scholarly identification he wishes to refuse. He is quick to refer the reader to such acknowledged experts on black music as the prolific critic Nelson George.

However much he admires and enjoys Motown music, Early is after the larger subject of black popular culture as American popular culture, exemplified by the “crossover” success of Motown music. Crossings, crossings-over, and crossing boundaries are the privileged metaphors of One Nation Under a Groove: southern blacks crossing the Mason-Dixon Line on the way north earlier in the century, crossing the line between the music of the black church to secular music, and crossing the line between the rhythm and blues and pop music charts. This last crossing prefigured, in part, the crossing of the “legal” boundaries that had separated black and white America.

In the mid-1990’s, one reads Early’s graceful essay with a mounting sense of loss and sadness, given the resurgence of racism and racial antagonism on all fronts in American political culture, certainly reflected in the marketing of popular music. Rare indeed is the modern record store where “rock” or “pop” does not mean “white,” while “rap” is ghettoized along with “rhythm and blues.” The implication is that the record-buying public will never cross such lines as these, a cultural assumption reinforced by the disturbing films of Spike Lee and John Singleton.

The details of Berry Gordy’s life are well known from other sources: how he left a career as a prizefighter to open a record store in Detroit and then to become a songwriter and promoter (writing or cowriting some of singer Jackie Wilson’s earliest hits) in the early 1950’s; how he established Motown Records in 1961; how in the first years his entire family, including his parents, were involved; how the company, under one roof, housed writers, recording engineers, producers, and performers (with more than one role being filled by many, most famously Smokey Robinson), in what Martha Reeves (of Martha and the Vandellas) and many others have described as an extended family atmosphere.

Early bears down forcefully on the theme of family, demonstrating that Motown won the hearts of middle-class blacks because it conformed to the cherished myth of the black family, a myth that began to be nurtured in the face of slavery’s cruel disregard of actual families. Families are where young people are trained in correct comportment, and Gordy’s company was famous for insisting on the grooming, posture, and behavior that would give the lie to racist assumptions about minority slovenliness or excessively casual demeanor, even employing an etiquette expert to prepare young performers for the scrutiny they would endure on long tours, extending to the Jim Crow South.

Here and there, Early comments on a...

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