Martha Reeves insists that "Dancing in the Street" was always meant to be a simple party song. It's a classic Motown hit, cranked out by the iconic Detroit record company that aspired to make music production as much like an assembly line as possible.
The only problem is that, when this song was released and became popular, dancing wasn't what people were doing in the street. They were rioting.
Racial tension in cities like Detroit was reaching a breaking point in the late 1960s. Martha and the Vandellas found that, because they were African-American, their hit single was construed by many as a call to action instead of a call to have a good time.
Keep reading to find out what the story of this happy song can tell us about Motown Records, race riots, and the United States in the 1960s.
About the Song
Martha and the Vandellas
Martha Reeves (lead vocals), Betty Kelly (backup vocals), Rosalind Ashford (backup vocals), The Funk Brothers (instruments)
1964 (single), 1965 (album)
William "Mickey" Stevenson, Marvin Gaye, Ivy Jo Hunter
Explore the ways this song connects with the world and with other topics on Shmoop
"Dancing in the Street" was one of the big hits of the 1960s, but it came to represent more than just good times. Social conservatives feared that the song was summoning angry black protestors out into the streets, and, in fact, some militant civil rights activists, such as H. Rap Brown, did play the song to stir enthusiasm at rallies and marches. A performance of this very song in Detroit in 1967 was even interrupted by reports that riots had begun in the streets.
For the record label, though, "Dancing in the Streets" was just another example of Motown's signature sound—another successful attempt to package and deliver music by African Americans to a larger mass market, using Henry Ford's assembly lines as inspiration for the production process.
However you choose to look at it, you can't deny that "Dancing in the Street" has stuck around for a long time, and shows no signs of disappearing from pop culture anytime soon. Even just as a party song, we have to admit it's a pretty catchy one, and a worthy representative of Motown's important legacy.
On the Charts
"Dancing in the Street" reached #2 on the US Billboard Pop Singles chart, and #28 on the British charts.
The song was re-released in Britain in 1969, and peaked at #4 on the charts there.
Rolling Stone placed the song at #40 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.