The following is a guest submission by Yana Chernyak, a recent graduate of Franklin & Marshall College.
The story of Motown is the story of how civil society launched one of the most powerful cultural revolutions of 20th century America. The rise of the Motown record labels provided mutual aid where society was failing, built a purposeful community for young black musicians from across the country, and cleared paths to social prominence in a country where segregation ruled the day. Built on the back of the biggest industry town America has ever seen, the record label’s spirit of entrepreneurship overlaid onto a roaring business city created a powerful and uniquely American sensation.
A former Ford assembly line employee, Berry Gordy came from a family of 10 entrepreneurs (4 boys, 4 girls and two parents who ran a series of businesses in and around Detroit). The Gordy family had a loan fund to which each family member contributed $10 a month to use as credit for any other family members’ proposed business. Gordy took out an $800 loan (estimated at $6,000 in today’s dollars) after being approved by a family vote, to be paid back in one year at six percent interest. This type of localized civil society was especially crucial to Gordy’s success in an era when it was difficult, if not impossible, for blacks to get credit from banks and served as a powerful alternative provided by the community. After building a small record portfolio with the assistance of his friend Smokey Robinson, Gordy purchased the house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard to become the Motown headquarters in Detroit.
The house on West Grand Boulevard was more than an office though. It became an oasis for Detroit’s ambitious teenage musicians. Many of the label’s early stars came from the same neighborhood in Detroit’s North End, including Diana Ross and the Supremes, who hung around the label’s reception area until Gordy agreed to sign them following high school graduation. Gordy also brought in talent that he discovered in Detroit, Chicago and other stops along the chitlin’ circuit. Motown expanded to own all the houses on the block, eventually staying open 24/7, with Gordy’s mother cooking food for the dozens of artists who were constantly recording, socializing and learning from one another there.
Across the street, musicians were taught all the skills they needed in order to become stars of the stage: how to dance, walk, and dress to create the unified Motown image that remains distinctive today. Like education programs in New York’s tenements at the turn of the previous century, this etiquette training provided an avenue for making it as a marginalized racial group in a predominantly white society. Its success is evidenced by Motown’s wild popularity in the 1960s among whites as well as blacks, with The Supremes appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show dozens of times during over the course of the decade.
Motown was a key vehicle for transcending race and regional divisions of the time. With uplifting music on “real” social topics, it was broadly and well received as truly soulful music anyone could relate to. “I would come to the South in the early days of Motown and the audiences would be segregated,” Smokey Robinson said in a later interview. “Then they started to get the Motown music and we would go back and the audiences were integrated and the kids were dancing together and holding hands.” Although Gordy initially resisted the release of controversial songs on the label it eventually became a bastion for social movements sweeping the nation. Motown became a black culture institution, recording many of Martin Luther King’s sermons including the precursor to his “I Have a Dream” speech which it released on LP as well as poetry recordings from Langston Hughes and the Black Spirits Festival. Additionally, the label took a powerful anti-war position, releasing songs like “War” and “Ball of Confusion,” capturing the zeitgeist of discontent surrounding the Vietnam War. The label also fostered advancements in women’s rights by supporting the success of women artists on the label and ultimately in allowing them to develop central roles in running the business side of the house.
Alongside the musical revolution it launched, Motown embodied a pivotal cultural revolution in a major U.S. city, making it one of the strongest examples of civil society in American culture. What makes it all the more impressive is considering the age of most Motown artists and realizing that this was a true youth movement. Next time someone says civil society is for old, boring people, think again!