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In November 1964, Betty Kelly, Martha Reeves and Rosalind Ashford (aka Martha Reeves and the Vandellas) were at the top of the charts with their hit "Dancing in the Street." (AP)

How 'Dancing In The Street' Became A Protest Anthem

by NPR Staff
Jul 7, 2013 (All Things Considered)

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Mark Kurlansky's previous books include The Food of a Younger Land and Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man. Ready For a Brand New Beat cover

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Fifty years ago, protesters were taking to the streets across the United States. Philadelphia and Harlem, N.Y., saw race riots. Atlantic City, N.J., saw picketers screaming outside the Democratic National Convention, and in Washington, D.C., anti-war activists took over the National Mall. It was a tense and volatile time.

The soundtrack to it all was one song: Martha and the Vandellas' 1964 hit, "Dancing in the Street."

The song was released just days before the War in Vietnam escalated as a result of the USS Maddox engaging the North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin. Weeks later, race riots broke out in Philadelphia. The pop song of the summer was quickly repurposed as a call-to-arms for protesters in the streets.

Mark Kurlanksy has written a new history of that protest anthem, called Ready for a Brand New Beat: How 'Dancing in the Street' Became the Anthem for a Changing America. In it, he writes about the song's Motown origins and traces its rise after the summer of 1964.

Here's Martha and the Vandellas performing on the Ed Sullivan show in 1965:

Since then, the song spread like wildfire through the music industry. Kurlansky says it's a "great song that everyone wants to do, but it's not easy to pull off." It has been covered by dozens of bands, from The Mamas and the Papas in 1966:

To Mick Jagger and David Bowie in 1985:

As for whether "Dancing in the Street" has lost its protest roots, Kurlansky says the song was never meant to be one thing to all people.

"This is a song that gets people on their feet and it can be used for whatever you want," he says. "It just inspires people."

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