50 STATES OF FOLK: How Soul Found Its Stride in Michigan
Inside the Motown Museum in Detroit. (Photo by Bill Bowen)
Turn on some Motown music and you’ll be showered in dazzling orchestral arrangements and powerful vocals. You’ll find songs of love, God, sex, and resistance. It’s soul music designed for a pop audience, or maybe it’s pop music with an extra serving of soul.
But where exactly did it come from? How did we get such hits as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “My Girl”?
As with most things in America, it all begins with the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Spirituals and Gospel
With the arrival of the first African slaves into American ports in 1619, the earliest forms of African American music were born. The stolen people brought with them some of the comforts of home, including but not limited to traditional songs, step dances, and early progenitors of instruments like the xylophone and the banjo.
Almost on the first day of their arrival in the Americas, the African population was introduced to Christianity. The parallels between biblical stories and their own horrifying realities fascinated the slaves, many of whom took to Christianity and began writing songs retelling the stories of biblical figures like David and Moses.
As slaves continued to be dehumanized by the “peculiar institution” in which they were trapped, and as Christian faith and church grew to be a greater part of their lives, they began using spiritual music as an emotional release and a way to cultivate hope. There may not be a better life here on Earth, but God is looking out for me, their songs said.
As the slaves formed their own churches by way of praise houses and brush arbor meetings, they created their own worshipping traditions with music built right into the foundations. Spirituals were crafted to be easily learned aurally, typically sung in call-and-response form. The song leader would improvise a line of text, and then a chorus of singers would provide a solid refrain in unison. They would sing these songs of hope in their services, mastering harmony and rhythm as a way to communicate the complex emotions of suffering and longing through song. They would sing them in their work as a way to focus their minds away from the backbreaking physical labor they were forced to endure. They would sing them as a way to covertly communicate with their peers, with Harriet Tubman famously using spirituals such as “Go Down, Moses” and “Wade in the Water” as a tool to identify herself and communicate important information to slaves who might want to flee North.
The Reconstruction Blues
Eventually, the institution of slavery was abolished and the slaves were freed. However, the end of Reconstruction and the cotton glut that resulted left most of the South desperately poor. This poverty and the resulting emotional despair led to the invention of a new style of music: the blues.
The beginnings of the blues can be traced to the late 1860s, with the rise of anti-black vigilante justice in the South and sharecropping. The exact origins of this genre are unknown, but historians often pin its development as an art form to both the fraught political climate of Reconstruction and the necessary evolution of spirituals from a collective art form used in community building to an individual form of performance and self-expression. In early blues, you commonly find verses with a form very similar to that of the spiritual call-and-response, with the singer repeating lines throughout the verse before completing the thought or making a point in the final line.
The evolution from collective to individual also leads to more variation in the narratives of the songs themselves. Where spirituals had a singular focus on heaven, faith, God, and the stories of those who had suffered throughout the Bible, this new genre enabled musicians to speak to their own personal experiences in a much more direct way. You can find early blues music about low wages, love, lynchings, and more.
Blues also evolved simultaneously with the Great Migration of freed slaves and their descendants from the South to the North. As Frederick Douglass noted in his book My Bondage and My Freedom on the topic of slave spirituals, “A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of ‘O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan,’ something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan.” This migration — and the inevitable disillusionment that accompanied moving to colder, but still deeply racist, states — led displaced black musicians to write songs addressing their misgivings about urban life, the new forms of humiliating labor they found themselves forced to endure, and the nostalgia they felt for a familiar, but terrible, life in the South. It was this migration that first established Detroit as a central hub of black music in the North.
R&B and the Motown Sound
Black musicians living in the North began making music influenced by their urban surroundings, creating a more polished, cosmopolitan sound. The solo bluesman began bringing other musicians onstage with him, creating the blues combo. Now instead of just a simple acoustic or steel guitar, you started seeing blues performances with piano, harmonica, bass, drums, and electrified guitar. You also started seeing blues musicians being influenced by other genres to which they had access in these urban areas, like ragtime, big band, swing, and eventually rock and roll.
This melting pot of cultures and sounds eventually led to the advent of soul music in the post-war era. Soul is often referred to as the combination of gospel (i.e., the sacred) and the blues (i.e., the profane), but we can also view it through a historical lens, as the superposition of the sounds of both enslavement and freedom. Is it any wonder that it holds so much power, evokes such emotion from its performers and audience?
But there was one key ingredient needed to transform soul into an international sensation, as it turns out: industrialism. And it was in plentiful supply, perhaps more than anywhere else at the time, in Detroit.
In the early 20th century, Detroit’s booming auto industry and its position as a leader in the Rust Belt led many to migrate to Michigan. This included a large population of African Americans, who ended up concentrated into a small number of neighborhoods due to the racist housing policies of the era. A booming music scene cropped up around Hastings Street and the neighborhoods known as Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. Paradise Valley was known as Detroit’s Las Vegas and was one of the first neighborhoods to facilitate integration within Detroit — with both black and white audiences patronizing “black and tan” venues, featuring music from Detroit’s blues musicians. This thriving scene around Black Bottom grew and thrived for decades, serving as the fertile soil for many young musicians to bloom.
One young man in particular seemed to find himself in the perfect conditions. In 1959, Berry Gordy was a young producer and songwriter who was feeling dejected at the state of the record industry. He had recently released two singles for The Miracles and had received a royalty check of just $3.19. Tired of being taken advantage of, he decided to start his own record company. He borrowed some money from a family savings fund and founded Motown Records, with the premise that anyone off the street could walk in, record their music, and walk out a star. He wanted to create an assembly line making soul music designed for pop radio, featuring simple chord progressions, funky drum beats, and melodic, heavy bass lines. He wanted to capture the essence of Detroit in that moment, with all that music and energy and funk and soul, and put it on the airwaves.
The first Motown Records release landed Gordy in the Top 30 on national charts. Less than two years later, he struck gold with “Please Mr. Postman” by The Marvelettes, which landed at number one on the Billboard Top 100 and set up Motown Records as a starmaker. Before long, Gordy would sign on such future household names as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, The Temptations, and The Jackson 5.
Many music historians have speculated about what made Motown Records so special. Gordy captured in musical amber the sound of a moment. The black community in Detroit was a microcosm of America’s post-war optimism and prosperity crashing into its racism and segregation, and that tension created something magical. With hit after hit after hit, the Motown sound brought together an entire generation, touching people of all ages, backgrounds, and races. Said Mary Wilson of the Supremes, “We represented a social environment that was changing. The experience we had known being black was not being bona fide citizens, not being able to drink out of the same water fountains, playing to segregated audiences. When that started to fall away, and you saw that music was one of the components that was helping it fall away, that’s when it felt like we were really doing something significant.”