Some Motor City History

Detroit Industry (Diego Rivera, 1932-33)

Blind Blake (1896-1938) recorded “Detroit Bound Blues” for Paramount in 1928. It’s a kind of miniature record of at least some of the impetus behind the Great Migration.

I’m goin’ to Detroit, get myself a good job
I’m goin’ to Detroit, get myself a good job
Tried to stay around here with the starvation mob

I’m goin’ to get a job, up there in Mr. Ford’s place
I’m goin’ to get a job, up there in Mr. Ford’s place
Stop these eatless days from starin’ me in the face

When I start to makin’ money, she don’t need to come around
When I start to makin’ money, she don’t need to come around
‘Cause I don’t want her now, Lord. I’m Detroit bound

Because they got wild women in Detroit, that’s all I want to see
Because they got wild women in Detroit, that’s all I want to see
Wild women and bad whisky would make a fool out of me

But working on an assembly line could be soul-crushing. As Joe L. Carter sang, “Please, Mr. Foreman, slow down your assembly line. No, I don’t mind workin’, but I do mind dyin’.”

From 1970 to 1973, Motown, whose mainstream records were mostly apolitical, operated a sub-label called Black Forum, which was dedicated to recording spoken word, poetry, and radical Black thought for posterity. Here are some recordings from its archives.

The last recording released by Black Forum was an album of consciousness-raising songs composed and performed by Black Panther leader Elaine Brown (who was a fantastic singer as well):

In July 1967, Detroit underwent five days of brutal unrest following the police raid of an after-hours club. Sixteen people were killed in the ensuing rioting.

While the unrest was still underway, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, to study the problem. The commission concluded:

Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal. . . .What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.

You can view and read the report here.

In 1968, civic leaders initiated a summer program to repair the city’s reputation, called “Detroit is Happening.” Motown artist Smokey Robinson and the Miracles recorded a song for the City of Detroit, “I Care About Detroit”:

And Detroit Tigers left-fielder Willie Horton recorded a spoken-word jam over the Supremes’ song “It’s Happening,” to advertise the summer program.

Marvin Gaye’s great 1971 record What’s Going On took Motown’s first-string in a politically-engaged and socially-conscious direction. The album, influenced by a dark time in Gaye’s own life, was a “concept album” — all the songs were connected into a single overarching narrative, about a Black soldier coming home from Vietnam, based on the experience of Gaye’s brother, Frankie. Berry Gordy at first refused to release it, thinking it too political. Gaye refused to record anything else for Motown unless Gordy changed his mind. Gaye prevailed, and the rest is history.

It opens with the ambient noise of a party; it’s a homecoming for a Vietnam veteran. Beneath the celebration, there’s uneasiness . . . His song helped change the national conversation. And his success forced Motown to give others, notably Stevie Wonder, artistic freedom. Gaye relished the visibility, but he knew that the real triumph was the way he transformed vexing social problems into an imploring emotional appeal. The song started as a party but became something else, something much closer to a prayer.

A brief history of the rise and fall of the auto industry in Detroit.

Large swathes of Detroit, abandoned for years, have been reclaimed by nature, which has led to an urban agriculture movement.