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The Heart of Motown in the 60’s

Probably the most prolific and successful song writing team in history was Holland-Dozier-Holland.

MOTOWN’S TRUE VISIONARIES

The brothers Brian and Eddie Holland and their friend Lamont Dozier created the Motown Sound, and an unusual sort of love song.

Motown was headquartered in Detroit, and so the Motown metaphors are industrial: the record label was a machine, a factory, an assembly line fitting songs together, part by part. But the heart of the company was human, and much of the art it produced can be traced to the exertions of two brothers, Brian and Eddie Holland, and their friend Lamont Dozier. With all due respect to Smokey Robinson, the Motown Sound as we know it was created by Holland-Dozier-Holland. “Heat Wave,” “Baby Love,” “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You),” and all the others: looking over a list of their best songs is like reading a snatch of pages from the American Songbook.

In the eighth or ninth grade, when I decided to be the kind of person who “knew about music,” I listened to those songs over and over—and developed a reputation for singing them, too loudly, in student lounges and on playing fields and in hallways between classes. I filled my Discman with greatest-hits compilations and my notebook with hand-drawn charts, trying to glean what I could from these songwriters, whose names I didn’t yet know. Sometimes, I learned, you start a major-key piece with a blaringly gloomy minor chord, as in “Stop! In the Name of Love.” Part of love’s allure is its capacity—its threat, its guarantee—to someday let you down. Maybe I picked up more about love than I did about songcraft.

Between 1963 and 1967, almost fifty of H-D-H’s singles topped the pop or R. & B. chart, and occasionally both. In their hits, they found a way to express, through the subtleties of song structure, a strange vision of love. All three of them were church boys, and that vision has a faintly religious cast—a union of two lovers, one praising and pleading with the same fervent breath, the other mysteriously mute. H-D-H always wrote and arranged the music first, and even without lyrics their compositions speak of romance that is wrenching and helpless, though not always sexual. There’s certainly little foreplay to be found: the chorus often leads an H-D-H song, a bit of anti-magic that reveals the big trick at the outset but somehow manages to build on that foundation a structure for suspense. This is another thing I learned: to “show your cards,” in art or in life, isn’t always an act of total honesty.

My parents met in a church choir, and I was always enthralled with the voice. But through these songs I came to see how a good band, artfully choreographed, could surround a singer like a circle of friends, working to assure her success before she ever entered the scene. The arrangements are intricate but restrained—low, husky horns; strict drums; a daydreaming underlay of Hammond organ—leaving a surprising amount of space between instrumental layers. There’s enough for the melody and its accompanying harmony parts, and also for a curious interplay between grandeur (often pushed, chromatically, toward joy by James Jamerson, the bassist for the Funk Brothers, Motown’s legendary backing band) and a sweet sadness, framed cursively by strings or a chorus of flutes.

Then came the words. Eddie Holland used to go around asking women for the secrets of their relationships—inner thoughts, hidden hopes, deepest fears. “I always thought that females were the most interesting subjects,” he once said. This goes some way toward explaining why, although H-D-H wrote for almost every classic male Motown act, their most riveting work came with the Supremes, and through the odd instrument that is Diana Ross’s voice. That voice: it had little range or depth, none of the outright power of Martha Reeves’s or the athletic movement of Marvin Gaye’s, but there was something literary—a quiet clarity and a way of delivering phrases that made them sound half-remembered, as if they’d been plucked right out of a dream. Eddie’s lyrics had the same partly precise, partly mystified quality: “Where did our love go?” he had Diana ask, and the question made you turn your head and join the effort to locate that lost jewel.

The resulting mood—an unlikely alloy of experience and naïveté, innocence and fatigue—is what drew me to Motown. Even today, as I try to fit the parts of my own work together—paragraph after unwilling paragraph; always failing to make of myself a machine—I am in some way striving to describe the kind of love that Holland-Dozier-Holland conveyed, the kind that lavishes its object with overwhelming light, then swings and bops away, impossible to keep for long.

Several of my favorites –

The reverb on this one is set too tight , but…

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Posted by on December 20, 2016 in Music, From Way Back When to Now

 

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Zwarte Piet – A “Black” Dutch Problem

Holland was heavily involved in the slave trade, principally supplying ships and shipping, but also through several colonies…

No surprise then, the industry left a mark… I have no idea of historical representations of this caricature, but certainly by American standards even into the 60’s this is pretty mild. “Black Dutch” has quite a different meaning in the US, depending on time and region historically – perhaps influenced by Zwarte Piet?

In Holland, Santa Doesn’t Have Elves. He Has Slaves.

As a newcomer to the Netherlands, I do many things wrong. I forget to bring gifts to dinner parties, I thank people too profusely, and often speak too personally with people I’ve just met. But no slip-up has provoked a more troubled response than when I’ve brought up my concerns about Santa Claus.

Here’s what concerns me: In Holland, Santa, or “Sinterklaas,” as he’s known to the Dutch, doesn’t have reindeer; he has a little helper named Zwarte Piet, literally Black Pete, who charms children with pepernoten cookies and a kooky demeanor while horrifying foreign visitors with his resemblance to Little Black Sambo. Each year, on Dec. 5, the morning before the feast of St. Nicholas, children all over the country wake up excited for gifts and candy while thousands of adults go to their mirrors to apply brown paint and red lips. In their Zwarte Piet costumes, they fill central Amsterdam and small village streets, ushering in the arrival of Sinterklaas who, in the Dutch tradition, rides a flying white horse.

Trying to tell a Dutch person why this image disturbs you will often result in anger and frustration. Otherwise mature and liberal-minded adults may recoil from the topic and offer a rote list of reasons why Zwarte Piet should not offend anybody. “He is not even a black man,” many will tell you. “He is just black because he came down the chimney.” Then, you may reply, why aren’t his clothes dirty?

As the history of Zwarte Piet makes clear, that chimney-soot explanation doesn’t wash. Zwarte Piet—or his immediate ancestor, anyway—was introduced in 1845 in the story “Saint Nicholas and his Servant,” written by an Amsterdam schoolteacher named Jan Schenkman. In the story, Sinterklaas comes from Spain by steamship bringing with him a black helper of African origin. The book was wildly popular and with it began the inclusion of Santa’s helper in Dutch Christmas festivities. (It wasn’t until later in the century that he was given the name Piet.)

At the time, the Dutch empire spread across three continents and included the colonies of Suriname and Indonesia. The Dutch were deeply involved in the slave trade, both transporting African slaves to be sold and using slave labor to work coffee and sugar plantations in their colonies. Minstrel shows were a popular form of entertainment.

Nowadays, Sinterklaas comes to Holland by steamship in mid-November of each year. He is played by a nationally beloved actor, and his arrival is a live televised event that kicks off the holiday season much like the Macy’s Day Parade in the United States. The city bestowed the honor of hosting Sinterklaas’ arrival changes each year…

I  guess the last question is – “Is it racism?”

The only answer I could give from my distinctly 70’s American viewpoint is… “Compared to what?”

 

 

 
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Posted by on December 17, 2011 in Black History, The Post-Racial Life

 

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