Sunday, May 11, 2008

History: The Motor City Is Burning

One of the worst riots in American history began on July 23, 1967, at the corner of 12th Street and Clairmount on the west side of Detroit. At the time I was a one-year-old baby living on the east side of Detroit. Luckily for my family, the riot never made it across town.

Caused by racial tensions, the "disturbance" lasted four days. Before it was over, National Guard tanks were rolling down the city streets, thousands of buildings were burned to the ground, and 43 people lost their lives. Read about it at here.

Detroit has never fully recovered. White flight to the suburbs increased dramatically after the riot. I have a friend whose family sold their house in Detroit for $1.00. We were renting at the time and it wasn't long before my family had moved out too. Metropolitan Detroit is now the most segregated population center in the United States.

There are at least two pop songs about the so-called 12th Street Riot:

Motor City Is Burning was recorded by both Detroit-based bluesman John Lee Hooker and Detroit-based punk-rockers MC5.

John Lee Hooker: The Motor City Is Burning [purchase]
MC5: Motor City Is Burning [purchase]

Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot (who has recorded a number of “history” songs) wrote Black Day in July in which he recounts the story of the riot in journalistic fashion.

Gordon Lightfoot: Black Day In July [purchase]

Black Day In July was released in 1968 and banned from airplay after the Martin Luther King assassination. In this interview, Lightfoot talks about reaction to the song.

A third song that is, at least, indirectly based on the 12th Street Riot is Panic In Detroit, which David Bowie wrote based on his conversations with friend, and Detroit rocker, Iggy Pop. Local legend has it that the song is about the riots, but I’m not 100% sure about that one.

David Bowie: Panic In Detroit [purchase]


LD said...

Excellent work, Paul. I wasn't really aware of the 12 Street riot, except in general overtones, so I appreciate the wikipedia link and your personal relationship to the event. Sheesh ... selling a house for $1! Terrible.

I'd never heard John Lee's version of Motor City, so that was a nice surprise. Do you know who the other guitar player is with him? Great stuff. Fuckin love that "sireeen" line in both versions.

I hadn't listened to the MC5 for awhile, so it was cool to revisit. This was always my favorite song on Jams. The band is on fire, especially Sonic and Brother Wayne, and Tyner just gets after it. And who doesn't love the intro with the dude ranting about "a lot of honkies sitting on a lot of money!" Classic.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the history lesson. Pondered the notion of the riot today. Tried to think of other songs about riots. All I could come up with was House Burning Down by Jimi Hendrix. I downloaded these songs which fit nicely behind Golden Country by REO Speedwagon on my mp3 player, which at least references the idea of a riot: "Your country will burn".

Matt said...

Good show, Paul!
I hadn't really realized the (possible) relevence in the Bowie song... I'd always been hearing it as he (Bowie) was causing a panic... yeah, sometimes I don't listen all that close!

That is what has been great with this week's theme: giving me a new perspective on songs and events.

Also, good call posting up that Lightfoot song. I'd had a bet with myself that Gordon would show up by today, but this isn't the song I was expecting! (beware, I will be posting up a cover of the song I was thinking of, if no-one gets around to the original by the end of the week!)

bwrice said...

I've been waiting to see if a particular lightfoot song pops up too. I'll be curious to see if you and i are thinking of the same one.

I had a bet with myself about one other tune too, but i don't want to say what it is until the week is out.