Detroit: Blue Collar Rock

In the history of popular music, some cities play a more significant role than others. New York and Los Angeles, by virtue of size, location, and proximity to the music industry, figure larger than anyplace else. In the midst of the British Invasion, London achieved a similar status. Nashville, too, carved out a special place, due to the fact that Country music's writers, performers, and most significant institutions settled there. New Orleans and Memphis, of course, are places with deep history that loom large. But out there in middle America are cities of real significance to the Rock and Roll story. Cleveland, Chicago, and Detroit are among them. Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin recounted the band's manager, Peter Grant, saying, ""If you blow it in Cleveland, you're finished. Don't even start." The heartland, for bands like Zeppelin, was a testing ground.

In this chapter, Detroit is singled out as a case study. Lessons will explore Detroit from a number of angles. The protagonists are diverse: John Lee Hooker, Bob Seger, Mitch Ryder, Berry Gordy, the Stooges, the MC5. In the age before the Internet, cities like Detroit could establish a regional identity that had its own logics. Artists could be stars in their region and almost unknown elsewhere, because radio and press were more regionalized. Bob Seger broke out as a major regional act well before he extended that reach with "Night Moves" and other national and international hits. Everything you needed was there at home, and every act that seemed to matter would come through.

A destination for African Americans coming north during the Great Migration, Detroit had a rich black culture that informed its Blues, R&B, and Soul offerings. And the quality of that music affected the white performers, from Mitch Ryder to Iggy Pop. The lessons coming in the second phase of this project will look at years in which a rich cross-cultural dialogue took place through music, with Motown Records, "The Sound of Young America," serving as a kind of emblem of what was possible. But they also look at the current status of the so-called "Rust Belt." So many years later, with the American auto industry largely gone, Detroit suffers. The city's music, whether that of the White Stripes or Eminem, has carried on, but never as it did in the golden age of the city's musical life.