Essential Question

How did Rock and Roll serve as an expressive tool for the working-class youth of Detroit?


Like a stout heart within the city is Detroit industry, the vital pulse beat of technology and resources, which has put the world on wheels. Detroit’s strategic location, its reservoir of know-how, its ability to deliver manpower, places it in the vanguard of choice spots in which to build, manufacture, and expand.

— Promotional film for the city of Detroit, 1965

They were down river boys. They were guys who lived in the disused parts of Detroit, the industrial parts. And really, when you grew up in Detroit in those areas, you had one of two ways to go. College wasn’t the option. It was usually, were you gonna work the [assembly] line, or were you gonna work in a tool and die shop, and how many fingers were you gonna lose by the end of your career?

– Musician David Was on the band MC5

Few places represented the prosperity of the postwar United States and the allure of the American dream better than Detroit in the 1950s and early 60s. Home of the thriving American auto industry, Detroit and its legendary assembly lines reflected the nation’s command of industry and its international economic dominance. But for many of the thousands of young people growing up in Detroit’s blue-collar neighborhoods, the city was less about progress and prosperity than the prospect of a life with few options beyond the monotony of a factory job.

As happened in so many other contexts, the young people of Detroit in the postwar era turned to music to express their frustrations and to challenge society’s expectations for them. Bands such as MC5 and the Stooges eschewed the feel-good music long associated with Detroit through the success of Motown, producing instead a hard-edged, proto-Punk sound that managed to address both the limitations of working-class life and the general frustrations of youth.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The importance of Detroit and the auto industry to the postwar American economy
    • The efforts of working-class musicians, including the members of MC5 and the Stooges, to challenge prevailing views about life amidst the auto industry and give voice to the frustrations of working-class youth
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Trace musical expression to the social and economic context in which it was created