As this is posted, it’s sixty years since Berry Gordy founded Motown Records. As you’ll know, ‘the Motown sound’ has had a powerful influence on popular music. Even today, it’s easy to see its impact on modern pop, rock, rap, and other music.
But Motown wasn’t universally embraced, at least at first. In its way, it was revolutionary, and many people didn’t want to adjust to it. That in itself is interesting. But the fact is, there’ve been lots of major musical influences that were considered unacceptable at first. And we see that in crime fiction, just as we’ve seen it in real life.
Before there was Motown, there was ragtime, which grew to major popularity at the very end of the 19th Century and beginning of the 20th. There were, of course, other major changes in society at that time, and not everyone was eager to embrace them. And plenty of people didn’t see ragtime as ‘appropriate’ music. Readers get a look at the ragtime music culture in Larry Karp’s The Ragtime Kid, which begins in 1898. In in, we meet fifteen-year-old Brun Campbell, who loves playing and listening to the piano. One day, he happens to hear Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag, and is entranced. He wants to know more about Joplin and ragtime music, and he can’t get that new sound out of his mind. So, a year later, he travels from Oklahoma, where he lives, to Sedalia, Missouri, where Joplin lives. He’s wants to get started there and learn more ragtime, but instead, he gets mixed up in a case of murder. One night, he accidentally trips over the body of a young unknown woman. She is identified as Sallie Randolph, and it turns out that she has what used to be called a ‘checkered past.’ As Brun asks questions about her death, and does some growing in the process, readers also learn quite a lot about Joplin and the world of ragtime.
Jazz was also arguably a revolutionary change in music. As you’ll know, it became popular during the 1920s, a time of many other major changes. And those who loved jazz were often looked at with a lot of suspicion. Certainly ‘nice girls’ didn’t go to ‘those sorts of places,’ and listen to ‘that kind of music.’ And yet, jazz has had a profound impact on the music we listen to now. We see that reflected in crime fiction, too.
For example, in several of Agatha Christie’s novels (I’m thinking, for instance, of Peril at End House, and Dumb Witness), we meet characters who are a part of the Jazz Age culture. They listen to the music and have adopted the styles and culture that are associated with jazz music of that time. And that lifestyle (and the music) are seen by some as not entirely respectable, perhaps even vaguely disreputable. That view of jazz isn’t the reason for the murders in those stories. But it’s interesting to see what the perception is.
There’s a similar perception in Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. In that novel, Lord Peter Wimsey investigates the deaths of two people: General Fentiman (who is a member of Lord Peter’s club), and Fentiman’s wealthy sister, Lady Dormer. At one point, Wimsey is having a conversation with Fentiman’s grandson George and his wife. George has this to say about the effect of jazz and the jazz culture:
‘‘In the old days, heaps of unmarried women were companions, and… they had a much better time than they have now, with all this jazzing and short skirts…the modern girl hasn’t a scrap of decent feeling or sentiment about her.’’
The assumption is that jazz music has had a dangerous influence on the younger generation.
After World War II, there were other music revolutions. The ‘Beat Generation’ changed the way people thought about music and the other arts. We see a bit of that in Matsumoto Seichō’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates. The novel was published in 1961, a time of great change in Japan. Those changes are an important element in the background for this novel. In it, Tokyo police detective Imanishi Eitaro and his team look into the murder of Miki Ken’ichi, whose body was discovered under a train. After some effort, Imanishi learns that the victim had come from Okoyama to Tokyo, but there’s no clear reason why. He was much beloved in Okoyama, and didn’t really know anyone in Tokyo, so there seems to be no motive for his murder. Little by little, Imanishi and the team discover connections between this death, a suicide, and the Avant-Garde Theatre, which is a haunt for musicians and other artists who are breaking new ground. One of the elements in the novel is the sense of unease about this new revolution in music and culture. These young people want to break with the traditional past. And that’s not always seen as a good thing.
And then there’s Steph Avery’s Our Trespasses, much of which takes place in 1966 South East London, a mecca for Mods, Rockers, and lots of social and cultural change. Caught up in it all are sisters Bridget ‘Bridie’ and Madeline ‘Midge’ Dolan. They’ve had a sheltered life and are considered ‘good girls.’ But they want to be a part of the social life of the era. One Friday night, they get their wish. They wangle permission from their mother to go to the Palais Royale, so long as their cousin Jimmy takes them and brings them home. The girls readily agree to this and get ready to go. The music is revolutionary and exciting, although it all makes Bridie a bit nervous. Before the night is over, there’s a tragedy that impacts the girls for the rest of their lives. And it has repercussions years later, when the body of a vagrant is found in a South London Underground station, and the police receive an anonymous letter confessing to the murder.
Whether you like Motown music or not, it’s hard to deny its influence. It really did represent a major change in music and has had a profound impact since it began. And, as we see from crime fiction, there’s often a bit of danger when something revolutionary comes along…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marvin Gaye, William ‘Mickey’ Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter’s Dancing in the Streets, made unforgettable by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. I know, fans of Mick Jagger and David Bowie. I’m just saying…