What rhymes with Michigan? How about “fish again”? Or “wish again”? That’s what Irving Berlin came up with when he wrote the lyrics for “I Want to Go Back to Michigan,” which Judy Garland sang in the 1948 film Easter Parade.
Although I grew up in Pontiac, Michigan, I was born in the Army hospital at Fort McClellan in Anniston, Alabama (my dad was stationed at Redstone Arsenal in nearby Huntsville). I lived in Australia for a couple of years in my 20’s, followed by a 5-year stay in Reno, then 20 years in Madison, Wisconsin. I returned to Michigan at the end of 2007 and now live in East Lansing. My life moved in a big circle.
Back in Michigan, I noticed right away that many residents of the state now call themselves “Michiganians.” I’ve always said “Michigander.” And I don’t remember anyone referring to the state as “The Mitten” when I lived here before. I hear it all the time now. I am familiar, though, with the tradition of lower-peninsula Michiganders holding up our hand and pointing to a spot on our “map” to show where we’re from.
I’m always on the lookout for songs that mention Michigan. There aren’t many. In addition to Berlin’s “I Want to Go Back to Michigan,” we have the swinging “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo” (1942), which the Andrews Sisters tweaked into “I’ve Got a Guy in Kalamazoo.”
Saginaw stars in a 1964 hit country tune by Lefty Frizzell called simply “Saginaw, Michigan.” The city is also referenced in Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” from 1968:
Michigan seems like a dream to me now
It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw
I’ve gone to look for America
Fats Domino’s first release in 1950 features “Detroit City Blues,” on the flip side of “The Fat Man.” The country song “Detroit City” (also called “I Wanna Go Home”), a Grammy winner in 1964, is about wanting to leave Detroit and its automobile-factory jobs, to return to the South.
Detroit, of course, is the hub of Michigan’s musical history. It’s the hometown of Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, and Smokey Robinson, to name a few. The Motown record company, started by Berry Gordy in 1959, gave us Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops… It’s a long list.
Fifty years ago this summer, Martha and the Vandellas recorded “Dancing in the Street” in Motown’s Hitsville U.S.A. studios. The rest, as they say, is history. The song charted immediately and remains a classic, covered by musicians from The Mamas and the Papas to Mick Jagger and David Bowie.
Author Mark Kurlansky used the song to frame an entire book about music, politics, and racial integration in the 1960s: Ready for a Brand New Beat: How “Dancing in the Street” Became the Anthem for a Changing America. In it, he says,
“At Motown, songs were not written the way Rodgers and Hammerstein did, combining a composer and a lyricist. Everybody did a bit of everything.”
For “Dancing in the Street,” the collaboration involved Mickey Stevenson, Ivy Jo Hunter, and Marvin Gaye.
According to Kurlansky, Hunter credits Marvin Gaye with naming the cities in the song,
“selecting urban centers that had important black communities … After Gaye listed several of these, Hunter said, ‘Can’t forget the Motor City.’ And it went into the song just like that.”
So here you go. A quintessential summer song. I dare you to sit still while you listen.
Copyright © 2014 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.