In Honor of Black Fathers-Black Men in Love: The Motown Songbook

June 20, 2010

You are my pride and joy
And I just love you, little darlin’
Like a baby boy loves his toy
You’ve got kisses sweeter than honey
And I work seven days a week to give you all my money
And that’s why you are my pride and joy
And I’m tellin’ the world

-Marvin Gaye

During the 1960s, it common place to hear black men say and sing to black women, “How sweet it is to be loved by you” or “You are my everything”. These statements echoed the emotional sentiments of the Motown song writers: Smokey Robinson, Marvin Tarplin, William Stevens, Brain, Edward Holland, Lamont Dozier, Bobby Rogers, Marvin Gaye, Norman Whitfield, Clarence Paul, Barrett Strong, Stevie Wonder, and Henry Cosby. All of these men and others contributed to the Great American Songbook known as the Motown Sound and Songbook. The Beatles and James Taylor, masters of songwriting themselves, recorded Motown songs. Bob Dylan spoke of Smokey Robinson as ‘the greatest living American poet.”

This songbook was much more than a collection of songs. It (songbook) speaks volumes about softer side of black men as well as their humanity. For these writers were not exceptions, but reflective of black men, in particular young black men, who lived in low-income neighborhoods. They refused to let the circumstances around them, public or low-income housing and other factors associated with low-income status, mute their imagination or lower their moral expectations, especially as it related to male/female relationships. Instead, they gave black men and women a new vocabulary which to speak to each other-“You’re A Wonderful One”, new concepts of love-“Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” and “Distant Lover” and “Your Precious Love”, and a deeper understanding of the complexity of relationships- “All Is Fair In Love” and “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game”.

Where today’s songwriters and producers see artists from inner-city projects as perfect instruments for rap street stories and gritty hip-hop soul, the men at Motown dreamed higher, imagining, for example, the Brewster Housing’s own Diana Ross as just the vehicle for a classic ballad. In the midst of a low-income neighborhood, they heard a symphony. At Motown, “95 percent of the songs were written by young, black men,” Jordan says. “They wrote for the male and female artists, and brought to it a sense of vulnerability any English professor would be proud of. Coming out of Detroit, one of harshest environments you could imagine, they elected to write love songs.”

The Motown writers drew their inspiration and song materials from ordinary life in the “neighborhood,” giving beauty and narrative to everyday life of black people. They weighed-in on the enduring power of love, “What Love Has Joined Together”, writing poetically. It would be easier to take the cold from snow or the heat from fire
than for anyone to take my love from you ’cause you’re my heart’s desire, I really love you. What love has joined together can’t nobody take it apart”.
To be sure they advised that love transcended space and time and that when men and women are joined together in their hearts, nothing is impossible: “Even if they separate us,” the songwriter says “a thousand miles apart, we will still be together in each other’s heart. It would be easier to change all the seasons…baby, of the year than for anyone to change the way I feel about you; I love you dear”.

Moreover, Motown writers knew that the bonds of love kept men and women tied together no matter the circumstance: From “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”:

Listen, baby/ Ain’t no mountain high/ Ain’t no valley low/ Ain’t no river wide enough, baby/ If you need me, call me/ No matter where you are/ No matter how far/ Just call my name/ I’ll be there in a hurry/ You don’t have to worryRemember the day/ I set you free/ I told you/ You could always count on me/ From that day on I made a vow/ I’ll be there when you want me/ Some way, some howMy love is alive/ Way down in my heart/ Although we are miles apart/ If you ever need a helping hand/ I’ll be there on the double/ As fast as I can

The Motown male songwriters captured the female perspective instructing men and women: “You Can’t Hurry Love”.They revered women, writing about ordinary black women as Goddesses and magicians, cherishing them, seeing them as central and essential to life. From “My Girl”:

I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day.  When it’s cold outside I’ve got the month of May. I guess you’d say what can make me feel this way? My girl/ I’ve got so much honey the bees envy me. I’ve got a sweeter song than the birds in the trees. I guess you’d say what can make me feel this way? My girl/ I don’t need no money, fortune, or fame. I’ve got all the riches baby one man can claim. I guess you’d say what can make me feel this way? My girl.

The Motown writers were unafraid to tell about the vulnerability of men, writing Please Return Your Love to Me: “I cry myself to sleep at night/For fear of another holding you tight for and baby I miss you with each passing day/Every night on my knees I pray.” And black men rush to apologize, even crying to display their remorse and hurt, if they were caught doing wrong: From “The Track of My Tears”:

People say I’m the life of the party/ Because I tell a joke or two
Although I might be laughing loud and hearty/ Deep inside I’m blue
So take a good look at my face/ You’ll see my smile looks out of place
If you look closer, it’s easy to trace/ The tracks of my tears

Again, in contrast to the popular male image of today, black men were unafraid to show their emotions and share their pain. Sometime the hurt from the lost of a woman was so great the man was immobilized and wish for rain. From “I Wish It Would Rain”:

Sunshine, blue skies, please go away/ My girl has found another and gone away/ With her went my future, my life is filled with gloom/ So day after day, I stay locked up in my room I know to you it might sound strange/ But I wish it would rain
Cause so badly I wanna go outside. (Such a lovely day)/ But everyone knows that a man ain’t supposed to cry, listen
I gotta cry ‘cause cryin’ eases the pain, oh yeah/ People this hurt I feel inside, words could never explain/ I just wish it would rain

The Motown Songbook, which surely is America’s Great Songbook, is a narrative of black men in love. The lessons of love which they the men at Motown wrote about helped to inform and shape black male/female relationship. Equally important, their songs gave spiritual and moral guidance to black men, instructing them in the ways love, forever reminding them of divinity of black women because: “Heaven must have sent you {black men} from above.”


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