“Picket lines, and picket signs…
Don’t punish me with brutality.
Talk to me, so you can see,
what’s going on..
Yea, what’s going on…”
– Obie Benson/Marvin Gaye
Sometimes a window opens up on the history of a song like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On,” that stuns me. This morning my husband sent me a link to an archived article from the 2006 issue of Performing Songwriter by music historian, Bill DeMain, titled, “Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Goin’ On’.“
At first I wasn’t sure if I could carve out the time to read something new, about a song I’d already, mentally, filed away as a great little protest song. But because Jeff..who knows how little time I have for reading anything that isn’t work-related…sent it, I thought I’d at least scan the opening paragraph.
As the Rene’s character says in Jerry MacGuire, “You had me at hello..” And this article did. I won’t try to rework the text into my own piece here, I will just offer you (in the first paragraph above) the same link Jeff sent me.
It’s a stunning tribute to the courage and grace of men who stood for something, at a time when within a decade of the song’s release, men of color were still being lynched, and there was little, or no, support for people of color, having a voice of social protest. This is not an article about Bob Dylan, Joan Baez or Arlo Guthrie, all wonderful artists who gave the world songs of protest that raised collective awareness about war, peace, fairness, and global responsibility.
It is an article about a man of color who wasn’t satisfied to be a successful pop singer whose subject matter was restricted to falling-in-love, heartbreak, and little deuce coupes. This was a man of conscience who needed his music to speak honestly, about the issues of the day. This was a man of great courage. I will let you read the article for yourself, but I will close with this statement from the final paragraph of the article:
“As Marvin once said, ‘To be truly righteous, you offer love with a pure heart, without regard for what you’ll get in return. I had myself in that frame of mind. People were confused and needed reassurance. God was offering that reassurance through his music. I was privileged to be the instrument.'”
I will never listen to “What’s Going On,” in the same way again.
Thank you, Obie, Marvin, and Jeff, for sharing it…
If you want to hear all of the remarkable layering in the original recording that is referred to in the artcle, be sure to click on the recorded link embedded in the article.