A history of protest songs, 33 Revolutions Per Minute, covers everything from Billie Holiday to Green Day, and engages Matthew Cookson
Guardian music critic Dorian Lynskey’s new book is a wide-ranging and thought-provoking look at the history of protest songs.
It begins with Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and 33 chapters later ends with Green Day’s “American Idiot”. For each track it explores the song and the artist who performed it.
Crucially, Lynskey puts each song in the social context that it was produced in.
The book punches through the perception that protest songs are embarrassing. Lynskey shows that protest and pop can come together to create great art that can affect millions.
The Jewish Communist Abel Meeropol wrote “Strange Fruit” in 1939 after seeing a picture of two black men who had been lynched. It was one of the first songs to deal with the extreme racism of the US.
Holiday’s haunting and forceful voice sings, “Southern Trees bear a strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swinging from the poplar trees.”
Her performance of the song, with the only light in the room shining harshly on her, captivated audiences in New York in 1939.
“Strange Fruit”, as Lynskey writes, “was not by any means the first protest song, but it was the first to shoulder an explicit political message into the arena of entertainment”.
The book focuses on the impact of political songs in the US, looking at the work and lives of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan.
It is particularly good on the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. By exploring the songs of James Brown, John Lennon, Gil Scott-Heron and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young among others, it explores the movement and the divisions wracking society.
As the civil rights movement came up against the strength of the establishment, a number of young black people looked to more militant actions to bring about change.
Frustrated with the non-violence of the official movement, people such as Stokely Carmichael began to argue for Black Power.
The revolutionary Black Panther Party emerged from this ferment, as did radical spoken word poets such as Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets.
James Brown was already a star. He was in favour of more black rights, but in an individualised form of self-improvement. He claimed his ownership of radio stations was “black power”.
But this conservatism did not fit with the growing radicalisation of the time and Brown came under pressure to make a more radical statement. He responded with, “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”, which was a huge hit.
Brown later complained that the song lost him part of his white audience.
But he still continued to keep in with the establishment, playing at right wing president Richard Nixon’s inaugural ball, even though he supported his opponent in the election.
Neil Young wrote “Ohio” in response to the murder of four students at Kent state by National Guardsmen in May 1970.
They had been protesting against the US military’s extension of the Vietnam war into Cambodia. The shootings saw protests by students across the country.
But the US was deeply polarised, with pro-war demonstrations and attacks on anti-war protesters. Nixon’s landslide re-election in 1972 confirmed the strength of the right and disillusioned many on the left, including many artists.
This wasn’t the end of the protest song though, and the late 1970s and the early 1980s saw the birth of punk in Britain and rap in the US.
Through bands like the Clash and Grandmaster Flash, punk and rap documented the alienation, frustration and oppression of the young and black people.
Lynskey concludes by looking at political artists, such as Rage Against the Machine, the Manic Street Preachers and Green Day.
The only duff note is the apologetic chapter on U2’s singer Bono, who has degraded himself politically and artistically before the world’s powerful while claiming to be a fighter for change.
Lynskey wonders if his book is a “eulogy” to the protest song because of its failure to “catch light during the Bush years”.
While the last few years has seen a dearth of decent protest songs, the growing feeling against the government and cuts could see a renaissance in this form of art.
Lynskey’s book is a highly readable and engrossing history of a certain kind of popular movement, with whole sections that can just be dipped into when you’re in the mood.
33 Revolutions Per Minute by Dorian Lynskey, £17.99, Faber. Buy this book from Bookmarks the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk