33 Revolutions: Dorian Lynskey’s homage to songs of protest

Billie Holiday

When I picked up Dorian Lynskey’s 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs I expected short essays on 33 selected songs.  What you get is a massive tome, clocking in at around 800 pages, that uses 33 songs – from Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ in 1939 to Green Day’s’ American Idiot’ in 2004 – as triggers for something more ambitious: nothing less than a social, political and cultural history of the times in which the song was born.

Lynskey is a music writer for the Guardian, whose name first came to my attention when he used to edit the weekly Readers Recommend playlist columns in that paper.  He makes a good job of weaving the stories of the songs into their wider historical and cultural contexts.  I thought I had read all there was to know about about the songs of protest that came out of the struggle for black civil rights in America or the movement against the Vietnam war, but Lynskey’s early chapters covering that period are engrossing, insightful and well-written.

33 Revolutions cover

With a book like this, you can always cite omissions; Lynskey covers his back somewhat by complementing the 33 chosen songs with a phenomenal 30-page appendix listing other songs mentioned in the text – plus another list of 100 songs not mentioned.  manna from heaven for list fanatics and playlist-compilers like me!  But you can still question Lynskey’s decision to begin his survey with ‘Strange Fruit’, first sung by Holiday in 1939. So much came before. Lynskey argues that prior to ‘Strange Fruit’ protest songs ‘had nothing to do with mainstream popular music’ but ‘were designed for specific audiences — picket lines, folk schools, party meetings’.  Well, ‘Strange Fruit’ wasn’t exactly mainstream popular music, and what about (just off the top off my head) ‘How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times’ (1929) or Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime’ (1932) which, sung by Bing Crosby was about as mainstream as you can get?

Although Lynskey’s account of the development of black American music from the 1960s onwards is excellent – demonstrating how contrasts and contradictions in the music mirrored the emerging gulf between the non-violent tradition of the civil rights movement and more militant black power activism – he is strangely silent for the most part about the significant current of protest in the blues, a music which catered to a mass audience, even if it wasn’t mainstream.  Before Lynskey’s cut-off date this would give you, for example, Lead Belly’s ‘Bourgeois Blues’, Louis Armstrong singing Fats Waller’s ‘What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue?’ or Big Bill Broonzy’s ‘Black, Brown and White’, a song he’d been singing to black American audiences for years, but which every record company he had ever sung it for had turned down, finally being recorded on a trip to Paris in 1951.

This little song that I’m singin’ about
People you know it’s true
If you’re black and gotta work for a living
This is what they will say to you
They says if you was white, should be all right
If you was brown, stick around
But as you’s black, m-mm brother, git back git back git back

Nevertheless, Lynskey does a good job within his chosen period, covering often well-trodden ground in a fresh and engaging way.  The 33 chapters are organised into five sections, the early ones dealing with distinct and familiar issues: racial discrimination (‘Strange Fruit’, Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddam’, James Brown’s ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud’, Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’), poverty (Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’), war (Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’, Country Joe’s ‘Fixin’ To Die’, Plastic Ono Band’s ‘Give Peace a Chance’, Edwin Starr’s ‘War’, and Neil Young’s ‘Ohio’).

Lynskey has largely restricted his survey to American and British examples, though there are workmanlike chapters on Chile (Victor Jara), Nigeria (Fela Kuti) and Jamaican music. There’s nothing from anywhere else: whether the rest of Europe, Africa or the Arab world.  To a degree, I think that’s OK – after all, the book is already 800 pages long!

Where I felt the book began to lose its impetus was in its coverage of the period after the 1980s.  This may partly reflect my own age, experience and musical interests, though I think there are two additional factors.  One is that the later chapters seem to focus less on outstanding songs and more on the scene; they tend to become lists of artists and songs.  The other issue is whether there was, in fact, a golden age of protest songs that ended, say, with punk.

Indeed, Lynskey finished the first edition in 2010 with a rather wistful epilogue, in which he wrote:

I began this book intending to write a history of a still vital form of music. I finished by wondering if I had instead composed a eulogy.

In the 2012 paperback edition he’s qualified that sentiment somewhat, writing:

We have to concede that the era of the mainstream protest song, when it was such a natural part of the pop conversation that even the biggest artists in the world felt moved to write one or two, is over.  Protest music no longer has a clear and undeniable presence…

As he observes, this has a great deal to do with decline in traditional forms of political engagement that inspired the protest songs of the past, as well as the atomisation of music genres, listening habits and means of acquiring music. Despite this, he concludes his new epilogue by reminding us that ‘Pop music, like history, has a habit of springing surprises’.  Maybe it’s worth adding words spoken by Pete Seeger some sixty years ago:

We need thousands of new songs these days: humour, to poke fun at some of the damn foolishness going on in the world; songs of love and faith in mankind and the future; songs to needle our consciences and stir our indignation and anger.

Dorian Lynskey comes from a later generation than either Seeger or me: he was ten when Holly Johnson’s Frankie Goes to Hollywood released ‘Two Tribes’, a song that tapped into fears in the Thatcher-Reagan era of nuclear war. This may account for the attention that Lynskey (quite rightly) gives to Frankie’s disco hit, whose power was enormously enhanced by its accompanying video.

Exhilarated by the record, Lynskey began tuning in to the news and politics, the stuff Holly Johnson was singing about: evidence that though protest songs may not bring about immediate change, they have the habit of seeping into a listener’s consciousness, incubating political and social attitudes for a lifetime.  From my own experience, I can vouch for that. I doubt there were many more significant factors determining my own politics than the anthems of the civil rights movement or Dylan’s early protest songs: they shaped my political consciousness, while later protest songs merely confirmed my views.

Dylan is the touchstone, still: if you ask most people, ‘Off the top of your head, name a protest singer’, most would probably answer, ‘Bob Dylan’.  But as Lynskey points out, all his protest songs were written in less than two years; after that, with a couple of (perhaps ill-chosen) exceptions he’s avoided the genre like the plague. But, man, was he good at it! Discussing ‘Masters of War’, Lynskey observes that the song’s ‘naked contempt’ sets it apart from the ‘sweet reason’ of folk at the time. As Dylan explained decades later, ‘It’s not an anti-war song. It’s speaking against what Eisenhower was calling a military-industrial complex.’ For Lynskey, ‘Masters of War’ is ‘the most evil-sounding protest song Dylan ever recorded’.

‘You’ – yew – he sneers at the warmongers, bringing to bear all of his poisonous rage, ‘you ain’t worth the blood that runs in your veins.’ In the final verse, Dylan tracks his quarry’s coffin to its resting place and stands over it ’till I’m sure that you’re dead’. You imagine that he might clamber down into the grave, crack open the casket and give the corpse a good kick just to be sure. He turns the topic of the military-industrial complex into an ancient horror story in which a wrongdoer is pursued by a vengeful spirit. It is also a form of generational warfare. … He admits he is young, and that there’s a lot he doesn’t know, but he knows enough to damn his targets to hell. ‘I’ve never really written anything like that before,’ said Dylan in the liner notes to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. ‘I don’t sing songs which hope people will die, but I couldn’t help it with this one. The song is a sort of striking out, a reaction to the last straw, a feeling of what can you do?’

Lynskey’s observations here are about more than the lyrics; he’s suggesting that the form and the sound of the song can be part of the message, too. Discussing Jimi Hendrix’s spine-tingling rendition of The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, he quotes the Rolling Stone journalist Jon Landau who said that the music should convey the brunt of the meaning. Lynskey points to cases where the form and sound of a song made its meaning ambiguous.  Regarding the Stones’ ‘Street Fighting Man’ he writes, ‘Jagger’s lyrical reservations were obliterated by the music’s exultant menace.  It sounded like revolution, and that was what mattered’.

He makes a similarly acute observation about Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’, refusing to ‘smirk at the knuckleheads’ who didn’t get it.  The official version of ‘Born in the USA’ was misunderstood so widely, Lanskey argues, that Springsteen has to take some of the blame. ‘A song’s meaning does not just reside in its lyrics, but in its melody, its production, its tone of voice’, Lynskey writes.  He brilliantly explains how the original recording of the song was more true to its meaning:

During the Nebraska sessions, Springsteen demoed a song called ‘Born in the USA’, narrated by a maimed and unemployed Vietnam veteran who has ‘nowhere to run’. Alone with his guitar,  Springsteen sings like a man who has nothing, and reiterates the title like it’s a curse rather than a blessing. [Springsteen's producer] Landau called the acoustic version ‘a dead song’ but what would happen to it later would add more layers of irony to the title than it could bear: it would be murdered by irony. … The words of ‘Born in the USA’ needed to be handled with more care. On the demo, you feel like you’re leaning in to the life story of a broken man; on the single, he’s hollering it at you while riding in a tank. …You don’t hear bleakness and betrayal: you hear a battle cry. Landau thought the original version was too small, but this one is far too big. It is a Trojan horse with the door jammed shut. The subversive lyric cannot get out.

One of the best examples of how Lynskey probes the relationship between the words and the sound, and relates the music to the politcs, can be found in his discussion of Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ and Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddam’ – the two defining black protest songs of 1963. Simone’s song was written in a murderous rage after she heard the news that four black children had been killed when a white racist detonated a bomb that destroyed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Cooke’s song was his response to the murderous response of southern white racists to the Freedom Rides, a wave of violence that began to crack apart the unity of the civil rights movement. All across black America in 1964, patience was wearing thin, as one small incident revealed.  At the end of Martin Luther King’s historic speech to the vast crowds at the Lincoln Memorial, a furious voice from the crowd had yelled: ‘Fuck that dream, Martin! Now, Goddam it, now’

Lynskey puts it in a nutshell:

Simone’s song was ‘Now, Goddam it, now!’ set to music: Cooke’s was ‘I have a a dream’. Gospel preached patience and endurance: keep on. To a Forman or a Carmichael, that kind of faith in the face of lead pipes. and fire hoses made you a sucker.To King and the believers, it represented a quiet strength which refused to be distorted by rage and hatred.

‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ united the pain and loneliness of blues with the redemptive promise of gospel. In Lynskey’s words, ‘It is a statement of faith under almost unendurable pressure. Tellingly, Lynskey notes how Cooke

Sings the title four  times during the song, his conviction increasing each time, like someone testing a rope to see how much weight it can bear. And so he is bruised and battered and brought to his knees but finally, in the last verse, he can sing, ‘I think I’m able to carry on.’ Cooke renders the civil rights struggle as one man’s vacillation between despair and hope, the two emotions doing battle most fiercely in just one word: the extended, wavering long in the final refrain, of ‘it’s been a long, a long time coming’.

‘Mississippi Goddam’ was never recorded in a studio, so the best-known version, recorded on 21 March 1964, allows you to hear the song punctuated by the (mostly white) audience’s reaction. They’ve never heard this song before and they think it’s funny and she tricks them into thinking it’s going to be quite lighthearted.  She gets angrier and angrier, and the chorus becomes more and more hair-raising.  You can just hear the audience freeze; they just don’t know what to do.  They’ve just been hit by something they’ve never heard before.  This is how Lynskey describes it:

‘The name of this tune is ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ said Nina Simone in her unmistakably regal tones, seated at her piano on the stage of Carnegie Hall. ‘And I mean every word of it.’  Simone strikes up a muscular vamp on the piano’ somewhere between jauntiness and hysteria. She announces the title to gales of cosy laughter. She sings the first verse with lusty vigour, then says, ‘This is a show tune but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.’ More laughter, but this time tense and muted. In the next verse, her performance becomes more threatening as she conjures up bad omens of black cats and hound dogs on her trail. You can sense the mirth freezing in the audience’s throats as she climbs the rungs of her disquiet, from personal confusion to religious doubt to volcanic rage. ‘Don’t tell me, I’ll tell you,’ she snaps, and every white person in Carnegie Hall is implicated in that you. ‘Me and my people are just about due’. Her band members chime in as the voice of the establishment -’Do it slow’ – as her impatience builds and builds, and the song snaps in two. ‘I bet you thought I was kiddin’, didn’t you?’ she says teasingly, and now there is no laughter at all because she is singing of picket lines and school boycotts and segregation and centuries of racist deceit, and her anger is magnificent and shocking:

‘This whole country is full of lies

You’re all gonna die and die like flies
I don’t trust you anymore.’

Even at a distance of over four decades you can almost taste the tension in the air, metallic like electricity or blood.  She smacks the piano keys, extrudes from her mouth a long, ragged Goooodddaaaaaamm, and whoops a final ‘That’s it!’

Fine writing; but to my mind, it’s hard to find the equivalent in the last half of the book.  And the reason for that has to be that the story Lynskey has to tell becomes less heroic: great songs like these just aren’t there.

Lynskey singles out Neil Young’s ‘Ohio’ as doing all the things a topical song should do.  It responds with precision, and is a brilliant, memorable piece of music.  It captures the intense emotion of the moment – you can tell it was written hours after he had read the May 1970 issue of Life magazine that contained a vivid account and shocking photos of of the killing of four students by the Ohio  National Guard during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University.  The song was rush-released so that it came out while people were still feeling the rawness of that emotion.  Says Lynskey: ‘It’s one of those protest songs that whichever way you measure it, it’s not found wanting.  Ohio sets itself a task and executes it perfectly’.

‘If any protest song can be said to have had a tangible effect on its subject matter’, asserts Lynskey, ‘it is ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ by the Special AKA’. It was written to raise awareness of Nelson Mandela’s incarceration, and by raising awareness of him, it raised awareness of the anti-apartheid cause in general. The song’s composer, Jerry Dammers, went on to found the lobby group Artists Against Apartheid, while the song (which entered the UK top ten in March 1984) became a part of the revival of the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s which led to sanctions, boycotts and, ultimately, to Mandela’s release.  The song was adopted by the ANC and Mandela later told Dammers that it was very important to him.

Dorian Lynskey’s book is a great read, narrating even those parts of the story with you may already be familiar with verve and insight.  The copious lists at the back of the book will keep mixtape compilers happy for hours and hours.  But when you’ve done with book and playlists, you’re left with the question: has the golden age of protest song passed?

The 33 Songs

1. Billie Holiday Strange Fruit
2. Woody Guthrie This Land is Your Land
3. Pete Seeger We Shall Overcome
4. Bob Dylan Masters of War
5. Nina Simone Mississippi Goddam
6. Country Joe and The Fish Feel Like I’m Fixin to Die Rag
7. James Brown Say It Loud I’m Black and Proud
8. Plastic Ono Band Give Peace a Chance
9. Edwin Starr War
10. Crosby Stills Nash and Young Ohio
11. Gil Scot-Heron The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
12. Stevie Wonder Living For The City
13. Victor Jara Manifesto
14. Fela Kuti and Afrika 70 Zombie
15. Max Romeo and The Upsetters War Ina Babylon
16. The Clash White Riot
17. Carl Bean I Was Born This Way
18. Linton Kwesi Johnson Sonny’s Letter
19. The Dead Kennedys Holiday in Cambodia
20. Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five The Message
21. Crass How Does It Feel
22. Frankie Goes to Hollywood Two Tribes
23. U2 Pride (In The Name of Love)
24. The Special AKA Nelson Mandela
25. Billy Bragg Between the Wars
26. R.E.M. Exhuming McCarthy
27. Public Enemy Fight The Power
28. Huggy Bear Her Jazz
29. The Prodigy Their Law
30. Manic Street Preachers Of Walking Abortion
31. Rage Against The Machine Sleep Now in The Fire
32. Steve Earle John Walkers Blues
33. Green Day American Idiot

See also

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2 thoughts on “33 Revolutions: Dorian Lynskey’s homage to songs of protest

  1. Hi Gerry, really enjoyed this post, and will explore some of the tracks mentioned.
    Couldn’t help thinking of Pink Floyds “Us and Them” , which perhaps was retrospective, but makes a point and also their album “The Wall.” The latter was amazingly popular and seemed to touch a nerve for a wide variety of people.
    Perhaps this current era is one in which the hunger for celebrity status, and celebrity worship has dulled the appetite to both produce or buy songs with a message?

  2. Great, thoughtful post! Critical in a useful way as well. I think Neil Young, when asked why he had written Living With War should he let younger musicians protest, answered that he had waited for them and no-one had bothered so he wrote the Iraqi war protest songs. Perhaps being Candain made him smarter? Seems we’ve become digital pacifists in the face of big government and big capitalism, so Lynskey’s curation of protest is valuable, perhaps his biases might get a younger generation involved, or inspired.

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