Blessed be the Nation: the story sung by Pete Seeger

Blessed be the Nation: the story sung by Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger, photo by Anthony Pepitone (Wikipedia)

Pete Seeger, photo by Anthony Pepitone (Wikipedia)

Following the death of Pete Seeger I came across reviews of an album put out in 1998 by Appleseed Recordings, an idealistic independent music label set up by Jim Musselman, a lawyer and activist who once worked with  Ralph Nader.  Musselman has devoted the label to releasing socially conscious contemporary and traditional folk and roots music by established and lesser-known musicians.  On the Appleseed website, Musselman speaks of the years when he worked with Ralph Nader:

I travelled the country for eight years, criss-crossing America in a Guthrie-esque way, seeing the nation and its citizens up close, learning the best ways to listen and to communicate. When I was organizing local communities to fight back against multinational corporations, I would start our open public meetings with a song, figuring that unifying people in singing was an important first step to unifying them in political action.

In 1997, for Appleseed’s first major project, Musselman approached numerous well-known musicians, along with writer Studs Terkel with a request to each record a song written, adapted or performed by Pete Seeger for a tribute album to highlight Seeger’s musical contributions and his tradition of mixing songs and political activism. The resulting  double CD Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger was the one I stumbled across as I followed internet references to Seeger in the days after his death.

Where Have All the Flowers Gone cover

It’s a terrific album from which you gain a holistic sense of the man and the causes he embraced. Jim Musselman also did a great job choosing songs from Seeger’s vast repertoire and matching each tune with an artist ‘based on either the philosophical fit between the artist and the message of the song and/or their unique musical style’, as he writes in the accompanying booklet. As an example of this approach, take the opening track – ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’ – sung by Irish songwriter and peace activist Tommy Sands with Bosnian Vedran Smailovic (‘the Cellist of Sarejevo).  Bear in mind that this was recorded in 1997, before the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland and only months after the lifting of the siege of Sarejevo.

The album includes 37 versions of Seeger-related songs specially recorded by luminaries such as Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Billy Bragg, Sweet Honey In The Rock, Ani DiFranco and many others.  The material is wonderful, every song reinforcing the picture of Seeger as both an interpreter of musical tradition and as a crusader for social justice.  The performances are first-rate, with many highlights. Bruce Springsteen’s gentle reading of ‘We Shall Overcome’, for example, precedes the version he recorded for his album, The Seeger Sessions many years later, while Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt offer a lilting reggae-inflected account of ‘Kisses Sweeter Than Wine’.  There are the songs that reflect Seeger’s later commitment to environmental issues and his campaign (entirely successful) to clean up his beloved, polluted Hudson river, such as ‘Sailing Down My Golden River’.

Lisa Kalvelage report

A remarkable, if less musical interlude comes with Ani DiFranco singing ‘My Name Is Lisa Kalvelage’, Pete’s adaptation of the words spoken in May 1966 by Lisa Kalvelage, one of four women who stopped a shipment of napalm to Vietnam by standing on a loading platform and refusing to move. Seeger’s words come from the statement she made in court after being arrested. Kalvelage likened her protest to lessons she learned from being raised in Nazi Germany – never to keep silent:

If you live in a democratic country where the government is you, you cannot say, ‘I followed orders,’ ” she told a reporter. “If you recognize that something is wrong, you have to speak out to set it straight.

But the words I really wanted to pass on in this post come from one of the two recitations on the album by the late Studs Terkel. It’s a reading of ‘Blessed Be The Nation’, verses Seeger left on a rock on an island where he had camped with his youngest daughter.  He elaborates in the CD booklet:

In 1964 I took my youngest daughter canoeing on a beautiful lake in Maine.  We camped on a little island and were dismayed to see the beach littered with bottles and cans.  We picked ’em all up.  I had a marker with me and wrote this graffiti on a flat stone.  I never wrote a tune, but someone else can try.

Seeger never put music to these words.  I’d like to share them here:

Cursed be the nation of any size or shape,
Whose citizens behave like naked apes,
And drop their litter where they please,
Just like we did when we swung from trees.

But blessed be the nation and blessed be the prize,
When citizens of any shape or size
Can speak their mind for any reason
Without being jailed or accused of treason.

Cursed be the nation without equal education,
Where good schools are something that we ration,
Where the wealthiest get the best that is able,
And the poor are left with crumbs from the table.

Blessed be the nation that keeps its waters clean,
Where an end to pollution is not just a dream,
Where factories don’t blow poisonous smoke,
And we can breath the air without having to choke.

Cursed be the nation where all play to win,
And too much is made of the colour of the skin,
Where we do not see each other as sister and brother,
But as being threats to each other.

Blessed be the nation with health care for all,
Where there’s a helping hand for those who fall,
Where compassion is in fashion every year,
And people, not profits, is what we hold dear.

There’s a recording of Studs Terkel reading the words on YouTube:

In another song on the album – ‘False from True’, sung by Guy Davis – Seeger ruefully observes the limits of protest in song.  But, as he remarks in the verse, he continued to sing our story for as long as he had breath within.  For that we can be thankful, for the words continue, inspiring succeeding generations:

No song I can sing will make a politician change his mind,
No song I can sing will take the gun from a hate-filled man;
But I promise you, and you, brothers and sisters of every skin,
I’ll sing your story while I’ve breath within.

Thatcher? Tramp the dirt down.

Thatcher? Tramp the dirt down.

Steve Bell NHS wakeup

Symbolic really: on the day that Margaret Thatcher’s death was announced, we get a letter informing us that ‘following a robust procurement process’  the GP practice at our local health centre has been acquired by a private company, SSP Health Ltd.

It’s part of a massive move by a company that is rapidly taking over GP practices across the North West.  In one fell swoop, SSP Health will now manage 22 GP practices in Merseyside.  Last November, in the Liverpool Echo, Paul Summers, northwest organiser for Unison, was quoted as saying: ‘We are very disappointed with this decision. The problem is that they are in it for the purpose of making a profit, which we believe is incompatible with delivering the best possible patient care. Staff and the public will be concerned about the future of these practices’.  Sam Semoff, from Keep Our NHS Public Merseyside, added: ‘We are very much opposed to any services going into the private sector’.

So Thatcher casts a long shadow.  The wave of privatising public services that she instigated is still rolling forward, and now laps hungrily at the shores of the NHS.

Recently, NHS Unlimited? Who runs our GP services?, a study of GP services put out to tender by the NHS which was carried out by the NHS Support Federation, had these words of warning about the process of GP procurement:

We believe that the extent of the commercialisation of GP services has been substantially understated. From our study we found 23 commercial companies that have multiple contracts and between them run a total of 227 GP surgeries and health centres. These are all private or public companies that have expressed publicly an interest in commercial expansion and have a corporate structure. Until now many of these expanding companies have been described as GP-led companies. We have found this to be misleading as it suggests that they have a non commercial focus and are managed by GPs, when in fact many of these companies have a profit making intent and a traditional corporate management structure. We found 18 examples of private companies that were started by groups of GPs but are now in the process of business expansion.

A small number of companies have a sizeable portfolio of NHS contracts. There are 9 companies with 10 or more contracts to run GP health centres or surgeries. Chilvers McCrea, described as a GP led company runs 35 surgeries across the country. Care UK and Assura (currently selling to Virgin), both public companies, have the largest number of contracts to run the large health centres with 11 and 12 each.  Local GP practices are finding it hard to afford to bid for contracts according to anecdotal evidence, which could lead local GP practices to be squeezed out as the NHS market matures. […]

Public scrutiny of these new providers of NHS services is very difficult. Their business strategies and approach to generating profit does impact upon the quality of the service and yet this information is often not collected by government or not made available by the companies themselves. Information about the contracts between providers and the NHS are not easily accessible. The public are often excluded from involvement in choosing a provider and the tendering process is not open to scrutiny. The complex structure of ownership makes it difficult to track who controls the service and where public money is going. Employing less GPs and more nurses is one cost cutting strategy of the profit motivated providers. The proportion of nurses is going up sharply and they outnumber GPs in many of the supposedly GP led health centres. […]

Profit is crucial for any companies, but for those companies with shareholders, profits have to be evident sooner rather than later as a rule. Investors can be placated for only so long with an optimistic business plan, eventually if no significant profit is forthcoming shareholder pressure on the company often leads to changes in business strategy and the divestment of loss-making business interests. Once the NHS was immune to such pressures from shareholders for quick profits and the uncertainties of the stock market, but now privatization means that the NHS can no longer avoid such pressures.

An investigation by Keep Our NHS Public found that a principal shareholder in SSP Health is also a director of 20 active companies including property and private medicine. The campaign also discovered a link to Capita, suggesting that SSP Health’s takeover of surgeries may strengthen Capita’s influence on what health services are commissioned in future. Capita is the largest ‘business process outsourcing’ company in the UK, a creation of Blair’s New Labour hubris (see Why it gets called Crapita). There’s almost no branch of local or central government that has not been outsourced to Capita – health care, housing, Criminal Records Bureau, you name it. In January, The Guardian explained why vulnerable residents fear a Crapita (as it has been named by Private Eye) takeover of Barnet Council Services.

Steve Bell miners

So how do we feel about Thatcher? Well, here in the north we’ll probably just hum along to Elvis Costello’s vitriolic ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’:

I think I’ll be going before we fold our arms and start to weep…
Well I hope I don’t die too soon
I pray the lord my soul to save
Oh I’ll be a good boy, I’m trying so hard to behave
Because there’s one thing I know I’d like to live long enough to savour
That’s when they finally put you in the ground
I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down

This is Elvis Costello talking about the song in a TV interview in 1989:

See Seven Streets’ post today – Why Liverpool Won’t Mourn Margaret Thatcher – for reasons why Costello’s song is the one to which we raise a glass today.  The piece angrily concludes:

30 years on we find ourselves unable to build our way out of a recession because we don’t have a remaining industrial base or the associated skills – all swapped for call centres and minimum-wage service-sector jobs – and the North is again to be sacrificed an the altar of ideology. Joe Anderson [Mayor] says that the effect in Liverpool of the coming cuts will be four times the national average. History repeats itself. Liverpool may have seen off Margaret Thatcher, but the effects of her tenure as Prime Minister will continue to felt across Merseyside, long beyond tonight’s parties and tomorrow’s sore heads.

Or read Ian Williams’ tart assessment Margaret Thatcher: A Flawed Legacy:

She was not nice, not popular and a person of narrow but tightly focused vision. But her flawed legacy lives on, mesmerizing, for example, Tony Blair.  Apart from the pious politicians, one suspects that sackcloth and ashes will he hard to discern on the streets of London, that in pubs across the former industrial heartland of Britain, many pint glasses will be raised in tasteful celebration.

Maybe there was one blessing of those dark years.  Reading Dorian Lynskey’s 33 Revolutions recently underlined how the Thatcher era saw the last great outpouring of protest song.  As Lynskey observes on the Guardian website today:

Protest songs thrive on combat. Complicated policy details may cause the songwriter’s pen to freeze but larger-than-life politicians who polarise opinion enable the ink to flow. It is striking that, despite all the frustration and ferment of the punk era, nobody wrote a memorable song about Jim Callaghan. But to musicians on the left Margaret Thatcher was an irresistible super-villain who threw all the conflicts of the time into sharp relief. Penny Rimbaud of anarcho-punk radicals Crass once told me: “I think Thatcher was an absolute fairy godmother. Christ, you’re an anarchist band trying to complain about the workings of capitalist society and you get someone like Thatcher. What a joy!”

Never before had a British prime minister so explicitly identified certain sectors of society as enemies — trade unionists, socialists, liberals — and so diligently set out to crush them. Thatcher’s infamous description of Arthur Scargill’s miners as “the enemy within” (the Argentinian dictator General Galtieri being the enemy without) spoke volumes about her need for foes and this Manichean outlook cut both ways, as did the strength of her personality. The single word “Thatcher”, said with appropriate contempt, handily encapsulated everything the 1980s left opposed.

Here are five of my favourites from those times – each one a brilliant example of the form.

To end this bilious outburst, here’s a magnificent response from Morrissey, posted on Dorian Lynskey’s own blog this morning.  It really captures the visceral hatred that Thatcher aroused:

Every move she made was charged by negativity; she destroyed the British manufacturing industry, she hated the miners, she hated the arts, she hated the Irish Freedom Fighters and allowed them to die, she hated the English poor and did nothing at all to help them, she hated Greenpeace and environmental protectionists, she was the only European political leader who opposed a ban on the ivory trade, she had no wit and no warmth and even her own cabinet booted her out. She gave the order to blow up The Belgrano even though it was outside of the Malvinas Exclusion Zone—and was sailing AWAY from the islands! When the young Argentinean boys aboard The Belgrano had suffered a most appalling and unjust death, Thatcher gave the thumbs-up sign for the British press.

Iron? No. Barbaric? Yes. She hated feminists even though it was largely due to the progression of the women’s movement that the British people allowed themselves to accept that a prime minister could actually be female. But because of Thatcher, there will never again be another woman in power in British politics, and rather than opening that particular door for other women, she closed it.

Thatcher will only be fondly remembered by sentimentalists who did not suffer under her leadership, but the majority of British working people have forgotten her already, and the people of Argentina will be celebrating her death. As a matter of recorded fact, Thatcher was a terror without an atom of humanity.

Perhaps the most sober assessment is found in the closing words of today’s Guardian editorial:

There should be no dancing on her grave but it is right there is no state funeral either. Her legacy is of public division, private selfishness and a cult of greed, which together shackle far more of the human spirit than they ever set free.

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

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