Dorian Lynskey,
33 Revolutions Per Minute:
A History of Protest Songs
from Billie Holiday to Green Day

(HarperCollins, 2011)

"There are innocuous folk songs, but we regard 'em with scorn/the folks who sing 'em have no social conscience why, they don't even care if Jimmy Crack Corn."

- Tom Lehrer, "The Folk Song Army"

What is protest music anyway, and what does it hope to accomplish? What makes a good protest song? Are protest songs passe? If you think you know, you haven't read 33 Revolutions Per Minute.

The confluence of music and politics is an interesting place. In this history of popular protest music (1939-2008) author Dorian Lynskey explores 33 songs important to the history of pop-rock, disco, country, hip-hop and folk music. He looks at the stories of the artists who came to write and record these classics. A strong storyteller, he keeps the pages turning from Billie Holiday and Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan to reggae, soul and even disco, right through to the post-2004 wave of anti-Bush songs.

The stated intention is for this to be a history of Western popular music, though this author sticks specifically to the UK -- primarily England -- and the U.S. (with short forays to places such as Jamaica and Nigeria, more-or-less in the English language orbit). It reflects the main preoccupations (race, class and war) of those countries.

Lynskey provides mini-bios of the artists and puts their music in the political context of the times. And these are interesting times....

If 33 Revolutions reminds us of anything, it's that protest is often a matter of positioning. How far does an artist dare to go? Sometimes protest is good business; sometimes it can be a career killer.

With original interviews and solid research, Lynskey charts a clear course, with a particular strength in the history of black popular music forms, from jazz to soul, reggae to afrobeat and more. He begins powerfully with Billie Holiday and the phenomenon that was "Strange Fruit" -- pure protest without being particularly, as the author puts it, entertaining. Later, the overlapping civil rights and Vietnam eras in the U.S. provide fertile ground for the protest song. There is also the backlash, pro-war, etc., which produced some protest music of its own.

In the late 1970s, the UK becomes more politicized in the author's view as the punk era begins. In the '80s, with Thatcher and Reagan in power and nuclear arsenals growing, the focus on many artists' minds was nuclear war, as well as other more local concerns. With the emergence of the Clash, Billy Bragg and Ireland's U2, Britain becomes the home of more and more galvanized, radicalized and downright angry artists.

Gay rights related protest music also came to the fore in the late '70s, and this gets it due in 33 Revolutions -- the Tom Robinson Band, among others, though Bronski Beat's "Smalltown Boy" could have had a mention.

Predictably, Live Aid and Band-Aid are discussed in some detail (The UK and U.S. efforts for African famine at least; the Canadian one with Neil Young, Rush, Bryan Adams and Gordon Lightfoot is ignored) as well as the reaction of various artists to Apartheid. The Paul Simon Graceland controversy is raised. As well, attention is given the misunderstanding of some protest songs (Springsteen's "Born in the USA" and U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday," which were taken to mean the opposite of the author's intent).

The last few chapters deal with the tragedy of the Manic Street Preachers, plus REM, Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine and the anti-Bush songs of the 2006-08 era. Of particular poignancy is the story of Richey Edwards of the Anglo-Welsh Manic Street Preachers, whose mental illness and later presumed suicide produced protest songs that were basically against humanity itself.

One quibble: The Western protest song turns out, in this author's view, to be confined more or less to the United States and Britain and usually has to do with war, race and, in Britain, class war. At the end he seems to conclude that the protest song may be over. This may be true in Britain and America, and if you listen to the commercial radio today you may conclude that; but it's certainly not true in the Spanish and Italian states, to name just two places where it's vibrant today. The author might want to check out Obrint Pas (Valencia) or Assalti Frontali (Rome) as to the great protest music being recorded today in Europe. Other than short forays to Nigeria (Fela Kuti), Allende's Chile (Victor Jara) and of course Jamaica, the world outside the U.S./UK orbit is ignored.

In a story of protest songs in the "West" I would have included more protest songs from Latin America or Southern Europe. From the UK, I might have included Irish protest songs, Scottish or Welsh ones. Even within North America he misses a rich vein of protest song on such issues as First Nations rights, environmental issues, feminist/women's protest music, etc.

All of that said, this is not only an entertaining read, there's a lot here to learn as well. As a general introduction, it's an invitation to read more and above all, to listen, once again or for the first time, to the music discussed in this text. As well, there's a reference list of 100 more great protest songs listed at the end. There is plenty in these 500-plus pages to explore, whatever your tastes.

[ read the author's blog ]

book review by
David Cox

8 June 2013

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