33 Revolutions Per Minute
Book review by Bob Harrison (vinyl kitchen) 6/12/2013
Dorian Lynskey’s history of protest songs, 33 Revolutions Per Minute is a mighty tome. Starting with Billy Holiday singing Strange Fruit to an unsuspecting audience in a New York club, the book covers the period 1939 to the present day. Lynskey points out that this was the start of the protest song as pop music (the fact that Strange Fruit is a jazz song is somewhat lost). Lynskey’s idea is that the modern pop idiom, that of a communication of an idea through the popular musical form brings forward a notion of protest, a revolutionary dialectic, thus bringing about a revolutionary consciousness in those that listen to the music.
Revolutionary songs, songs by the folk, as we shall call them, date back further than Strange Fruit to the Diggers and Joe Hill. Lynskey makes a point that Joe Hill did not really, write very good songs, yet Hill has influenced every protest singer in the 20th Century, since his passing in 1915. Not bad for someone so bereft of talent. Apart from this slight disagreement on the merits of Hill’s songs Lynskey’s book contains genuine insights into how the famous or infamous protest songs were conceived.
The chapters are divided up into various genres. Lynskey cleverly putting the music into its historical context making it easy to understand the political climate in which the music was produced - the protest song was never created in a vacuum.
Chapters too, are divided into various stages the first 1939-1964 featuring Strange Fruit then moving on to the folk protest singers Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan. On through the Sixties and Seventies with Country Joe and the Fish, and the rise of the counter-culture movement and the various causes which sprouted up during that period. Lynskey, rather disparagingly sees Lennon as a bit of an armchair revolutionary, and says that his protest songs, like those of Joe Hill, are not up to much. Interestingly he ends the chapter with a tantalising what if? - positing the idea that if Lennon had stayed in the UK and not gone to the States, he could have become more radical. Hum, interesting.
Chapter 3 deals with World Music. Chile, Nigeria, Jamaica, 1973-1977- Argentina (Victor Jara), reggae (Bob Marley) and Fela Kuti (Afro Beat). This is my favourite section, as I really had no information on the artists. The section on Victor Jara was particularly harrowing on the details of how he met his end in the Chilean coup. Lynskey adds lots of historical detail to better understand the situation in Chile at the time.
The latter sections cover Punk, and English Reggae 1977-1987, leading to Crass and Billy Bragg. I feel this treatment of punk is quite superficial. A more expansive account of Punk can be found elsewhere in such writers as Stuart Home and John Savage. Lynskey is better writing about World Music or African-American artists (having read interviews about him there seems no indication of his musical preferences). Lykskey is shocked to find that many punks were apolitical, in the sense of not being driven primarily by politics to create their music. True, many punks were driven not by politics, more by the need to change the music scene. The politics was in the music. Political statements were left to bands like The Clash, who Lynskey covers with much style.
I particularly liked the passage about Joe Strummer’s realisation at a reggae gig in 1977 that yes, he was really a privileged white boy, and, yes, really he was playing a game with himself. Hence the song “White Man in Hammersmith Pal-is” becomes more interesting because of this realisation by Strummer.
The final chapters deal with the later protest movements, 1989-2008 hip hop and Rage Against The Machine, finishing with Green Day, desperately trying to radicalise a dulled nation under Bush.
Lynskey cleverly contrasts the radicalism of the sixties and the nineties. Both the bands of the two decades had a commitment to change, but Lynskey notes that, in the in the United States at the time of Vietnam war, the possibility of being drafted at any time had radicalised the youth to a greater degree; they knew people who had been drafted one week only to be returned a week later in a body bag. In contrast in the nineties the middle classes could surf through the political problems of the day - the various wars being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, very distant to those on the other side of the world.
It was up to bands like Rage Against The Machine to galvanise the nation but they missed the moment as they broke up four weeks before Seattle and the momentum they had started was left to other less dedicated bands to carry on. There is a point that moves through the book, that musicians are quite unaware of the momentum they are creating until it catches up on them. Country Joe being punched in the face by a Vietnam vet, Jara tortured and killed in the Chilean coup, or Bob Marley, trying to unite the warring political factions in Jamaica, getting shot at a political rally.
One of the few artists of the mainstream, who saw which way the wind was blowing literally, was Sam Cooke. After listening to Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind, Cooke saw that the bus was moving out and he better jump aboard fast. He then penned “A Change is Gonna Come”. The rest is history, so they say.
The epilogue of the book is worth getting to, for Lynskey argues the merits of the protest song in modern times. In the 90s we had a plethora of bands writing protest songs -Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear, Manic Street Preachers, REM, Steve Earle, and Green Day, and the politics of the moment cries out for more engagement with alternative forms of communication in these difficult times. Politicians are not offering us anything, apart from similar arguments, or different shades of grey.
Those that say protest songs have had their day probably secretly wish the genre could be buried to stifle any kind of alternative voice. Lynskey points to Face Book and social media, for channelling social concern but sees rightly that these methods reduce people to armchair radicals, thinking that by flicking a switch they can change the world. A good point as it is just a safety valve for a society running on empty.
Don’t be daunted by the 853 pages. It's a totally engrossing read. Lift that book, turn those pages!
A new exhibition at the Tate Liverpool Art Turning Left, features an exhibition by artist Ruth Ewan, a jukebox which, invites visitors to select a protest song to play in the gallery. The work of art is entitled, "A jukebox of people trying to change the world". Available to play are 70 politically motivated selections. Subjects include: feminism, landowning and civil rights. The exhibition runs to 2nd Feb 2014.
For those whose appetites are now wetted for revolution, The Guardian also have available on their website, The Little Red Box of Protest Songs a four disc set for £12.99. The Little Red Box first appeared in 1909 taking traditional hymns and setting them to pro union songs, to be sung at rallies and demonstrations featuring Pete Seeger, Woodie Guthrie, Lead Belly.
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