33 Revolutions Per Minute
- A History of Protest Songs, From Billie Holiday to Green Day
by Dorian Lynskey
2011, Ecco Publisher
688 pages, $19.99
reviews by Alan Zisman
There’s a pop-culture myth about protest songs - perhaps related to the myth that all the pop-culture that matters rose and fell with the baby boomer generation. In that mythologized story, protest songs started with Woody Guthrie, continued with Pete Seeger and the Weavers, were driven underground by McCarthyism, re-emerged in Greenwich Village with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and the rest, were sung at civil rights and anti-Vietnam War rallies, and then faded away along with the counter-culture and protest movements in general.
Dorian Lynskey is a music reviewer for the UK’s Guardian newspaper. As the title of 33 Revolutions Per Minute - A History of Protest Songs, From Billie Holiday to Green Day suggests, he’s written a history of protest songs, structured as 33 chapters, one for each of 33 songs.
Also, as the subtitle points out, he extends the canon of protest songs beyond the Dylan/Baez genre; while including chapters on Woody Guthrie and his descend introduced Abel Meeropol’s ‘Strange Fruit’ to the audience of New York’s Café Society.
Lynskey recognizes that there were protest songs prior to ‘Strange Fruit’ – and even includes a two-page appendix on protest songs prior to 1900. However, he suggests that earlier protest songs were outside the pop song mainstream - “They were designed for specific audiences — picket lines, folk schools, party meetings.”
Protest songs, however, even the 33 songs that Lynskey selects as key, often fit at best uneasily within the limitations of pop music. Some of his songs made it onto the ‘charts’ – Stevie Wonder’s ‘Living for the City’ or Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Two Tribes’, for example. Others – ‘We Shall Overcome’, for instance – had a life of their own, becoming widely known independent of pop music marketing.
Lynskey understands the problems that can occur when songs with a message are performed in a pop music context – the irony of the popularity as a right-wing anthem of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ is commented on.
Some of the artists getting a chapter, such as the Dead Kennedys (represented by ‘Holiday in Cambodia’) or the British band Crass (with ‘How Does It Feel’) would probably like to think of themselves as anti-pop.
While each chapter refers to a particular artist and song, Lynskey does a good job of building context – giving both the story of the band or singer, of the writing or recording of the song, and the broader political and cultural context. He often goes into detail about other artists, as well.
So, while Phil Ochs doesn’t get a chapter of his own, he plays a role in the chapters on Dylan (‘Masters of War’), Country Joe and the Fish (‘I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag’) and Victor Jara (‘Manifesto’).
He also does a good job with music post-1975; punk and reggae (of course), but even noting the rebellious streak in the much-maligned disco, with a chapter subtitled ‘Gay Pride and the Hidden Politics of Disco’. He notes the role that songs like the Special-AKA’s ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ played in the anti-apartheid movement, and with seven chapters dated from 1989 to 2008 helps show that even during this period, there were undercurrents of protest, with music ranging from Public Enemy to Rage Against the Machine, to Steve Earle.
He does a less good job in some other areas, though. Inevitably, the book is (nearly) limited to the Anglo-American music scene, though three international chapters are included on Chile’s Victor Jara, Nigeria’s Fela Kuti, and Jamaica’s Max Romeo. As with the other chapters, they go beyond the single musicians and songs.
Women are nearly invisible, however. Yes, the book opens with Billie Holiday. After that, we get Nina Simone (with ‘Mississippi Goddam’). Then no one until 1993’s Riot Grrrl movement, represented by Huggy Bear’s ‘Her Jazz’. The Dixie Chicks get mentioned in the context of Natalie Maines’ 2003 comments about George Bush, but they’re just an aside in a chapter based around Steve Earle’s ‘John Walker’s Blues’ (subtitled ‘Saying the Unsayable After 9/11’).
(I suppose Lynskey would consider the music of self-identified feminists like Holly Near as ‘designed for special audiences’).
In an epilogue, Lynskey notes that the best-selling song in the UK over Christmas 2009 was Rage Against the Machine’s angry ‘Killing in the Name’. But he points out that this happened as the result of a grassroots movement to prevent the winner of TV show ‘The X-Factor’ from being the Christmas top of the pops. “The state of political music”, he suggests: “a protest song can only succeed on a grand scale if it’s turned into a joke”.
He is pessimistic about the future of protest songs: “The failure of protest songs to catch light during the Bush years leaves one wondering what it would take to spark a genuine resurgence”. He suggests that this is a reflection in a broader “loss of faith in ideology and a fading belief in what we might call heroes”.
(Or as if what Bob Dylan famously suggested (in a more innocent age) – ‘Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters’ has come to pass).
In the end, Lynskey tells us: “To create a successful protest song in the 21st century is a daunting challenge, but the alternative, for any musician with strong political convictions, is paralysis and gloom…. To take on politics in music is always a leap of faith…. It falls to musicians to continue to make those attempts; whether they succeed or note depends on the rest of us”.
Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune
written and directed by Kenneth Bowser
released by First Run Features
2011, 98 minutes long
Phil Ochs didn’t rate a chapter in Dorian Lynskey’s 33 Revolutions Per Minute – his 1967 album ‘Pleasures of the Harbor’ made it to #168 on the Billboard charts. he is the subject of the 2011 documentary: Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune, which was screened in August by the Pacific Cinematheque.
Written and directed by Kenneth Bowser, the 98 minute film looks at the life, music, and times of Ochs, with numerous interviews with contemporaries from Joan Baez to Tom Hayden, family members including Ochs’ brother, sister, wife, and daughter, as well as people influenced by his music, such as Billy Bragg and Sean Penn. Bob Dylan (who does get a chapter in Lynskey’s book) apparently refused to be interviewed. (Apparently, Ochs often felt like he was competing with Dylan; Dylan never compared himself to Ochs).
News clips are effectively used to place Ochs and his music in the context of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s.
While Ochs tried to move his music beyond the “All the News That’s Fit to Sing” topical songs of his early albums, he is most remembered for his series of protest songs from the early to mid 60s, reflecting his sense that the US was failing to live up to promises of justice and equality.
The documentary shows how Ochs, with a family history of manic-depression and a tendency towards alcoholism, was unable to move beyond the movements of the 1960s. As the anti-war movement wound down, his 1970s centered around the 1973 coup in Chile (and the murder of Chilean political singer Victor Jara), a trip to African – where his little-heard recordings with African musicians pre-figured similar recordings by Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon – that resulted in a mugging that damaged his vocal chords, and finally the end to the Vietnam War.
Less than a year after the fall of Saigon, Phil Ochs hung himself in his sister’s house. He was 35.
Alan is a member of Vancouver political folk-band The Gram Partisans