33 Revolutions Per Minute
A History of Protest Songs, From Billie Holiday to Green Day
Ecco: 688 pp., $19.99 paper
"You say you want a revolution," John Lennon sang in 1968. "Well, you know, we all want to change the world."
If not all of us, at least plenty of pop stars have, as Dorian Lynskey illustrates in his mammoth "33 Revolutions Per Minute." Starting with Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit" in 1939, he follows the thread of popular protest songs up to roughly the present day, hitting about 1,200 numbers along the way.
To make it all manageable, Lynskey uses a vinyl-focused conceit: 33 chapters, each hinged on a single song, including "This Land Is Your Land," "We Shall Overcome," "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," "War."
A music critic, Lynskey presents up-close details to ballast the book's larger historical sweep. We learn, for example, that when the young Holiday sang at New York's Cafe Society Club about lynching, the manager instructed the waiters not to provide any service during the song so people wouldn't be distracted.
Early protest songs often took religious hymns and turned them inside out, removing God in favor of the working man. Tunes were changed. And then, as the century moved into the civil rights era, some songs returned, as it were, to the church. This was the path of "We Shall Overcome," which Pete Seeger encountered in 1947 and that continued to evolve before it was finally copyrighted in 1963 (by that time, it had gained three more authors).
When Lynskey gets to Bob Dylan, however, his observations falter. To capture Dylan's career as a protest singer, Lynskey selects "Masters of War," apparently because it is among his most straightforward. But Dylan is hardly straightforward. "Masters of War" is found on 1963's "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," which includes "Blowin' in the Wind," a song that, no matter what Dylan said about it, became one of the most iconic protest songs of the 1960s. Dylan's reception at the Newport Jazz Festival is chronicled in detail, but how his songs were adopted by a movement he rejected is less examined.
Lynskey does come at the 1960s with enough distance to deliver some insights. "It is an axiom of baby boomer mythology that rock artists were in the vanguard of the antiwar movement, but by the strictest measure, musical opposition to the war was feeble, tentative, and diffuse," he writes. "It's depressing to note that the biggest-selling Vietnam-themed hit of the era was Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler's flag-waving 'The Ballad of the Green Berets.' " But what that means -- for our culture, activists, musicians -- goes mostly uninvestigated.
Indeed, what's often lacking in this robust history of protest songs is, to paraphrase Edwin Starr, a sense of what they're good for. A protest song, by definition, is trying to do more than your average pop song. But how should it be judged?
In the mid-1970s, he turns away from the U.S. to the more politically volatile Chile (Victor Jara), Nigeria (Fela Kuti) and Jamaica (Max Romeo and the Upsetters). Why not Czechoslovakia in 1968, or Iran or Brazil in the 1970s? And of the 33 chapters, only two focus on women: Nina Simone and the British riot grrrl band Huggy Bear. Southern Californians looking for their own protestors -- Graham Parsons, Frank Zappa, the Germs, Jackson Browne -- won't find much: California punk is represented by San Francisco's Jello Biafra, who gave Lynskey an interview.
In the present day, Lynskey finds musicians' biggest protest statements aren't in their music but in their off-the-cuff remarks -- the Dixie Chicks saying at a 2003 British concert, "We do not want this [Iraq] war," or Kanye West blurting out, during the 2005 benefit concert for victims of Hurricane Katrina, that "George Bush doesn't care about black people." These inflammatory remarks can't compare to mourners of four girls killed in an Alabama church bombing singing "We Shall Overcome."
"33 Revolutions Per Minute" ends in 2009 -- well before the "Arab Spring" began. Many there are standing up to oppression. Someday, maybe, we'll learn their songs.