There is a very good reason why Dorian Lynskey’s new book on the history of protest songs runs to a whopping 864 pages: his subject is diverse, global and rich in complexity. It’s also extraordinarily timely, given the recent and ongoing rebellions in North Africa where people who have long been denied a collective voice are speaking, and singing, out in defiance of their oppression with dramatic, revolutionary effects. Taking to the stage at the Royal National Hotel yesterday afternoon, he wasted no time in drawing parallels between the 33 songs he profiles in his book and current affairs, illustrating the example of Tunisian rapper El Général who in December 2010 posted a song on YouTube that directly called upon President Ben Ali to acknowledge the terrible conditions his 23-year rule had brought upon his people. Just a few weeks later, in the wake of demonstrations and riots across Tunisia, Ben Ali resigned having fled with his family to Saudi Arabia. No song alone can change the world, Dorian maintains, but artists who blur the line between songwriter, journalist and outspoken political radical have the potential to reach more people than any rally or televised debate could ever hope to, sometimes at the risk of their own safety.
Dorian’s fascinating talk dipped into four of the songs from his book, two written in the heat of the moment and two written later and stuffed full of references to political events. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s ‘Ohio’ and Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddam’ both fall into the former category. Immediately after reading about the May 1970 shootings of student protestors at Ohio’s Kent State University in Life Magazine, Neil Young sat down and poured out a powerful exhortation in tribute to the four young people who lost their lives at the hands of National Guardsmen. Recorded and released within two weeks of the event, backed by an anti-Vietnam war song penned by Stephen Stills, ‘Ohio’ received widespread airplay and captured the mood of the nation. Simone’s song, by contrast, was never recorded in a studio. The best known version exists on her 1964 live album Nina Simone In Concert, recorded at Carnegie Hall where she stunned her audience into silence with an unrestrained performance that tapped into her deep anguish about the treatment of black men and women in the Southern states at the time. Writing in her memoir, Nina described the song as a reaction to the 1963 bombing of a church in Alabama by the Ku Klux Klan in which four young girls died, a horrific event that took place just three weeks after the Civil Rights March on Washington (where Martin Luther King gave his famous “I have a dream…” speech). Starting out almost mockingly in a showtune vein, the song quickly morphs into a blistering call for equality. Even now, nearly 50 years later, the song holds an electric power as people around the room nodded, swayed and even clapped as it boomed to its conclusion.
The other two recordings, which Dorian describes as “long-view songs”, were Billy Bragg’s ‘Between The Wars’ and US hip hop group Public Enemy’s ‘Fight The Power’. Bragg’s notorious song was written in the context of Britain’s tense political climate of the mid-’80s, specifically the miners’ strikes, the Falklands War, the threat of nuclear war and what Bragg and many others viewed as the Thatcher government’s war on the working class. Presenting an alternative view of what it means to be a patriot and casting suspicion on imperialist motives, Bragg’s gruff North London voice was a true instrument of the people, an ex-Army man and one-time punk now steeped in the folk tradition of taking songs from the past and recasting them in a present-day setting to tell a vital story of resilience. A few years later, Public Enemy pulled a similar trick using densely layered samples and references to speeches from the likes of Malcolm X and Rev. Jesse Jackson. ‘Fight The Power’ is more than just a song, Dorian argues, it’s a revision of African-American history. Going further, he told us, it’s also a brilliant example of how memorable protest songs seem to coincide with the rise of fresh musical genres. Indeed, these days it’s often hip hop rather than folk music that young people are turning to in order to express their anger and frustration at the world.
‘Fight The Power’
The songs in Dorian’s book span seven decades, from the Billie Holiday-popularised ‘Strange Fruit’, a condemnation of the lynching of African Americans recorded in 1939, to M.I.A.’s unlikely crossover hit ‘Paper Planes’, which he describes as a more ambiguous form of protest song. Adopting such a broad definition of his subject gives Lynskey great scope to explore songs that function as “living history”, establishing a chain down the years. 33 Revolutions Per Minute tackles in impressive depth the vastly complicated task of mapping out the links and parallels in that chain, into which Dorian’s talk provided a brief and entertaining insight that had many an audience member heading straight for the Book Fair to grab themselves a copy.
Interested in learning more? The Guardian have an extract from the book over on their website. http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2011/feb/16/protest-songs-billie-holiday-strange-fruit
Alan Pedder is a music nerd, ex-mathematician and recovering poet, also known as editor and founder of Wears The Trousers Magazine(www.wearsthetrousers.com), a women in music compendium published since 2005. He lives in Muswell Hill, on the street where Fairport Convention formed and where The Kinks performed their first ever gig. He has yet to write a song in protest of anything more pressing than the crunchiness of peanut butter.