Sunday, July 22, 2012

Musicians With A Spine

“33 Revolutions per Minute – the History of Protest Songs, from Billie Holiday to Green Day,” by Dorian Lynskey, 2011 

How fast does a CD spin?  Around 500 rpm at the center, and 200 rpm at the edge.  And audio files don’t ‘spin’ at all, except perhaps from a hard drive.  So you know this book is anchored in the past - after all, it is a history.

Lynskey is a British music critic for the Guardian.  In this book he concentrates on popular U.S. and British music, and other music that has appeared in those countries, like Afro-pop, Chilean folk and reggae.  He ignores U.S. blues, country-western, blue-grass, Tex-Mex, old English or American folk, but does discuss political jazz, and concentrates mostly on songs about social issues, not about economic issues or class.  His appendix includes a bit on older folk music.  Each chapter is organized around a song and a group or musician, but delightfully spreads out to capture the other artists and songs surrounding that period.  He manages to encyclopedically name-check many political songs or bands in the process, though not all. An index of mentioned albums, songs and artists is included at the end.

Canned Heat’s “Sic’ Em Pigs,” Beach Boys “Demonstration Time,” the Band’s “King Harvest,” Sir Douglas Quintet’s “Chicano," key pieces by the Plastic People of the Universe or Gang of 4, and neglected country music like Charlie Daniel's "Still in Saigon," John Anderson's "Seminole Wind" and Aaron Tippin's "Working Man's PHD" are examples of songs that I can think of that are not mentioned even in footnotes.

Lynskey starts his music history with the 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday, though there were political blues songs prior to that – for instance Leadbelly recorded “Bourgeois Blues” in 1938.  Lynskey ends with a chapter focused on the period during and after Green Day’s 2004 anti-Bush punkish rock opera, “American Idiot.”  Lynskey seems to ask at the end of the book, “Is political music dead?”

The main ideological issue with music and politics is – can they be combined?  Bourgeois high and middle-brow culture says no – citing ‘arts for arts sake,’ while commercial low-brow culture says no too, citing its sole use as dance tracks or love songs.  Capitalist culture generally sees music as a form of escapism, elevated entertainment or aesthetic pleasure alone.  But of course, it does not have to be only that.  Bureaucratic socialists insist music’s role is solely political – again, a warped view.  The author shows some nervousness about this issue, but of course makes an excellent case for their possible combination.  And like most leftish Brits, Lynskey is not afraid of talking about socialist influences on musicians, unlike American critics - which is probably one reason why he was the person to write this book.  Many British political musicians – not just Billy Bragg - were influenced by socialism and trade unionism because of the strength of British labor traditions.

The first song, “Strange Fruit” was written by a Jewish Marxist, Abel Meeropol, the lyrics first appearing in “The New Masses.”  It was about the lynching of blacks in the south, based on a photo printed in newspapers around the U.S.  Billie Holiday adapted it and it became her signature song – one of the most powerful ever sung. 

Lynskey goes on from there, covering in historical sections the U.S. folk scene starting with Woody Guthrie, then Dylan’s contribution; a large raft of 60s radical folkies, rockers and R&B stars; his international section, with Victor Jara, Fela Kuti and reggae-man Max Romeo; the birth of punk and rap in the 70s and 80s, featuring the Clash, Grandmaster Flash and Special AKA; and songs from Rage Against the Machine, Steve Earle and Public Enemy in the 90s until 2008. 

What struck me is the heavy human toll being a leftist songwriter took on people like Phil Ochs, Fela Kuti and Victor Jara.  Kuti was forced into exile after having his home and recording studio burnt; Jara was killed during the Chilean coup.  Though this is unlike political song-writers in the U.S. or U.K, where only career suicide or depression itself threaten.  Ochs did commit suicide.  In the U.S. and U.K., many hard-core political bands just disappeared - but they were not 'disappeared.'  Being political in England or the U.S. was for the most part not very financially viable or socially acceptable, except in special times.  So mainstream bands like REM, U-2 and Radiohead jumped in the water when the water was warm, or wrote in indirect ways about political/social topics so as to cushion themselves from reaction. They did not wear it on their sleeve.

Lynskey’s closing section on the difficulty of writing and performing political music at the present is weak.  He never makes an explicit connection between the strength of dissident political, class, geographic and cultural movements and the rise and quality of protest songs.  The folkies, hippies, punks, black nationalists, riot grrrls, trance dancers, trade unionists, anti-war activists, environmentalists and other sub-cultures make appearances time and time again in the book.  Without them it is obvious that political songs would not exist in such abundance. Why Lynskey doesn't make this connection explicit is odd.  Certain kinds of politicized music exist only in connection with movements of social change or cultural disruption - they do not exist alone or in a vacuum.   Bemoaning the lack of politicized music is really bemoaning the lack of the dissident movements that underlie it!  Of note, the book was finished before the Arab Spring, anti-austerity movements in Europe and Occupy.  Perhaps Lynskey will be able to add a major song or two based on them.  I know Tom Morello is certainly trying to write it.

And I bought it at May Day Books expanded music section!
Red Frog
July 22, 2012

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