Posted by rflacks on:
A new book called 33 Revolutions per Minute: a history of protest songs from Billie Holiday to Green Day by British journalist Dorian Lynskey came out a few weeks ago and it’s provided the occasion for some media scrutiny of the ‘protest song’. Since I’ve been doing a radio show called ‘Culture of Protest’ for 29 years whose entire content revolves around music of protest, I claim some sort of expertise on the matter. I’ve found most of the discussion troubling in various ways.
Problem one is exemplified by the book itself. It’s a massive, 650+ page effort and that’s because it’s a kind of encyclopedia of songs with Lynskey’s comments. He highlights 33 songs recorded in the last 70 years, but mentions scores of others. So if you’re looking for a list of commercially recorded songs of protest, here it is (with a lot of good context and background for the songs he’s decided to foreground). But here’s the big problem: the book perpetuates and greatly reinforces the conception that a protest song is something created or performed by a professional artist aimed at an audience. Indeed, reading his account of the period he covers (1939-2009), it might be thought that the protest song is a genre of popular music.
Lynskey’s right to claim that the topic of the commercially distributed protest song is interesting, but the way he’s presented it—and the way his effort has been amplified by media coverage—threatens to obliterate the fact that protest music is a product and resource of struggle. Protest songs are made very often NOT for popular music markets but in service of social movements. Historically the most lasting such songs have been made by grassroots troubadours—like Joe Hill and other wobbly bards, like Molly Jackson and other Appalachian miner singers, like the song leaders of the Southern civil rights movement. And, of course, a great many songs over the centuries were created anonymously –like the songs of the American slaves, for one crucial example. How musics of grassroots struggle get connected to popular or mainstream music production and distribution and how commercially oriented musicians use or respond to protest streams—these are fascinating and pretty complex topics. But to ignore the fact that social movements are themselves sites for song making is a bad distortion of history and, I think, reinforces the shallow cultural awareness of even ‘enlightened’ publics.
Evidence for this comes from the Nation magazine which picked up on the Lynskey book with the seemingly clever idea of asking readers (especially on the Nation website) to name the top protest songs of all time. As of early May, 2200 readers had replied. The results are intriguing to a sociologist of this stuff like me. But like Lynskey’s book, the choices of these left readers skewed heavily toward the commercial. A few of the ‘top’ selections included some key labor and civil rights songs, and the great anthem of anti Nazi partisans Zog Nit Keynmol. But the list included such dreck as ‘Eve of Destruction’ . I’m not condemning people’s selections—in fact, many people used this as an opportunity to promote some obscure songs that deserve more attention. But I was dismayed that people were more aware of rather ephemeral pop songs than of ones that were historically meaningful--songs that demonstrate that such struggle actually happened, and provide us with a window into the feeling and spirit embodied in them.
I’m not, by the way, arguing that commercially performed and recorded songs are inauthentic per se. By the sixties, of course, many songs that were made commercially became deeply meaningful in the movement. And the fact that Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and other movement oriented troubadours could have their work distributed in the cultural mainstream had big effects politically and culturally. What bothered me about the Nation musical survey was how much mainstream commercial music has seemingly drowned out the dissident, upstart, grassroots voices.
Having marginalized such voices, Dorian Lynskey ends up wondering if the protest song has gone into ‘terminal decline’. Why he asks didn’t protest songs ‘catch light’ during the Bush years? His eulogy for protest songs has been echoed and amplified in several NY Times articles about the book. Most notable was a review in the May 1 Times Book Review by Sean Wilentz. The distinguished Princeton historian lays claim to being the official Bob Dylan website historian, having recently published his Bob Dylan in America. In the course of his review, Prof. Wilentz embraces Lynskey’s view that the protest song as we’ve known it is over. Wilentz knows that there were no protest anthems against the Iraq war, and that protesters were reduced to singing ‘Give Peace a Chance.’ He concludes by declaring the death of “a particular left-wing political culture and its variants — a culture that, outside of some ’60s countercultural enclaves, seemed to run out of steam a long time ago.”
Of course, once this view is printed in the NY Times it is likely to become an accepted reality, especially since Prof. Wilentz is presumed to know what he is talking about. There’s undoubtedly a kernel of truth in these eulogies-- we haven’t had recently the sort of seemingly universal anthems of protest that figure so much in our recollections of the sixties.
But here’s the puzzle:
There are far more protest songs being written and performed and sung these days than there were in the Sixties. With respect to anti- Bush stuff: I’ve collected literally dozens of cd’s of many genres aimed at Bush and dozens more songs by all manner of performers. And some of those songs were quite popular—songs by Eminem, Pink, Conner Oberst, Michael Franti come to mind. There’s a larger number of albums and thousands of songs about the Bush era wars, and many of these were widely known. Performers who contributed to this outpouring included: System of a Down, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Patti Smith, Tom Waits not to mention explicitly political bands like Rage Against the Machine, and Spearhead among many others. The Nation survey calls attention to one of the great anti war songs of the Iraq War—Tom Waits, “Day After Tomorrow”—but this is but one of many songs written in the voice of young people in combat.
Wilentz might have asked why so many people are now creating such songs—and with what effect, instead of dismissing their existence. And alongside the stars who have spoken musically to the war and other issues in the last decade are literally thousands of other people who have put their protest songs on line. One place to find well over 3000 such efforts is a website started by Neil Young, called ‘Living With War Today” which he set up some years ago after releasing an album with that title. And in addition to these audio tracks, there are over 600 videos posted at this site.
The new technologies of production and distribution make it exceedingly simple for troubadours to create song and make it available directly to potential audiences. YouTube is one such avenue; My Space allows performers to cheaply create their own website for video and audio listening and downloading. Online shops like ITunes make it possible to market your stuff—and even more available for alternative, indy, unknown artists is CD Baby.
Here’s a quantitative comparison I find interesting: Bear Family Records has just released a huge compilation of Songs of the Vietnam era. It is the most exhaustive collection of antiwar (and pro-war) songs from the Vietnam era we’ll ever have. There’s a total of about 250 songs—some of which you know and most you don’t. So compare that with the more than 3000 songs that Neil Young has aggregated. Something is happening here.
What’s happening is not the death of protest song but a whole new protest culture on line. Songs of protest are just a small portion of the vast outpouring of do it yourself song creation now going on which bypasses the music industry. One result of this is the fragmentation of what in the sixties seemed like a unified anti-authority youth culture fueled by song. What all the online musicking ‘means’ in terms of social impact is an important question. But, for whatever reason and with whatever effect, the songs of protest keep being made.
Now what about Wilentz’ declaration that ‘a particular leftwing culture and its variants’ has run out of steam? I have no precise idea what he might be referring to here, but he’s got what we sociologists call an ‘empirical problem’. I suppose, the ‘particular leftwing culture’ he’s talking about is the project led by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger starting 70 years ago. It was, in essence, an effort to create a new song alternative to mainstream pop music—songs that would be able to be used and sung in social struggle.Woody and Pete thought that traditional roots musics could be recast with lyrics that spoke to the conditions and grievances of contemporary life, and set about making these songs, recording them, publishing them and organizing a contingent of others to join in the project. There’s quite a literature on all this, and a good deal of ongoing debate on what this project accomplished in its original formation.
As Wilentz certainly knows, Woody and Pete spawned several generations of artists who took them as role models in one way or another. He knows this at least because Bobby Dylan was a prime example. Dylan’s genius, of course, includes his passion to transcend any and all artistic pigeon holes, and to embrace almost the entire range of musics the American people have produced. But I’m dubious that even Dylan came to believe that the ‘particular leftwing culture’ that gave him his start was now irrelevant.
Whatever Dylan thinks about any of this, a lot of younger performers in recent years have paid enormous tribute to that culture, and by so doing continue to revitalize what is now its tradition. Think of these: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Seeger Session’ recordings and tours; Steve Earle’s conscious forays into politically oriented music making ,Ry Cooder’s numerous politically conscious recordings of recent vintage,Ani Difranco's promotion of Woody Guthrie's legacy at the Rock and roll Hall of Fame, Billy Bragg and Wilco’s ‘Mermaid Avenue’ effort to record new songs based on Woody Guthrie archived lyrics (a project that a number of other musicians have contributed to). There was the Madison Square Garden Pete Seeger 90th birthday bash two years ago. These sorts of projects are parallel to similar tributes by some black performers. Mavis Staples a few years ago released an album reinterpreting freedom songs of the sixties. John Legend recently released a similar project. Rather than running out of steam, this particular culture seems to provide inspiration and renewal to quite a few contemporary artists.
Now, events in Madison, Wisconsin suggest that the primary source of protest culture—an emerging grassroots movement---might be underway. Star musicians found their way to the rallies in Madison and, interestingly enough, found themselves singing in the Guthrie/Seeger fashion. Tom Morello has for a couple of years been performing as an acoustic troubadour calling himself the 'night watchman’. After appearing in Madison, he was inspired to write some new union songs in the Guthrie fashion and has just this week released an album, of old and new labor songs drawing heavily on the Almanac Singers. Chris Shiflet of the Foo Fighters ( right now the #1 band in America) went to Madison and sang ‘Solidarity Forever’, the lyrics of which he learned the day before and attributed the song to Pete Seeger. Meanwhile, at the Madison rallies, quite a few new songs were created and sung for the occasion—many hearkening back to the ‘particular leftwing culture’.
The Guthrie/Seeger tradition has been a seedbed for musical creativity for 70 years—for creating songs that are resources for social change and social movement. Indeed, starting in the sixties, artists all over the world emulated the Guthrie/Seeger project or took Bob Dylan-as-political-troubadour as a model. You can find singers like that in Tahrir Square in Cairo, and posting YouTube videos from Japan in the wake of the nuclear disaster. Of course there are other music streams that nourish political creativity. Rap is now a global form and so is the reggae tradition—as well as all sorts of more local musics derived from particular ethnic roots but now swirling in the electronic soup.
Maybe for some the urge to write eulogies for these traditions helps provide self-justification for cynicism and other self-serving political stances. I guess I feel that the persistence of protest music is a more interesting matter to try to know about and understand.
…and let me self-servingly recommend a new book by Rob Rosenthal and myself: Playing for Change: Music and Musicians in the service of social movements. The hard cover is expensive—but we’re making a paperback and hopefully a website that will be out in a few months.
And don’t forget to tune in Culture of Protest streaming at www.kcsb.org Thursdays at 6 pm pacific time.