At 843 pages, Dorian Lynskey’s massive history of the popular protest song cannot be taken lightly, anywhere. Starting in 1939 with Billie Holiday’s genre-defining ‘Strange Fruit’ and going right up to the 2009 campaign to stop an X-Factor Christmas number one by supplanting it with Rage Against The Machine, the book brings together a huge amount of research to document – at great length – the story of an art-form that might be in decline.
While the book weighs a ton, the analysis is not overly heavy. Lynskey’s preferred style of protest song informs and questions rather than preaches, and he has taken the same approach in his work.
This is not a catalogue of all protest songs (although a reasonable list is provided as an appendix). Rather, it takes particular songs (33 of them, to make the vinyl reference in the title work) as an entry point to explain the social, political and artistic surroundings in which they were written.
In fact, the actual songs – which include ‘This Land Is Your Land’ by Woody Guthrie, ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud’ by James Brown, ‘War’ by Edwin Starr, ‘White Riot’ by the Clash, ‘Fight The Power’ by Public Enemy, and ‘American Idiot’ by Green Day – are not analysed much at all. It would have been nice to have had more quotations from the lyrics. Instead, most of the book is devoted to the context, revealing some fascinating details and connections but perhaps with a little too much time spent explaining, for example, who was who in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. The back stories are so dense that they create continuity between the disparate and potentially unrelated chapters as old faces reappear. Pete Seeger pops up all over the place.
The recurring theme is the tension between art and the political message. Lynskey’s fascination with this dynamic leads him to some unexpected song choices. The archetypal protest anthem, Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’, is passed over in favour of his sinister ‘Masters of War’. Lynskey stretches the definition of a protest song to encompass social commentary, such as Stevie Wonder’s ‘Living For The City’, and even songs with a vague political theme like ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’ by U2 (an incongruous choice for a chapter that is more a discussion about Live Aid and Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born In The USA’).
Some cuts can’t be classed as protest songs at all, like Manic Street Preachers’ ‘Of Walking Abortion’, which has been included as a kind of anti-Christ to a traditional rallying call. Lynskey must have known that in choosing 33 songs he was bound to provoke objections, so his idiosyncratic choices are a bold move. Readers wanting to learn about pure political campaigning songs might be frustrated.
But there is a broad sweep of musical styles, with selections from soul, funk, hip hop and dance as well as folk, rock and punk, and the inclusion of less mainstream artists from Chile, Nigeria and Jamaica.
Some chapters are like self-contained essays. There is an interesting discussion about John Lennon’s politics, loosely framed around ‘Give Peace A Chance’ but in fact tracing his development from the Beatles’ facile 1968 effort ‘Revolution’ (which compares poorly with the Stones’ ‘Street Fighting Man’) to Lennon’s association with Tariq Ali and the anti-war movement. Lynskey doesn’t give Lennon an easy ride, portraying his left-wing turn as a passing phase that produced ‘some of the worst protest songs ever recorded’.
As to the effectiveness of musical politics, Lynskey writes: ‘If any protest song can be said to have had a tangible effect on its subject matter it is ‘Nelson Mandela’ [by The Special AKA].’ But the less tangible impact of protest songs – their ability to undermine the cultural acceptability of a war or racism, as well as their capacity to inspire individuals into political action – is difficult to measure.
As the book nears its end the question becomes: what happened to the great protest song? Lynskey compares musical responses to the Vietnam and Iraq wars. There were actually fairly few Vietnam songs, he argues, but they nevertheless had a huge cultural impact that none of the numerous Iraq war songs came close to achieving.
‘I began this book intending to write a history of a still vital form of music. I finished it wondering if I had instead composed a eulogy,’ Lynskey concludes. His explanation for the decline weaves together the rise of the bland pop star with the shift to Facebook activism: in his view both lack risk and struggle. But to stay true to his thesis that protest songs are created when the context demands them, Lynskey could have qualified this conclusion – after all, the times can change very quickly, and protest songs don’t take long to write.
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
In this extract from his new book The Candidate, Alex Nunns tells the inside story of how Jeremy Corbyn scraped onto the Labour leadership ballot in 2015
Graham Jones proposes a framework for a diverse movement to flourish
Musician Eliane Correa reflects on the fading revolution
Trump's victory is another sign of the failure of the centre-left's narrative on climate change. A new message is needed, and new politicians to deliver it, writes Alex Randall
Siobhán McGuirk says the question we are too afraid to ask is simple - what kind of society leads to Donald Trump as President?
The battle lines are clear. Democracy is in peril and the left must take itself seriously electorally and politically. Ruth Potts speaks to Gary Younge, who was based in Muncie, Indiana, for the US election, about the implications of Donald Trump’s victory
We need a society built on openness, community and equality to truly defeat everything that trump stands for, writes Nick Dearden.
Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas
Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'
The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion
The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.
Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.
Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism
What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry
Airport expansion is a racist policy
Climate change is a colonial crisis, writes Jo Ram