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.
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
A short story by Kirsten Irving
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
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
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
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