Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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.
Michael Coates reviews a new film revealing the shocking state of housing inequality in the UK.
The vicious media campaign against trans people is part bigotry, part strategy, writes Roz Kaveney
Jon Trickett MP reports on 'Dickensian' levels of poverty and hardship felt across the UK.
Natasha King busts some myths around the No Borders debate
He was once a radical icon, but now he's a mouthpiece for racism and nationalism. Time to get off stage, writes Michael Calderbank
Consensus seems to have shifted, but austerity is far from over. The chancellor has committed us to yet more years of misery while the rich get richer, writes Richard Seymour.
Frustrated at the idea of another royal wedding? You're not alone. Joana Ramiro argues we should stop idealising a fundamentally undemocratic institution.
Liberal elites are using Russian interference to minimise their own political failures, writes Matt Turner
Nick Dearden from Global Justice Now argues that after years of colonial domination and dodgy trade deals, the UK must make amends and support Zimbabwe in this uncertain time.
Last month's mass far right demonstration can be linked to a toxic mix of government tolerance of fascism and neoliberalism on steroids. Ewa Jasiewicz investigates.
Meet the frontline activists facing down the global mining industry
Activists are defending land, life and water from the global mining industry. Tatiana Garavito, Sebastian Ordoñez and Hannibal Rhoades investigate.
Transition or succession? Zimbabwe’s future looks uncertain
The fall of Mugabe doesn't necessarily spell freedom for the people of Zimbabwe, writes Farai Maguwu
Don’t let Corbyn’s opponents sneak onto the Labour NEC
Labour’s powerful governing body is being targeted by forces that still want to strangle Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, writes Alex Nunns
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke