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Whatever happened to the protest song?

Dorian Lynskey, author of "33 Revolutions Per Minute," talks about the history of the protest song and why it seems to have disappeared.

By Randy Dotinga / May 13, 2011

The protest song has been disappearing since the 1990s, says Dorian Lynskey. "You can point to a lot of things: the waning of ideology and the disappearance of some of those big issues that motivated people back then."

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More than seven decades later, Billie Holliday's "Strange Fruit" is still a gut-puncher, a soft-sounding yet devastating indictment of lynching in the South.

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"Strange Fruit" was one of the first protest songs in modern music to be widely heard, and it became the godmother of thousands more. But if you turn on the radio today, you won't hear many songs criticizing poverty, our politicians, or even the wars of the last decade.

What happened to music with a message? British journalist Dorian Lynskey ponders the past and the present in his new book "33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs from Billie Holliday to Green Day."

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Lynskey focuses on 33 songs (hence the title) by artists ranging from Bob Dylan, Nina Simone and Woody Guthrie to James Brown, The Clash and R.E.M. He begins with 1939's "Strange Fruit."

In an interview this week, I asked Lynskey about Holliday's impact, the definition of a protest song, and his own appreciation for music that tries to make a difference.

Q: What role did "Strange Fruit" play in the evolution of the protest song?

It was very unexpected. People did not expect that from pop music. They expected it from folk music and what you'd hear at picket lines, but they didn't expect it at a night club. Just the sheer fact that someone was singing about lynching in a jazz format was really surprising.

Before then, the protest song was utilitarian. It was propaganda, and boldly so, to spread a message or tighten the bonds in a certain group. Billie Holliday did not have any great political beliefs or background and was singing a song that had been written by someone else, by a white Jewish Communist schoolteacher. In that combination – someone who was very famous for songs for party meetings combining with the uptown world of showbiz – gave it so much emotional weight, along with the musicality of Billie Holliday's performance and the band's arrangement. It was a proper work of art.

Before then, the more obvious the political theme, the blunter the music. This was nuanced, a kind of mysterious work of art which can still shake people up now long after the threat of Klan lynching has gone. It seems like such an endlessly rich song and marked a new phase in the protest song.

Q: How do you define a protest song?

It's a song that deals with a social or political issue that aligns itself with the underdog. That's pretty important. If you're the overdog and you've got the power in the world, what are you protesting?

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