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.

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."

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.

"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?

Q: What have been the most effective protest songs?

It's a misleading question. You'd think it would be hard to talk about the most effective painting or the most effective novel.

Art cannot really be judged by its effectiveness. It works in more indirect ways: it can put an idea in people's heads. These songs are not policies, they're not pieces of legislation. They're part of an an ongoing conversation.

Q: How about impact?

"We Shall Overcome" is one that really seized the imagination of a movement and was sung in very trying circumstances. It had a kind of healing and a strengthening quality as it was sung at funerals and on the streets of Birmingham, Alabama.

It didn't cause the Civil Right Act to be passed, but it was certainly very effective for the individuals singing it.

Q: Have protest songs been in decline?

There's less demand for protest songs even though there are, in fact, hundreds from the past 10 years. They don't really connect in a way that convinces people that there are loads of them about.

It's been going on since the early 1990s. 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.

There's also more cynicism and criticism directed at artists who speak out about politics: Why should we listen to them? Like the criticism directed at Bono: it's not that they don't agree with what Bono believes. It's more a kind of "Who does he think he is?"

Q: How does the mass appeal of musical artists today fit into this picture?

If you were young and into music into 1963, you knew who Bob Dylan was, that was in your ballpark, In the 1980s, there were were these giant unifying artists. We've got fewer of them now.

Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" [which supports gays] was an interesting example of how you can get a message song everywhere if you're big enough and it's a big enough tune. She's one of the few. I don't know that there are many artists that can command that attention.

Q: What's the appeal of protest songs to you?

As I was researching the book, I realized how much songs could tell you about the world at a particular point in time. Protest songs often get called simplistic or obvious, but most of them are more complex and revealing than they often get credit for. A lot of them have a certain quality and emotional intensity, an urgency or atmosphere which I really find gripping.

Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor to the Monitor's book section.

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