Sunday, May 1, 2011

"33 Revolutions Per Minute," Dorian Lynskey: Songs that shook the world

... In his colorful memoir Bound for Glory Woody Guthrie expressed his ambitions for the songs he wrote: "Remember, it's just maybe, someday, sometime, somebody will pick you up and look at your picture and read your message, and carry you in his pocket, and lay you on his shelf, and burn you in his stove. But he'll have your message in his head and he'll talk it and it'll get around. I'm blowing, and just as wild and whirling as you are, and lots of times I've been picked up, throwed down, and picked up, but my eyes have been my camera taking pictures of the world and my songs have been messages that I tried to scatter along the back sides and along the steps of the fire escapes and on the window sills and the dark halls."

To a current generation that has just witnessed the instant combustion of revolts in Egypt and Libya and beyond, the idea that music can carry the weight of a revolution may seem obvious, but 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, from Billie Holiday to Green Day (Ecco) is a good history lesson on the challenges presented by "protest music" over the past sixty years, and the threat some well-turned and sharp lyrics posed to contemporary standards and social expectations.

This book is about those scattered messages and the impact they had on audiences, from Billie Holiday's stunning revelation of "Strange Fruit" to Guthrie's Okie dustbowl tales, from Dylan's incendiary folk to Sam Cooke's smooth croon, from the Clash to Green Day. What these songs and singers have in common is that they reach beyond the conventions of popular music of their day to deliver specific, and very pointed, contemporary messages.

Music of protest has taken many shapes reaching back to the blues, which often couched its protest of working conditions, poverty, and social inequality in metaphor and humor. Beginning with Billie Holiday's intentional song choice in a smoky Manhattan nightclub in 1939 -- "Southern trees bear a strange fruit / blood on the leaves / blood at the root / Black body swinging in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees" -- songwriter Abel Meeropol's sad metaphor was impossible to miss: here was a song about a lynching.

Lynskey takes 33 songs and traces their impact on popular culture. In Holiday's case the impact was personally damaging; Columbia refused to record the song, and even John Hammond advised her against it because it would cause a possible boycott of CBS Records. Holiday herself broke down in tears when she sang the song but kept it in her repertoire. For all the boldness and beauty inherent in her career there was addiction, loneliness, and police harassment right to the end of her life, at the age of 44, in a New York hospital.

But her courage opened the door for a coming generation returning from World War Two, and with a new frankness in dealing with forbidden topics. Jazz became a springboard for sophisticated, challenging lyrics. Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam" was written in a burst of anger that she herself says overcame her initial feelings: "Nightclubs were dirty, making records was dirty, popular music was dirty and to mix all that with politics seemed senseless and demeaning," Simone wrote.

Yet the events of 1964, the murder of Medgar Evers, and the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four young girls, forced her hand, and the result -- "Alabama's got me so upset, Tennessee's made me lose my rest, and everybody knows about Mississippi goddam" -- got the song banned in the South. And for the burgeoning civil rights movement there was no mistaking the meaning, or the challenge, in her lyrics: "Keep on sayin' 'go slow' do things gradually would bring more tragedy. Why don't you see it? Why don't you feel it? I don't know, I don't know. You don't have to live next to me, just give me my equality!"

"Mississippi Goddam" was bold but banned, jazz-inflected anger. The song that really broke the rules for radio play came from an unexpected source: James Brown. In a song whose message was unstoppable as its beat, no matter how many stations refused to play it, "Say it Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud" became a street anthem as well as a rallying cry. The walls between protest music and the popular music chart came tumbling down.

Dorian Lynskey

There was the storming at the walls of folk music as well: after he plugged-in, Dylan rattled more than the nerves at Newport 1965. His lyrics to 1963's "Masters of War" were as direct as "Blowin' in the Wind" had been metaphorical:
... How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I'm young
You might say I'm unlearned
But there's one thing I know

Though I'm younger than you

That even Jesus would never

Forgive what you do.

Let me ask you one question

Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made

Will never buy back your soul. ...

Some of Lynskey's choices may be surprising -- Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Two Tribes" is here, but so is "The Message," rightly so, as well as R.E.M., and Green Day's "American Idiot" -- and there's no real reason to quibble over what's left out in Lynskey's personal survey. Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" is included, but Max Roach's "Mendacity" is missing and so is "Compared To What" by Eddie Harris. The author's self-imposed limits of 33 songs might have seemed a good idea in relation to a title, but here's an idea: perhaps a second, expanded edition could include "45."

As an introduction, or even a refresher course for those old enough to have forgotten some history, 33 Revolutions Per Minute is a good reminder that songs can have a life beyond the chart and shape history itself. John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance" may have been recorded in a raw, raucous one-take in a Toronto hotel room in 1969, but with its very lack of polish and undeniable one-line refrain, the song remains a revolutionary cry straight from the heart.

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