33 Revolutions per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, from Billie Holiday to Green Dayby Dorian Lynskey
Dorian Lynskey is one of the most prominent music critics writing today. With 33 Revolutions Per Minute, he offers an engrossing, insightful, and wonderfully researched history of protest music in the twentieth century and beyond. From Billie Holiday and Woodie Guthrie to Bob Dylan and the Clash to Green Day and Rage Against the Machine, 33 Revolutions/b>
Dorian Lynskey is one of the most prominent music critics writing today. With 33 Revolutions Per Minute, he offers an engrossing, insightful, and wonderfully researched history of protest music in the twentieth century and beyond. From Billie Holiday and Woodie Guthrie to Bob Dylan and the Clash to Green Day and Rage Against the Machine, 33 Revolutions Per Minute is a moving and fascinating portrait of a century of popular music that tried to change the world.
An ambitious, astute summary of political songs, from the 1940s to the present.
British music journalist Lynskey uses copious research and fresh interviews with several writer-performers to chart the evolution of political thought in pop music. The titular "33 revolutions" are individual songs he employs as signposts. He frequently looks at the tunes cursorily, using them as gateways for the topics at hand—the Vietnam and Middle East wars, civil rights, the black-power movement, etc. Using Billie Holiday's 1939 recording of "Strange Fruit," Abel Meeropol's hair-raising depiction of a lynching, as the launch point, the author takes in the work of pioneering writers on the Left (Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger) and their '60s progeny (Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs et al). Lynskey focuses mostly on American and British firebrands, with side trips to Chile (Victor Jara), Africa (Fela Kuti) and Jamaica (Max Romeo, Bob Marley). The authoralso includes entries on more current acts,like U2, R.E.M., Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine and Steve Earle. Throughout, Lynskey displays complete command of the music and the events that sparked it, and though he writes from a left-field perspective, he is no cheerleader. He is often stingingly critical. He takes John Lennon to task for his murky, off-target writing, mulls the addled, fist-pumping stances of The Clash and Rage, and takes stinging aim at Public Enemy's intrinsic contradictions and frequently misguided positions. One of the best chapters explicates the inherent folly of "stadium protest," manifested in such overblown, self-congratulatory '80s affairs as Live Aid and "We Are the World." Lynskey also notes that compositions can have their intent obscured and their essence misappropriated, as was the case with Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." The book reaches its sobering conclusion in the new millennium with Green Day's American Idiot, which the author sees as the end of something, and a waning of the music of dissent. "I began this book intending to write a history of a still vital form of music," he writes. "I finished it wondering if I had instead composed a eulogy."
Lynskey presents a difficult, risky art form in all its complexity.
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33 Revolutions Per MinuteA History of Protest Songs, from Billie Holiday to Green Day
By Dorian Lynskey
HarperCollinsCopyright © 2011 Dorian Lynskey
All right reserved.
"Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze"
Billie Holiday/"Strange Fruit"/1939
The Birth of the Popular Protest Song
IT IS A CLEAR, fresh New York night in March 1939. Over in Europe, the
Spanish Civil War is about to end in victory for General Franco's National-
ists; by the end of the month, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain
will have officially abandoned his policy of appeasement towards Hitler's
Germany. In the United States, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, an
epic tale of sharecroppers during the Great Depression, is on its way to
the printers and will end up being the biggest-selling novel of the year. A
movie of Margaret Mitchell's best seller Gone with the Wind is due to reach
cinemas in the summer. The black opera singer Marian Anderson has re-
cently been denied permission by the Daughters of the American Revolu-
tion to sing for an integrated audience in Washington, DC's Constitution
Hall, prompting First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to resign from the DAR in
disgust and put her weight behind finding a new venue for Anderson's
You're on a date and you've decided to investigate a new club in a former
speakeasy on West Fourth Street: Café Society, which calls itself "The
Wrong Place for the Right People." Even if you don't get the gag on the way in
the doormen wear tattered clothesthen the penny drops when you enter
the L-shaped, two-hundred-person-capacity basement and see the satirical
murals spoofing Manhattan's high-society swells. Unusually for a New York
nightclub, black patrons are not just welcomed but privileged with the best
seats in the house.
You've heard the buzz about the resident singer, a twenty-three-year-old
black woman called Billie Holiday who made her name up in Harlem with
Count Basie's band. She has golden brown, almost Polynesian skin, a ripe
figure (Time magazine will soon condescendingly note, "She does not care
enough about her figure to watch her diet, but she loves to sing"), and a
single gardenia in her hair. She has a way of owning the room, but she's not
flashy. Her voice is plump and pleasure seeking, prodding and caressing a
song until it yields more delights than its author had intended, bringing a
spark of vivacity and a measure of cool to even the hokier material. There
are many fine singers in New York in 1939, but it's the quicksilver spirit
which lies behind Holiday's voice, beyond mere timbre and technique, that
keeps you gripped.
And then it happens. The house lights go down, leaving Holiday illu-
minated by the hard, white beam of a single spotlight. Suddenly you can't
get a drink because the waiters have withdrawn to the back of the room.
She begins her final number. "Southern trees bear a strange fruit." This, you
think, isn't your usual lovey-dovey stuff. "Blood on the leaves and blood
at the root." What is this? "Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze."
Lynching? It's a song about lynching? The chatter from the tables dries up.
Every eye in the room is on the singer, every ear on the song. After the last
worda long, abruptly severed cry of "crop"the whole room snaps to
black. When the house lights go up, she's gone.
NOW ASK YOURSELF THIS: Do you applaud, awed by the courage and inten-
sity of the performance, stunned by the grisly poetry of the lyrics, sensing
history moving through the room? Or do you shift awkwardly in your seat,
shudder at the strange vibrations in the air, and think to yourself: you call
this entertainment? This is the question that will throb at the heart of the
vexed relationship between politics and pop for decades to come, and this
is the first time it has demanded to be asked.
Written by a Jewish Communist called Abel Meeropol, "Strange Fruit"
was not by any means the first protest song, but it was the first to shoulder
an explicit political message into the arena of entertainment. Just prior to
this, U.S. protest songs had nothing to do with mainstream popular music.
They were designed for specific audiencespicket lines, folk schools, party
meetingswith an eye towards specific goals: join the union, fight the
bosses, win the strike.
"Strange Fruit," however, did not belong to the many but to one trou-
bled woman. It was not a song to be sung lustily with your comrades dur-
ing a strike but something profoundly lonely and inhospitable. The music,
stealthy, half in shadow, incarnated the horror described in the lyric. And
instead of resolving itself into a cathartic call for unity, it hung suspended
from that final word. It did not stir the blood; it chilled it. "That is about
the ugliest song I have ever heard," Nina Simone would later marvel. "Ugly
in the sense that it is violent and tears at the guts of what white people have
done to my people in this country." For all these reasons, it was something
entirely new. Up to this point, protest songs functioned as propaganda, but
"Strange Fruit" proved they could be art.
It is a song so good that dozens of singers have since tried to put their
stamp on it, and a performance so strong that none of them have come close
to outclassing Holiday; in 1999, Time magazine named her first studio ver-
sion the "song of the century." It was, and remains, a song to be reckoned
with, and the questions it raised in 1939 endure. Does a protest song enliven
the politics and the music both, or merely cheapen them? Can its musical
merits be separated from its social significance, or does the latter always ob-
scure and distort the former? Does it really have the power to change minds,
let alone policies? Does it convey a vital issue to a whole new audience or
travesty it by reducing it to a few lines, setting it to a tune, and performing
it to people who may or may not give a damn? Is it, fundamentally, a gripping
and necessary art form or just bad art and lousy entertainment?
This is what "Strange Fruit" first asked of its listeners in an L-shaped
room in downtown Manhattan in the first few months of 1939the popu-
lar protest song's ground zero.
PRIOR TO "STRANGE FRUIT," the only hit song to deal squarely with race in
America was "Black and Blue," written by Andy Razaf and Fats Waller in
1929 for the musical Hot Chocolates. Sung by Edith Wilson on the opening
night, "Black and Blue" wooed the audience with familiar minstrel imagery,
then gut punched them with the couplet: "I'm white inside, it don't help my
case / 'Cause I can't hide what is on my face." When Wilson stopped sing-
ing there was a deathly hush, followed by a standing ovation. According to
Razaf's biographer, Barry Singer, that crucial couplet "resolutely fractured
the repressed traditions of black entertainment expression in this country
But "Black and Blue" was too sui generis to set a trend for race-conscious
show tunes.* To find black protest songs en masse, you had to tour the
South, collecting the complaints of blues and folk singers who had never
crossed the threshold of a recording studio. That was the mission of Law-
rence Gellert, an outspoken left-winger who published some two hundred
examples in his 1936 volume, Negro Songs of Protest. Having learned to be
cautious in the Jim Crow South, the men who taught them to him did so
only on condition of anonymity. The first blues singer to address race head
on, and under his own name, was the Louisiana ex-convict Lead Belly, who
composed "Bourgeois Blues," about the discrimination he encountered on
a trip to Washington, DC, in 1938.
But even if Abel Meeropol was aware of some or all of these examples
when he sat down to compose "Strange Fruit," there was not much they
could have taught a white man from New York. Only a black man could
have composed a song which explored day-to-day prejudice as keenly
as "Bourgeois Blues" or "Black and Blue," but anybody could see that a
bloodthirsty mob hanging someone from a tree was wrong. Although the
practice was already on the decline by the time of "Strange Fruit"the gro-
tesque photograph of a double hanging which moved Meeropol to pick up
* Another ahead-of-its-time Broadway curio was Irving Berlin's "Supper Time,"
from the 1933 topical revue As Thousands Cheer, in which a black man "ain't coming
home no more" because he has been lynched, although the lyric is scrupulously
His pen had been taken in Indiana in 1930lynching remained the most
vivid symbol of American racism, a stand-in for all the more subtle forms
of discrimination affecting the black population. Perhaps only the visceral
horror that lynching inspired gave Meeropol the necessary conviction to
write a song with no precedent, one which required a new songwriting
Meeropol published his poem under the title "Bitter Fruit" in the union-
run New York Teacher in 1937. The later name change was inspired. Bitter
is too baldly judgemental. Strange, however, evokes a haunting sense of
something out of joint. It puts the listener in the shoes of a curious observer
spying the hanging shapes from afar and moving closer towards a sickening
Meeropol was a Communist Party member who taught at a high school
in the Bronx. In his spare time, under the gentile alias Lewis Allan, he
churned out reams of songs, poems, and plays with topical themes, only
a handful of which found a wider audience. Meeropol worked out a tune
and "Strange Fruit" quickly became a fixture at left-wing gatherings dur-
ing 1938, sung by his wife and various friends. It even made it to Madison
Square Garden, at an antifascist Spanish Civil War fund-raiser, via black
singer Laura Duncan. In the crowd was one Robert Gordon, who had re-
cently taken on a job at Café Society, directing the headlining show by Billie
Holiday. The club was the brainchild of New Jersey shoe salesman Barney
Josephson: a pithy antidote to the snooty, often racist elitism of other New
York nightspots. Opening the night before New Year's Eve 1938, it owed
much of its instant success to Holiday.
In her twenty-three years, Holiday had already seen plenty, although
her notoriously unreliable autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, obscures
as much as it reveals. Born in Philadelphia, she spent some time running
errands in a Baltimore whorehouse, "just about the only place where black
and white folks could meet in any natural way," where she first discovered
jazz. After she accused a neighbor of attempting to rape her, the ten-year-old
Holiday, an incorrigible truant, was sent to a Catholic reform school until
her mother secured her release. Moving with her mother to New York, she
worked in another brothel, this time doing more than errands, and was
jailed for solicitation. Upon her release she began singing in Harlem jazz
clubs, where she caught the eye of producer John Hammond, who made her
one of the Swing Era's hottest stars. "When she was on stage in the spotlight
she was absolutely regal," jazz impresario Milt Gabler told Holiday's biogra-
pher John Chilton. "It was something, the way she held her head up high,
the way she phrased each word, and got to the heart of the story in a song,
and to top it all, she knew where the beat was."
Meeropol played Josephson his song and asked if he could bring it to
Holiday. The singer later insisted she fell in love with it right away. "Some
guy's brought me a hell of a damn song that I'm going to do," she claimed
to have told bandleader Frankie Newton. Meeropol remembered it dif-
ferently, believing that she performed it only as a favor to Josephson and
Gordon: "To be perfectly frank, I don't think she felt comfortable with the
song." Arthur Herzog, one of Holiday's regular songwriters, claimed that ar-
ranger Danny Mendelsohn rewrote Meeropol's tune, which he uncharitably
dubbed "something or other alleged to be music," which might have made
the difference to Holiday.
Either way, Holiday road tested the song at a party in Harlem and re-
ceived what would become a familiar response: shocked silence followed
by a roar of approval. Meeropol was there the night she debuted it at Café
Society. "She gave a startling, most dramatic, and effective interpretation
which could jolt an audience out of its complacency anywhere," he mar-
velled. "This was exactly what I wanted the song to do and why I wrote it."
Josephson, a natural showman, knew there was no point slipping
"Strange Fruit" into the body of the set and pretending it was just another
song. He drew up some rules: first, Holiday would close all three of her
nightly sets with it; second, the waiters would halt all service beforehand;
third, the whole room would be in darkness but for a sharp, bright spotlight
on Holiday's face; fourth, there would be no encore. "People had to remem-
ber 'Strange Fruit,' get their insides burned by it," he explained.
It was not, by any stretch, a song for every occasion. It infected the air
in the room, cut conversation stone dead, left drinks untouched, cigarettes
unlit. Customers either clapped till their hands were sore, or walked out in
disgust. Back then, before her life took a darker turn, Holiday was able to
leave the song, and its politics, at the door on the way out. When Frankie
Newton would hold forth on Marcus Garvey's black nationalism or Stalin's
Five-Year Plan, she would snap, "I don't want to fill my head with any of
that shit." John Chilton suggests that this was not because she wasn't in-
terested but because she felt embarrassed by her lack of education. All that
she knew and felt about being black in America, she poured into the song.
Holiday had an electric personality. She could be capricious, hot-
tempered, and hedonistic, but warm and generous company, too. Between
performances, she would take a hackney cab ride through Central Park,
where she could smoke marijuana in peace because Josephson had banned
it from the club. "La Holiday is an artist with tears in her eyes as she sings
'Strange Fruit,' " wrote Dixon Gayer in Down Beat. "Billie is carefree, tem-
peramental, a domineering personality. They are both swell people."
As the song's fame spread, Josephson pushed it as a reason to visit Café
Society. "HAVE YOU HEARD? 'Strange Fruit growing on Southern trees'
sung by Billie Holiday," asked a press advertisement that March, casually
mangling the song's title.
Excerpted from 33 Revolutions Per Minute by Dorian Lynskey Copyright © 2011 by Dorian Lynskey. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Dorian Lynskey is a music writer for the Guardian. He also writes for Q, The Word, and Spin, among other publications. 33 Revolutions Per Minute is his first book.
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