Dorian Lynskey’s comprehensive new book, 33 Revolutions Per Minute, details the history of the protest song in America and around the world.
Defining a protest song as one that "addresses a political issue in a way which aligns itself with the underdog," Lynskey starts his story with Billie Holiday’s harrowing 1939 anti-lynching ballad, "Strange Fruit," and ably takes us through the historic tunes that helped sustain and promote the civil rights, labor and anti-Vietnam war movements as well as non-American music from The Clash in Britain, Victor Jara in Chile and Fela Kuti in Nigeria.
It’s a bracing and informative survey, even if you’re familiar with the topic, and it sent me thinking and talking to people about all-time favorite protest songs. A quick poll of Nation staffers and friends of the magazine produced an eclectic play list:
Nation Publisher Emeritus Victor Navasky offered "Peat Bog Soldiers," one of Europe’s best-known protest songs that became a Republican anthem during the Spanish Civil War and a symbol of fascist resistance during World War II. Executive Editor Richard Kim cited Sinead O’Connor’s "Black Boys on Mopeds." Managing Editor Roane Carey undoubtedly spoke for many when he insisted on Bob Dylan’s classic " Masters of War." Publicity Director Gennady Kolker contributed John Lennon’s "Gimme Some Truth." Blogger, author and former Crawdaddy editor Greg Mitchell‘s tentative short-list includes Sam Cooke’s "Change Is Gonna Come," Woody Guthrie’s "Vigilante Man," Steve Earle’s "Jerusalem," Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello’s live version of "Ghost of Tom Joad," Bob Dylan’s "Chimes of Freedom", Louis Armstrong’s "Black and Blue," Leonard Cohen’s "Democracy," Billy Bragg’s version of Beethoven’s "Ode to Joy and Neil Young’s "Shock and Awe."
Mother Jones Publisher Steve Katz wrote to say that Steve Goodman’s "My Name is Peggy Evans" is the song that’s stuck with him all these years. Free Speech TV’s Don Rojas votes for Bob Marley’s "Redemption Song." Care2’s Cindy Samuels couldn’t pick just one among vintage classics "Union Maid," "Bread and Roses," and "We Shall Overcome." GritTV’s Sarah Jaffe lauds Patti Smith’s "Radio Baghdad" and the Dropkick Murphys’ version of "Which Side are You On." Nation Institute Investigative Editor Esther Kaplan counters with what she argues is the "ultimate version of the song," featured in the film Harlan County USA and sung by Florence Reece, who wrote the ballad during a coal mining strike in the 1930s. Alternet‘s Washington, DC editor Adele Stan cites the Isley Brothers’ "Fight the Power" and Buffalo Springfield’s "For What It’s Worth." TruthOut editor Jason Leopold argues for Barry McGuire’s version of PF Sloan’s "Eve of Destruction," and FAIR founder and Head of the Park Media Center at Ithaca College Jeff Cohen named a too-often-ignored 1970 song "What About Me?" from the San Francisco band Quicksilver Messenger Service. "It has almost everything — environment, media criticism, class, youth rebellion, repression, optimism."
Seriously picking a top-ten is an impossible task, but in the interests of getting the conversation started, here are my choices. The criteria includes musical quality as well as topicality and I tried to stray some from the totally predictable. Hope you enjoy the videos!
1) Bob Marley’s "Get Up, Stand Up"
2) Stiff Little Fingers’ "Suspect Device"
3) Steel Pulse’s "Ku Klux Klan"
4) Gil Scott-Heron’s "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"
5) Malvina Reynolds’ "Little Boxes"
6) Phil Ochs’ "I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore"
7) Billy Bragg’s "Waiting for the Great Leap Forward"
8) Bob Dylan’s "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll"
9) Aretha Franklin’s "Respect"
10) Boogie Down Production’s "Stop the Violence"
We also want to hear from Nation readers! Use this form to tell us what you consider your all-time favorite protest song. Please include a link to a video, if you have it, but just tell us the name and artist if you don’t. We’ll be publishing a survey of readers’ choices next week.