My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The subtitle of this book is “A History of Protest Songs, From Billie Holiday to Green Day.” But it should really say that it is a history of (mostly) the U.S. and U.K. through protest songs. I don’t say that as a criticism. The book actually turned out to be more interesting than I thought it would be.
I have some gripes here and there, but overall Lynskey did an admirable job of smashing 100 years of history and hundreds (thousands?) of musicians into one book. Whatever details I wish he would have put in or taken out, his ability to weave a readable narrative from so much information makes up for any flaws.
I expected a lot of fascinating factoids and was not disappointed. You’ll read about how FDR raged when the Almanacs released Songs for John Doe. How Paul Robeson was confronted by a lynch mob when he showed up for an outdoor concert in Peekskill in 1949. How Johnny Cash pissed off Nixon by playing What is Truth instead of the requested Okie from Muskogee at a White House Concert. How FBI informants infiltrated black arts groups like the Watts Prophets. How Marvin Gaye fought to make political music and what the recording session for What’s Going On was like. (Hint: It involved lots of weed, booze, and masturbation.)
As interesting as the historical details are, what I love most about the book is how it delves into the tensions that artists confront. Is art self expression or should it have a purpose? How do you make music with a message that isn’t trite and preachy? What is your responsibility to your audience? What do you do when people misinterpret your work or co-opt it for things you never intended? How can a radical artist stay motivated to keep fighting when you lose more often than not? How do you stay focused in the face of repression or popularity?
In other words, the book deals with tensions that many of us face. It shows how fleeting those moments are when everything comes together. Sometimes people worked their asses off trying to make inspirational music or radical organizations and it fell flat. Sometimes a song written in twenty minutes would take off and start something huge. But even those twenty minute wonders had a million different happy accidents leading up to them.
A history through music turns out to be an ideal way to look at those tensions and to see how moments that seem to come out of nowhere never really do. History buffs and music nerds will like this book. But so, I think, will anyone who does art or activism.