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Sound And Fury Of Protest Movements


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we will remember hip-hop legend Heavy D. He died yesterday at the age of 44.

But first, we just heard from Freedom Rider Theresa Walker, and she told us how singing protest songs and spirituals kept up her spirits and those of her fellow civil rights protesters.

So we wanted to talk more about what protest music is and how it came about. American protest music is said to be as old as the nation itself, from the spirituals sung by the enslaved to songs like Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," Neil Young's "Ohio," all the way to Public Enemy's urban anthem "Fight the Power."

Protest music is the soundtrack of activism in this country, so that's why some people are now asking, will the Tea Party movement or Occupy Wall Street have a particular sound? So far, if you live in any of the places in the country where folks are gathering to occupy, you might hear a lot of this.


MARTIN: But is all this drumming a call to action or is it simply a call for attention? Is that the latest protest song? That's a question that author Dorian Lynskey has spent some time pondering. He's a rock critic for The Guardian newspaper in London. He's also author of the recent book "33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, From Billie Holiday to Green Day." He joins us now from the BBC studios in London.

Mr. Lynskey, thanks so much for speaking with us.

DORIAN LYNSKEY: Oh, my pleasure. Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, you begin your book, somewhat controversially, I have to say, with Billie Holiday's song "Strange Fruit." I'll just play a short clip of it for people who may not be familiar with it. Here it is.


BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Southern trees bear a strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

MARTIN: And that song, of course, which is from a poem by an activist - a socialist activist who was so controversial at the time that many radio stations - most radio stations wouldn't play it. The subject matter is, of course, lynching.

So why did you choose to begin your examination of protest songs with "Strange Fruit"?

LYNSKEY: I think the reason I did, it seemed the obvious candidate because it's where the protest song moved from being something that you would hear and that you would sing on a picket line, or like you say, you know, the slave-era spirituals - to being something that was in a recording studio, in a nightclub, on the radio, and became absolutely associated with a certain artist. And that's a big break from what was coming before then.

MARTIN: Now, is the key here the stature or the popularity of the artist, do you think? Or what is it that, in your view, made Billie Holiday's song kind of break through?

LYNSKEY: Well, it was everything. It was the way that she performed the lyric, you know, which might have been a lot blunter, and in fact some versions of it, you know, are a lot blunter. And it's the way she kind of crept around the lyric and almost makes it into a suspense story. You know, when it opens, you're not sure exactly what she's seeing and, you know, only as the song progresses, you realize, oh, it's bodies, you know, the first time you hear it.

And it was just so that you didn't have to be strident. You didn't have to be reaching crowds of people. You could talk about politics. You could address politics in very different kinds of music, and I think it was such an emotionally powerful song that it opened up whole new areas, although they weren't really explored properly, I think, till the next decade or so.

MARTIN: Well, yeah. And you also make the point that the Vietnam War made its way into the music of many different artists with different - from different genres. I mean, artists like Joan Baez and Neil Young. And, of course, here - I'm going to play a song by American soul singer Edwin Starr. It's called "War," and let's listen.


EDWIN STARR: (Singing) War I despise because it means destruction of innocent lives. War means tears to thousands of mothers' eyes when their sons go to fight and lose their lives. I said, war, huh, good God, y'all, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Say it again. War, huh...

MARTIN: So tell me about this. Why do you think this one works?

LYNSKEY: Well, this is a terrific example of the music really sending a message that sort of, you know, calls against the lyrics in some ways. That, you know, people assume that pacifist sentiments would be represented in music like folk, you know, which could be sort of calming and reassuring and seemed to be the antithesis of the kind of the mechanized war machine. And what Motown did was make a song which sounds almost like a drill sergeant. You know, it sounds like kind of rockets exploding overhead. It's absolutely thrilling and I think you found that with other things like Jimi Hendrix used machine gun, where they kind of embraced the sort of the heaviness and the density and the ferocity of war and, you know, made those records sort of almost conflicted, exciting in unexpected ways.

MARTIN: And I know it's kind of like a party song in a way. I mean you can – it has that call and response aspect to it, 'cause you can see the crowd answering back.

LYNSKEY: Well, I mean all – well, not all, I mean there are many successful protest songs do have a call and response aspect. You know, that when Peter Seeger was first went to perform "We Shall Overcome," which he, you know, he didn't write in the first place, but he had a hand in adapting it, and when he went to play that in black churches in the South in the early 60s, he realized they already knew the song by somebody else and that they'd improved it by using call and response, by loosening up the rhythm and that it really worked, and that his version was kind of stiff and didactic. And, you know, his version then became, you know, their version because he thought they've got it right, this is something which feels kind of joyous and communal, and that's what you need to do.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with writer Dorian Lynskey. We're talking the history of protest music. And, of course, we started by talking about Billie Holiday and "Strange Fruit." But I want to talk to a song that I think might be more familiar with people of a, you know, later generation. This is Public Enemy and their song "Fight the Power."


PUBLIC ENEMY: (Rapping) Elvis was a hero to most. But he never meant (bleep) to me you see. Straight out racist that sucker was simple and plain. (Bleep) John Wayne. 'Cause I'm Black and I'm proud. I'm ready and hyped plus I'm amped. Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps. Sample a look back you look and find. Nothing but rednecks...

MARTIN: And, of course, this song was immortalized in the Spike Lee film "Do The Right Thing." Tell me what you think the song means and where it kind of fits in, in the canon, if I could use that term.

LYNSKEY: Sure. Well, I mean Public Enemy were going to be most important political groups there has ever been. There was some politics in hip-hop before but they really are kind of radical post-Black Panther kind of message to hip-hop. And there's so much density of information in this song. If you actually pick apart, as I did when I was writing the chapter, the lyrics and the samples, there's always kind of embedded information about the history of the black experience in America. There's samples from all over, artists like James Brown, or some features, little quotes from protest songs. There was a sense of it's intensely educational but it's also enormously physically exciting, you know, and that's without the second bit the first bit would matter.

MARTIN: And what about the - some of the specific information is specific to the time. For example, when he says, you know, most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps. Well, they do now. You know, actually, you know, there is, in this country there's a Malcolm X stamp. And so on kind of wondering, it still works as a song, but does timelessness count, I guess is the question?

LYNSKEY: Well, it's surprising because I think that listeners really look past the details and look to the central message. And the classic example I would say would be Neil Young's "Ohio," which is about a very specific incident at Kent State University in 1970, where four students were shot during an antiwar protest. And yet, it still resonates. You know, Neil Young was performing it a few years ago during when he was sort of promoting his little anti-George Bush album. And, you know, people weren't going, why are you singing about the students from, you know, 45 years ago? They kind of got the point and I think it's the same with Public Enemy. Obviously, you know, hip-hop is always topical.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

LYNSKEY: The song endures. You know, the song matters, and that's why, you know, that's why music has a kind of enduring power. It's not just words on a page where you go, that's a kind of interesting historical document. You still feel that physical rush and you still feel the general point, you know, which is saying, which is fight the power. Even if you don't know who Bobby McFerrin is.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

LYNSKEY: Even if you quite like Elvis. Do you know what I mean?

MARTIN: Sure. So let me ask you this, about one thing, that these are all songs. I think everybody would realize that these are songs and the music has its own appeal. But what about a spoken word piece, like Gil Scott Heron's famous, you know, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." I'll just play a little bit of it so people know what I'm talking about, in case they're not familiar.


GIL SCOTT HERON: (Rapping) "Green Acres," "Beverly Hillbillies" and "Hooterville Junction" will no longer be so damned relevant, and women will not care if Dick finally gets down with Jane on "Search for Tomorrow" because black people will be in the street looking for a brighter day. The revolution will not be televised.

MARTIN: Is that a song? I mean, for example, it does have the same kind of feeling of - people have taken famous speeches, for example, and set them to music.

LYNSKEY: Well, I think it's a great example of two things: one, is the way the music enhances the words, 'cause the original version was done very much in a kind of New York poetry club environment with conga drummers and a voice. And the lyrics are basically the same, the delivery is very similar. But it's the version where the music is really filled out, which everybody knows. That's the one that makes it really powerful. And I think it's also an example of what we're talking about where most of the references in "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" would be kind of inexplicable to somebody who didn't grow up at that point, you know, TV shows that you probably don't even get reruns of anymore. But the title phrase is still referenced all the time.

MARTIN: Which kind of loops back nicely to what the subject of the day, which is the Occupy Wall Street movement, and also to some extent the Tea Party movement, which are these grassroots movements that have sort of sprung up. I'm just wondering, do you see signs of a musical genre developing in either of these protest movements?

LYNSKEY: Well, it's a peculiar one. I mean just to use the example of Occupy. You know, they don't use amplification, and so what you're getting basically is either, you know of a cappella raps or, you know, singers with acoustic guitars. A lot of the time they're performing songs like "This Land Is Your Land," or "We Shall Overcome," you know, songs that have been around for a long, long time. There are, you know, there are Tea Party songs, there are Occupy songs being posted on YouTube all the time, but because pop culture is so atomized now, you know, there are very few kind of uniting breakthrough artists that, you know, you can say all right. We all know about Taylor Swift or Lady Gaga. But there's not many like that and so, you know, in politics I think the temptation is to say, well, where is the anthem? Where's the one song we can hold up and go, that's like "Ohio," that's like "War," that's like "Fight the Power." I think sometimes its commentators, you know, like myself who are going well, why aren't you embracing a song? Why haven't you gotten an anthem? And I guess, you know, to a lot of them it's like well, we don't, you know, why do we need one? They certainly embraced the songs when people like Tom Morello or Pete Seeger or, you know, Lupe Fiasco turn up and perform them, but the idea that we're going to have some kind of defining song out of this movement I'm not so sure. You know, I mean if it happens I think that that would be great.

MARTIN: I see. OK, well, if you had to pick one could we appoint you a leader and have you pick one? If you could pick an anthem what would it be?

LYNSKEY: They're literally - I've done quite a lot of research, I've written a couple of things about it recently and there just isn't one. There's many voices out there on YouTube. Some of the songs are quite good. Some of the songs aren't very good at all. I think it's just by telling that people are reaching back to older songs, you know, whose messages kind of endure. You know, in a time where talking about the wealth divide and the difference between, you know, the ordinary man and the bankers. You know, it's no wonder that kind of Woody Guthrie songs are gaining a bit of traction again. And, you know, as soon as I hear a truly great song coming out of the Occupy generation, I will let you know, definitely.

MARTIN: All right. Dorian Lynskey is a rock critic for The Guardian in London. He's author of the book "33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, From Billie Holiday to Green Day." He joined us from the studios of the BBC in London. Mr. Lynskey, thanks so much for speaking with us.

LYNSKEY: Thanks a lot, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.