33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs from Billie Holiday to Green Day by Dorian Lynskey; Ecco, 656 pages, $19.99 paperback original. British pop music critic Dorian Lynskey knows how to get your attention. He knows how to keep it, too.
In this far-ranging and penetrating history of protest songs from Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" on, he begins in Chicago's Grant Park on Nov. 4, 2008, the day after Barack Obama's election. "He stands on a platform in the cold night air and tells 100,000 cheering supporters: it's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America. Some in the crowd, or watching at home, recognize the line as a paraphrase of words written by the soul singer Sam Cooke almost exactly 45 years ago: 'It's been a long time coming/ But I know a change gonna come.' At this historic moment, one of the greatest orators of the day has borrowed the most memorable line of his acceptance speech from an old protest song."
And that tells you both the flaw and the glory of Lynskey's book: Cooke's song -- whose profile has steadily risen since its posthumous release after his violent death -- isn't one of the 33 songs specifically chosen by Lynskey to tell his tale. To put it mildly, not all are equally memorable.
And of the ones chosen, their continuing presence in 21st century consciousness is all over the map, from our near-unanimous awe at Holiday and "Strange Fruit" to those bedrock credos "This Land Is Your Land" and "We Shall Overcome" to Nina Simone's dramatic cabaret curse "Mississippi Goddam" all the way to Green Day's "American Idiot."
But then it's the brilliance of Lynskey's book that it is so richly contextualized that even if you're not convinced Crass' "How Does That Feel" belongs in the same book as Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" and U2's "Pride in the Name of Love," the book bursts with so much in a story told so well that it already seems essential.
-- Jeff Simon