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33 Revolutions per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, from Billie Holiday to Green Day Paperback – April 5, 2011

3.8 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The protest song reached its zenith in 1960s America when Bob Dylan, Buffalo Springfield, Country Joe and the Fish, Jimi Hendrix, and Joan Baez wrote popular songs to protest American involvement in the Vietnam War and the mistreatment of social and economic groups. In some cases—Dylan's "Masters of War," P.F. Sloan's "Eve of Destruction," Country Joe McDonald's "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag"—the songs became anthems that defined a generation, confirming the idea that popular music could indeed bring people together to promote a common cause for the common good. Sadly, British music critic Lynskey doesn't capture the deep significance of the protest song or the cultural moments that created them. Although he admirably attempts to isolate the personal and cultural contexts of 33 protest songs, from Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" and James Brown's "Say It Loud—I'm Black and I'm Proud" to the Clash's "White Riot," Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," and Steve Earle's "John Walker's Blues," Lynskey doesn't fully demonstrate the reasons that each song qualifies as a protest song in the first place, or why the songs he gathered provide the best examples of a protest song. (Apr.)
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Review

“This book is impressive in scope.” (New Yorker)

“A longtime music critic, Lynskey presents up-close details to ballast the book’s larger historical sweep.” (Los Angeles Times)

“Lynskey has a strong command of the music and its makers.” (Wall Street Journal)

“lovely writing…Let’s praise the agile, many-tentacled writer Mr. Lynskey can often be, because I loved bits of this book; you can pluck out the many tasty things like seeds from a pomegranate.” (New York Times)

“British music critic Dorian Lynskey offers a completely absorbing look at 33 songs, spanning seven decades and haling from five continents...Comprehensive and beautifully written.” (Booklist (starred review))

“[A] provocative, absorbing book” (Cleveland Plain Dealer)

“A must-read for militant-music lovers.” (The Root)
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 688 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco (April 5, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061670154
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061670152
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.7 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #161,118 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Sean Gallagher on May 8, 2011
Format: Paperback
We've all heard ad nauseam how the only people to actually get anything done in this country were the baby boomers in the 1960's, with protest against the Vietnam War, marching for Civil Rights, put out music and movies that were culturally relevant, and so on. Conversely, there are those who thought, and still think, the 60's were a time when America lost its moral compass, politically and culturally, and are trying to change things back when it was a "better" place. "33 Revolutions per Minute", by Dorian Lynskey, which covers the protest song from Billie Holliday's "Strange Fruit" to Green Day's "American Idiot", may not change anyone's mind on what protest songs, and movements, meant to this country (as well as Britain, Chile, and Africa), but it's a well-written history.

As the title would suggest, Lynskey, a music critic for the Guardian, picks 33 songs to write about. Along with the two listed above, it includes songs both well-known (Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land", Bob Dylan's "Masters of War", James Brown's "I'm Black and I'm Proud", Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Ohio", Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Two Tribes", which apparently got Lynskey interested in protest music) and lesser known (Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddamn", the music of Victor Jara, a singer/protestor in Chile until he was murdered when Pinochet took over, Steve Earle's "John Walker Blues").
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This is A, rather than THE, history of protest songs.

At its best, the book is informative. Even if you hate a particular song and/or artist, the author manages to keeps one's interest in reading about it/them. In part this is due to his scatter-shot approach, encompassing eras and genres. It is also well-researched.

Where it fails is in the balance of history. There are far too many relatively recent songs included. That Phil Ochs wasn't granted a chapter, while Frankie Goes To Hollywood was, is criminal. Broadside magazine is hardly even mentioned, while the author goes out of his way to include an obscure disco song, as well as U#2's "Pride (In The Name of Love)," which isn't even a protest song but, rather, a song of celebration. So why include it? I suspect it's for the same reason that the book is so laden with relatively recent songs, that the main concern was the bottom line. Most people will want to read about songs that they're familiar with.

So the blues, a form of music that, by it's very nature, is a protest, is totally ignored. Part of this is probably due to the author's definition of protest music, which he links to politics. There are, of course, other forms of revolution, such as cultural and social, but the author chooses to put blinders on concerning them. Still, I'd much rather have read something about the "Bourgeois Blues" than "Two Tribes."

Even among the modern music the author does highlight, there is some head-scratching on my part. Does Dorian Lynskey honestly believe that Huggy Bear is more representative of Riot Grrrl than Bikini Kill? Does he not believe that Patti Smith's song "People Have The Power" is even worth mentioning?
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Format: Paperback
This may be the first time I've ever had a love/hate relationship with a non-fiction book.

It's safe to say that for nearly the first half of this 600+ page exploration of protest through song, I was enraptured. As a historian and a music-lover, I was in awe of the way Lynskey folded global historical events in with the chapter title songs. The first chapter, on Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" as well as the chapter on James Brown's "Say It Loud-I'm Black and Proud" are excellent examples of where the combination is done so almost flawlessly. By the time I had reached Part III of the book - a trio of chapters written about lesser-known songs and history (from an American point-of-view) from Chile, Nigeria, and Jamaica I had already begun thinking about a way to create a history class based around this idea. It seemed that introducing history via music and the protest song was a perfect way of illustrating historical ideas and ideals.

Something happened to the narrative of the book once it hit the mid 1970s, and it wasn't an improvement. Suddenly the chapters seemed disjointed and started feeling more like short essays on ideas and songs stitched together to create the larger chapters. The historical narrative, in itself simply a 100-level glossing of political events, was overtaking the musical narrative. The chapter on U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)" has little to do with the title song, and instead describes U2's entire catalog and how it relates to the history of the years in which they were written. Chapter 20 on Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" is a neutered history of political hip-hop in the early 1980s and spends most of it's time forgetting to talk about "The Message".
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