Not exactly a book review of Dorian Lynskey’s ’33 Revolutions Per Minute’
I’ve been reading this book you see pictured to the left here – 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs from Billie Holliday to Greenday, by Dorian Lynskey whom you may know from his work at the Guardian UK. It’s one of a number of books I’ve been reading, of course, sweeping my brain of all extranneous knowledge, replacing it with information about the labor movement, civil rights, Zilphia Horton, and the various ways in which music affects change – not only in the world, but in very quiet, lasting ways; in individuals.
So, I can’t rightfully tell you this is going to be a blog post reporting on how readable and informative Lynskey’s book is (which it is). Or how voluminous it is (quite). If you have any interest in music history or the history of social justice, it’s rather worth your time to pour through its 600-something pages.
My experience of reading this book is informed also from the fact that I am, at the same time, reading Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950 by Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore. (Less entertaining, as informative, but somewhat sloggy and far more academic.) I just put away Ready from Within, which was a memoir of sorts by Septima Clark. Myles Horton and Paulo Freire’s We Make the Road by Walking, which was a book they spoke together – basically a transcript of several conversations the two revolutionary educators had. Etc.
I don’t want to bore you with my bibliography. Just give you some context for what I feel compelled to blog about this morning.
The last two days, I was up in New Market, Tenn., at the Highlander Research and Education Center (HREC) – the residential school for adults which began in Monteagle, Tenn., in 1932 thanks to founders Myles Horton and Don West. Zilphia Horton, who I’m focusing my research and a future book on, arrived at the school in 1935. Her legacy is quite palpable there. Because they were progressive and involved with the labor movement – and had been defying Jim Crow since opening their doors in the ’30s – the Monteagle location was confiscated by the state of Tennessee in 1960. (Long story short, they got nailed on a charge of selling booze without a license.) Myles and his staff (Zilphia had already died by then) packed up and moved to Knoxville, and kept right on doing what they always had done. Eventually they took out a new charter under a different name and moved into New Market to…continue further. Kind of funny how the state of Tennessee thought they could padlock the school and shut it down. I could go on about that, but it’s a sidenote in this particular instance. If it interests you, I’d suggest Myles Horton’s autobiography, The Long Haul.
Zilphia, as you may by now know from reading my blogs here, was a musician. Her work at the school included a number of things – from cooking to teaching union activists how to file grievances – but her legacy is really in how she used music and the arts to teach student-activists about community, empathy, understanding, and perseverance. It was a very implicit way of teaching. Not stating outright, “If you sing this song together you might start to understand something about each other.” More like, “Hey, let’s sing together, shall we?”
Anyway, yesterday I was up there at HREC, and got to have lunch with the staff. One of the people I sat with was Marquez Rhyne – a very tall guy about my age who’s deeply involved with the Ziphia Horton project there. His project pairs artists with communities organizing for some purpose. (One round sent a theater guy to work with a group of immigrants trying to send a message about the DREAM act. They built coffins and put in those coffins their high school diplomas, their college acceptance letters, scholarship letters, etc., and then delivered the coffins to their representatives. They used theater to get their point across – something Zilphia taught back in the ’40s and ’50s.)
I also sat with Candie and Guy Carawan. Guy actually knew Zilphia. He took over her job after she died in 1956 and is the person most folks credit with delivering “We Shall Overcome” (a song Zilphia taught him) in a way which popularized it into the civil rights movement. He’s been doing her work – and his – ever since, along with his wife Candie. Candie is a much more talkative, albeit soft-spoken and just endearing personality. The two of them have written a few books about the folk music of the area around Highlander. They’ve collected songs of the mountains, the miners. They collected songs people sang during the civil rights movement – Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs – which is a great introduction to songs of empowerment for you singer-songwriters out there, looking to do that sort of thing.
Candie has been an invaluable resource since I started this project. She was the first contact I made a year or so ago – back when I was still living in Seattle and all I knew about Zilphia Horton was that I didn’t know nearly as much as I’d like to. She’s suggested a book about Zilphia would be a great contribution and that it would be good to have all the scattered info on her collected into one place. So I moved across the country and here I am.
She is also reading 33 Revolutions Per Minute, though at a much slower clip. She said she’d made it through the first few chapters so far, and that anyone who can get through the whole book would get a heck of an education.
I have a point here. I know that’s a lot of background, but I think it’s important to share where I’m coming from before I try to make my point.
We talked about Bonnaroo, and I shared that I had written a post here about my feelings while watching Mavis Staples perform. And that a couple of the comments I received from that post suggested I was overthinking it, and that sometimes it’s enough for music to just be music. Candie’s reaction to that was very similar to my gut response, which was that music is never just music. It comes from somewhere, from someone. It’s an expression of something which could not have otherwise been expressed. Whether it’s a sexual longing or something far more revolutionary – the Staple Singers’ “Freedom Highway,” for example. Definitely not “just music.”
March the freedom highway
March each and every day
I made up my mind – I won’t turn around
Which brings me back to Lynskey’s book. At last.
The book has 33 chapters – each one looking closely at another “protest” song which marked a certain moment in time. I’d argue, as I have before, that none of these were protest songs so much as they were just songs about what was going on in people’s lives. “Strange Fruit” – the song which opens the book – was a song about grappling with the fear and the realization that people had been getting hanged simply because they were the wrong color, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hanged to death, from trees, and then left there as an example to others like them. This happened in America. It had been outlawed by the time “Strange Fruit” debuted, but that doesn’t mean that the killing of people for being born into the wrong color skin had stopped. So, it was a song about a very real sort of realization. The fact that someone got on a stage at a microphone and shared that fear and that realization with a group full of people – that was radical and a sort of a protest. But the song itself was just about what someone was feeling, what they had seen or imagined, about what was possible.
“Mississippi Goddamn,” same thing. Nina Simone getting her feelings out.
That we’ve come to believe someone sharing their feelings about something that troubles them is “protest” could be an interesting cultural study in itself. But you get to the bottom of these songs, and it’s usually just human beings grappling with something that makes them afraid or angry or both.
“This Land Is Your Land,” “We Shall Overcome,” and on and on.
What makes this such a great book I realize is not that Lynskey tells where these songs came from. He does, in fact do that. But he doesn’t stop there. He talks about other songs that were popular at the same time. Songs which added to the cultural landscape, which were swimming through people’s heads at the same time.
Candie and I were talking about how categorizing something as “protest music” is kind of dangerous because it allows our brains to separate it from what was actually going on. There’s the academic remembrance of things like, say, Brown v. Board of Education. We’ve all seen the photos and video of that girl being walked to school, epithets shouted at her. Threats and awful things you would never say to someone’s face over the dinner table. Objectification. We see that and file it in an academic place. And we may even associate it with a song that was playing in the background when we were shown the video. But what was really going on was, that girl got up in the morning knowing she was going to face that. She had worked up in her head how bad it could be. She had maybe even come to peace with the fact that someone might shoot her dead during that walk. She chose her clothes and ate her breakfast (or didn’t, because fear tears up your stomach sometimes). She had some conversations. She maybe had a song stuck in her head. Or a bible verse. Or both. Or neither. You see what I’m talking about?
Just as we can politicize that moment, we can also wormhole into the humanity of it if we let ourselves. And somehow from that girl’s kitchen, getting ready for school, it doesn’t feel like a political thing. It feels very personal. And that’s where the music comes from.
Kitchens. The passenger seats of cars. Bedrooms with doors shut hard. It’s not protest, it’s just someone talking about how they feel.
And it’s never just music.
Zilphia got that, and she got it across to her students just by getting them to sing together. If you’ve ever burst into song with your friends, you know what I mean. It’s a connection that happens, and it’s very impenetrable. It can become a protest – certainly a few hundred-thousand people on the mall in Washington, DC, singing “We Shall Overcome” together on a muggy, hot August morning in 1963…that was a protest. But the song itself is a very personal thing. It’s a very quiet thing, a resolution one makes with themselves.
When Highlander was raided once and all the students’ things were searched in the middle of the night, they huddled in the center and sang quietly “We Shall Overcome.” Someone added a verse in that scary moment which felt like a personal violation – their stuff was getting searched by agents; they were there to take a workshop and now they were assumed to be somehow a threat – and in that very small shared moment, there was fear. They’d already had some bomb threats. They were picketed by the KKK. It was a scary time. And one of them called out a new verse: “We are not afraid.”
Take that verse to that mall in D.C. and it becomes a protest. But there at Highlander in the middle of the night, it was some friends feeling scared and trying to convince themselves not to be.
Am I belaboring the point?
What’s implicit in Lynskey’s book is that the music which has changed our ideas, has brought us together in times of great struggle, alienation, and scatteredness, has never existed in a vacuum. It’s never “just music.” It’s never intended for people to just have so they can say they have it.
My post about Mavis from Bonnaroo, someone suggested most people just want to be able to say they were there. I disagree. I think most people – given the choice – will prefer to have a meaningful experience over one which disconnects them from meaning. The music has to take them there – to the meaning – because escapism is a powerful desire. More powerful, though, is the connection which happens between people when true meaning emerges through the music.
If you consider this has always happened, you can find it much easier going forward. It’s that sense of owning your culture, of recognizing where you came from, which has perpetuated the Highlander idea all these years. They’ve figured out how to nail that in their inter actions with their students. It’s also what characterized Zilphia’s work – teaching “antiquated” folk songs with melodies so ingrained people forgot they already knew them well, and encouraging people to change the words to fit their own situation. By teaching that, she also taught you can take what you’ve been handed in all aspects of life and change it into something that makes better sense for you. Whether it’s a song, a tradition, a set of beliefs, or an education, its yours to make use of. If you don’t like the third verse, write a new one we can sing together. If you don’t like where the country is headed, get some people to agree with you and change it together.
33 Revolutions Per Minute not only gives the history of “protest” music; it also follows the evolution of the form from community singing to preachy singer-songwriters, to wherever it is now – artists trying to figure out what to do with the form. In the process, it provides some kind of spring board for whatever we do with music next; however we might now proceed to use music as a way of building consensus. Candie was right – the book definitely provides an education. It reminds us that songs are moments, and our lives are made of so many moments (and so many songs). But, at the end of the day, while we may go many places for our music, filling our ears with rhythms and melodies which move time along or break awkward silences, which get us dancing or to roll the windows down when we drive…all these things contribute to our experiences. It’s never just music. In fact, every now and then, it kicks us with a wallop so severe, the next thing we know we’re all together at once, in one big group, singing along.