This deftly written, meticulously-researched, important book delves into
the history of socially-conscious music in America, commencing with a
chapter on Joe Hill, who became a mythic figure in the early years of
the 20th century when he wrote songs that condemned poverty and the exploitation
of workers. He also poked fun at religion in his parody of the Christian
hymn, The Sweet Bye and Bye, which he titled The Preacher
and the Slave. In that ditty Hill called the Salvation Army the
Starvation Army and coined a phrase thats still heard today,
pie in the sky.
radicalism and activism enraged the powers-that-be and resulted in his
arrest as an anarchist or person who believed in or advocated the
overthrow by force or violence of the U.S. government. He beat that
rap but was later framed in a murder trial and executed by a firing squad
in January, 1915. Among his last words were this exhortation, Dont
mourn for me, organize!
Hill was later immortalized in a poem by Albert Hayes, which then became
a song, Joe Hill, which was made popular by Earl Robinson,
Phil Ochs, Joan Baez and Woody Guthrie.
Guthrie became the heir to Hills legacy. Woody, in spoken
word and song, showed clarity, humility, and above all, humor in what
he wrote. His respect for Hill was the hallmark of his musical craft,
which included such iconic songs as This Land Is Your Land,
and The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd.
Shreiber traces the course of protest music as its torch was handed from
Guthrie to Pete Seeger to Phil Ochs to Bob Dylan. After dealing perceptively
with those major artists-his analysis of their song lyrics is particularly
insightful-he turns his attention to such gifted singer/songwriters
as P.F. Sloan and Janis Ian. Then he shifts gears in a chapter headed
Parody and Poetry and analyzes the work of satirists Tom Lehrer,
the Smothers Brothers, and Noel Paul Stokey, who collectively thumbed
their noses at the corporate state, the war in Viet Nam, and the Atomic
Energy Commission-and paid a large price for it (CBS cancelled The
Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, for example).
chapter, Psychedelic Situations, Schreiber describes how Jimi
Hendrix and Pink Floyd took on such social issues as racism, personal
alienation, consumerism, the shallowness and corruption of the music industry.
Hendrix, who Schreiber believes was the most inventive guitarist that
ever lived, defended his constant use of LSD but also reminded fans that
higher levels of consciousness were both necessary and not necessarily
dependent on drugs.
Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, James Brown and Curtis Mayfield
come next in MUSIC IS POWER, with the line of succession eventually leading
to such rock bands as The Who and Black Sabbath. Schreiber then devotes
a chapter to the music of The Beatles, the best-selling band of all time.
Their irreverent and free-thinking songs drew the ire of the conservatives,
who came down especially hard on John Lennon when he jokingly remarked
in an interview that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Radio stations
around the world banned their music and there was criticism from the Vatican.
Lennon himself was threatened with deportation from the USA-the
government having taken exception to his anti-Vietnam-war song Give
Peace a Chance. That he was also hobnobbing with such left-wing
militants as Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Bobby Seale made him an even
bigger target. He was put under surveillance and harassed by the FBI for
the next three years. The intimidation only ceased when he became an American
citizen in 1975.
John Lennons battle with the forces of repression taught him a lesson:
Its best to put your political message across with a little
honey, he said.
an insightful, loving chapter on Frank Zappa-whose world-view was
filled with loathing for religion, racism, government, law enforcement,
the courts, and yes, even romance-Schreiber turns his attention
to the music of NWA and Public Enemy. The success of those bands showed
that hip-hop could address social inequities, have a great groove,
and sell like hell. He then quotes author Denise Sullivan on the
importance of a rap song like Fear of a Black Planet, which
sold two million copies in the USA: Its the perfect combination
of propulsion, rhythm, and repetition, with a slogan that conjures the
past to empower the present, as in gospel and folk tradition. Its
a history lesson powered by inspiration. Its got a passion for life
MUSIC AND POWER concludes with these words: Never before in history
has music been such an important adjunct to correcting social ills. Musical
activism is not a phase in history or a trend that passes any more than
human corruption is. There was music to resist what was once a worldwide,
legal African slave trade. Now there must be music for clandestine sex
slavery. The problems always seem to be there, but some problems shift
and some disappear.