Music Is Power

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

“Artists can be messengers of good faith, just as much as a minister or politician can. A lot of times, music can go places where politicians can’t go.”

This quote from Otis Williams of The Temptations sums up the theme of Brad Schreiber’s MUSIC IS POWER–-POPULAR SONGS, SOCIAL JUSTICE AND THE WILL TO CHANGE, which was recently published by Rutgers University Press.

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 that’s still heard today, “pie in the sky.”

Hill’s 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, “Don’t 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 Hill’s 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).

In another 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 Lennon’s battle with the forces of repression taught him a lesson: “It’s best to put your political message across with a little honey,” he said.

After writing 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: “It’s 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. It’s a history lesson powered by inspiration. It’s got a passion for life that’s palpable.”

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.”