Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song by Gary Golio and Stand Up and Sing! Pete Seeger, Folk Music, and the Path to Justice by Susanna Reich just happened to be published this spring, during a period when we're hearing more about protest than we have in a very long time.
But how much protest are we hearing in the form of music right now? Last month, CNN did a piece on the history of protest music that included both Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit and the Peter, Paul, and Mary version of Pete Seeger's If I Had a Hammer. It brought protest music up to the present with work by Lady Gaga and Kendrick Lamar, though I don't know if any protest performers of the last few decades have the safe, middle American popularity of Peter, Paul, and Mary. (Lady Gaga's getting there). We no longer have the bulk of the American public watching just three TV networks now or much in the way of variety shows that showcase musicians. A modern Peter, Paul, and Mary doesn't have a platform, like The Smothers Brothers Hour or, earlier, The Jack Benny Show, ready for them to get a message out to a big audience.
You know where you do see ready-made platforms for protest? On late-night political comedy shows. I'm going to suggest that that is where we're seeing protest this spring. As someone I discussed this with pointed out, it takes a while to create a Strange Fruit or an If I Had a Hammer, certainly longer than it takes comedy writers to react to today's news. Then the song writers, composers, and musicians face the same problem writers do--how do they get their work out before the public?
Today's political comedy protest also looks different from the protest music of the past. In How Late Night Comedy Fueled the Rise of Trump Caitlin Flanagan argues that "Sneering hosts have alienated conservatives and made liberals smug." She talks about the tone of these shows--"one imbued with the conviction that they" [the hosts] "and their fans are intellectually and morally superior to those who espouse any of the beliefs of the political right."
That's not what we got in a folk protest song like If I Had a Hammer. That song is about the individual creating a better world. The hammer is a creative tool, not a weapon. Even in Strange Fruit, a song that makes listeners uncomfortable, we don't hear an attack. It's more a document that pays witness to tragedy. "This is happening people. Look at this. Don't pretend you don't know."
Why are we expressing protest so differently now?
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