Brad Schreiber’s Playlist for His Book "Music is Power: Popular Songs, Social Justice, and the Will to Change"

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Music is Power: Popular Songs, Social Justice, and the Will to Change

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Brad Schreiber’s Music is Power engagingly explores the intersection of music and political action over the past 100 years

Douglas Rushkoff wrote of the book:

“An inspiring tour through the history of making change with music, and an important call for retrieving music’s intrinsic ability to challenge power.”

In his own words, here is Brad Schreiber’s Book Notes music playlist for his book Music is Power: Popular Songs, Social Justice, and the Will to Change:

1. “The Ministry of Oil” by The Prince Myshkins

When I decided to write Music Is Power, I knew I wanted talk about socially conscious music in all genres over the last century and highlight the most well-known songs and artists. Many deserving musicians and composers who have done exceptional work are only parenthetically mentioned. When I saw Rick Burkhardt and Andy Gricevich, a.k.a. The Prince Myshkins, perform “The Ministry of Oil” in a small venue in LA, with their soaring harmonies and one beautifully mournful accordion to accompany them, I was emotionally overcome. For me, it’s the ultimate summary of modern warfare: not just the physical damage but the disastrous economic wake, the manipulation of media, and the underlying appropriation of other countries’ resources in the guise of instituting “freedom.”

2. “The Rebel Girl,” Joe Hill (arranger, Bucky Halker; singer, Cathy Richardson)

When Swedish-American union organizer Joe Hill was about to be executed for a murder he did not commit in Salt Lake City, his message was, “Don’t mourn; organize.” Many are familiar with Joan Baez’s stirring “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” but I’m also moved by the song Hill wrote in jail, before he faced that 1915 firing squad. “The Rebel Girl” was dedicated to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the 25-year-old IWW organizer and future co-founder of the ACLU, who visited Hill during his last days, trying to affect his release. It feels like not just a general plea for justice but for equal rights for women and perhaps an understated love song for the woman closest to him in his hour of need.

3.“Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday

There’s never been a more uncompromising, disturbing anti-racism song than “Strange Fruit.” Billie Holiday’s 1939 interpretation of it is chilling, as her inimitable voice describes the lynched Negroes in the lyrics, with “the bulging eyes, the twisted mouths.” When she performed it in New York’s first integrated nightclub, Café Society, her contract mandated that all employees had to stop serving, and it closed the show, with no encore. Ironically, the writer was a Jewish schoolteacher in the Bronx, Abel Meeropole, who adopted the sons of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed for Soviet espionage in 1953, a charge that resonates today in the wake of Trump’s relationship with Russian oligarchs.

4. “You Don’t Own Me,” Lesley Gore

It’s time to reconsider the time of birth of modern American feminism. The year 1964 was not only when Betty Friedan’s bestseller The Feminine Mystique demanded that women be seen as more than mothers and housewives. It is also when the teenaged Lesley Gore got sick of singing about boys breaking her heart and convinced her producer, a young Quincy Jones, to record this anthem, filled with equal parts of hope and menace, as gutsy as anything Joan Jett or Pat Benatar would belt out years later. “You Don’t Own Me” is proof that even one single atypical song by a generally nonpolitical musical artist can have an enduring life of its own.

5. “Eve of Destruction,” P.F. Sloan

No songwriter was ever treated worse for writing a socially conscious hit than Phil Sloan, whose “Eve of Destruction” went to number one in 1965. It was banned on many US radio stations for its condemnation of the Vietnam War and religious hypocrisy. Sloan was surprisingly attacked by some major pop stars and threatened by his employer, Dunhill Records, who did not want the gifted singer-musician-writer-producer leaving to work with others, including an interested Bob Dylan. “Eve,” made famous by Barry McGuire’s version, began the discussion about the voting age (“You’re old enough to kill, but not for voting”) that resulted in the 26th amendment to the Constitution, allowing 18-year-olds to enter the polling booth, as well as the military.

6. “Are You Experienced,” Jimi Hendrix

Full disclosure: I wrote a biography of his early years, Becoming Jimi Hendrix. His iconic version of “The Star Spangled Banner” evokes the glory and terror of armed combat and reduced many musical artists to tears upon first hearing it. But Jimi also addressed spirituality and consciousness, rather than specific societal problems. And beyond the stunning musicality of his controlled guitar feedback, during a time of extensive societal drug experimentation, no song is quite like “Are You Experienced.” What other artist had the temerity to say, in essence, drugs are only one way to attain enlightenment and change your behavior and thus, the world around you? Only Jimi, who was “not necessarily stoned but beautiful.”

7. “Pieces of a Man,” Gil Scott-Heron

Gil Scott-Heron deserved the accolades afforded his kaleidoscopic Nixon-era references in “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Whether blues, jazz or funk backed up his razor sharp poetry, he set a standard that is met more in poetry slams than by hip-hop artists. And while he usually spoke his rich words, “Pieces of a Man” displays his soulful singing, as he places the listener in a first person narrative about a man denied the ability to make a living for his family and the desperation that leads him to committing crime to survive.

8. “I’m the Slime,” Frank Zappa

More full disclosure: I spent six months working with Frank Zappa on a late-night TV show that sadly never materialized. But beyond his wildly varying music and often outlandish lyrics, there was an intellect ready to reject any form of falseness or lameness. He put his money where his mouth was, especially when he fought the attempts by Washington to censor rock music lyrics and packaging in the ’80s. As a broadside against societal manipulation, there is no better example than “I’m the Slime,” alternately bouncy, scorching and creepy. Creepy in the best possible way.

9. “Brain Damage,” Pink Floyd

One of the great mysteries of popular music is whether Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett went crazy due to LSD overconsumption or if mental illness took him to that chasm. It is a great irony that the devastation the band felt about losing him led to the greatest collection of songs about youthful alienation and madness ever assembled. Like “Wish You Were Here” and other works, “Brain Damage” is strongly influenced by the dissolution of Barrett. It is quirky, elegiac, soaring and contains an absolutely terrifying summation of a person acknowledging his or her own mental decay: “There’s someone in my head but it’s not me.”

10. “Biko,” Peter Gabriel

Gabriel is nothing less than a musical ambassador of social justice and it began with this layered tribute to Steven Biko, the South African anti-apartheid activist, who was beaten to death in jail by white police in 1977. With its cross-cultural synthesized bagpipe, framed by African songs sung at Biko’s funeral, it culminates with Gabriel’s insistence that “You can blow out a candle, but you can’t blow out a fire.” “Biko” not only led to the anti-apartheid benefit Sun City, it also created a movement among college students nationwide that actually led to the US government divesting itself of financial interests in South Africa. The next time someone says a song can’t change anything, you tell them about “Biko.”

11. “Not Ready to Make Nice,” Dixie Chicks

One of the most shameful moments in US political history, outside, of course, of what we are going through now, is the defamation of the Dixie Chicks, after Natalie Maines told a London crowd, ten days before the invasion of Iraq, that they were ashamed that the President, like them was from the state of Texas. Barbara Kopple’s doc Not Ready to Make Nice shows how George W. Bush, radio stations, the country music industry and an ignorant and overly patriotic fan base turned on them, with airplay bans and death threats. Their follow-up album, which garnered many Grammys, featured “Not Ready to Make Nice,” a rare country pop song that dared to analyze this country’s jingoistic behavior, with a beauty and an ache that are electrifying. We’ve got a long way to go to recover lost democratic ideals, and the people who create pop music, and those who consume it, can play a major part in that essential change.

Brad Schreiber and Music is Power: Popular Songs, Social Justice, and the Will to Change links:

Buy the book at Bookshop.org

the author’s website

Counterpunch review

The Allan Handelman Show interview with the author
Deep Dish Radio interview with the author
Law and Disorder interview with the author
Louisiana Radio Network interview with the author
The Peter Collins Show interview with the author
Stuph File Program interview with the author
Unstructured Podcast interview with the author
WGN interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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