Which Side Are You On? by James Sullivan
Published by Oxford University Press, 242 pages, $25
Progressive causes often go hand–in-microphone with songs. During the 20th century—and the start of the 21st century—these issues included organized labor, women’s and civil rights, the environment, gay pride, immigration, nukes and the coddled 1 percent. In his latest book, Which Side Are You On? 20th Century American History in 100 Protest Songs, frequent Boston Globe contributor James Sullivan writes a detailed history of these blazing movements and the songs that join in, making us long for the music.
After the lynching of two black men in 1937, Abel Meeropol wrote “Strange Fruit” against Jim Crow segregation, picturing bloody hanged bodies. As hundreds of anti-war protesters at Kent State University fought with the National Guard who killed four students, Neil Young’s “Ohio” highlighted the irony that one war virtually brought on another: “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s comin.’ ” And as gay men rioting at the Stonewall Inn colorfully demanded their rights, songs of celebration and defiance like “My Forbidden Lover” cast off the old secrecy among gays.
In 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington brought 250,000 people—80 percent black—to where then-lovers Joan Baez and Bob Dylan sang. They had their own musical dream. Sullivan educates us on a jukebox’s worth of songs with many more tidbits as well, bringing the beats along the way.
From page 152: Some protest songs have collective justice in mind; others are sparked from more personal resentments. The British musician Graham Nash was moved to write “Immigration Man,” a frustrated rant about border control, when he found himself on the receiving end of a minor incidence of what he found to be unfair treatment. After performing in Vancouver in early 1970 with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Nash was briefly detained while passing through customs to return to California. The singer, who would become a US citizen some years later, felt he was singled out by a border patrol officer because of his British accent. “It infuriated me.” ◆