Greville St Bookstore

Music July
July 27, 2009, 3:06 am
Filed under: Music

10 Songs That Changed the World by June Skinner Sawyers
pb $39.95

Her 10 songs — each the subject of their own chapter — are arranged chronologically, beginning with ‘Amazing Grace’, a song whose lyrics were originally penned back in the 18th century by Englishman John Newton. No argument here. ‘Amazing Grace’ was sung by slaves in the American south, was sung by Aretha Franklin at Martin Luther King’s funeral, by Bono in memory of Joey Ramone on the day of his death, and has been recorded over 1100 times. It’s a song indelibly linked to funeral services, to the long history of black American struggle for equality, to spiritual music. Anyone fortunate enough to have heard a Aaron Neville, unaccompanied, close the New Orleans Jazz Festival with ‘Amazing Grace’ knows the sheer power and beauty of this song.

Other songs that Sawyers includes in this vein are ‘We Shall Overcome’, made famous by Pete Seeger and others, and ‘Strange Fruit’, a song that, while written by a New York Jewish school teacher, became, in Billie Holiday’s hands, a devastating critique of black lynching in the American south. For me, these chapters were amongst the most moving, as these were songs that evolved and grew over time to accommodate and breathe life into on-going struggles.

It is when Sawyers gets to the rise of popular music that things get a little stickier. Elvis is represented by ‘Hound Dog’, Dylan by ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and the Beatles by ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’. These choices feel almost arbitrary, as any one of half a dozen songs by any of these artists could have equally taken their place. ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ gets the nod because it was the song that introduced the Beatles to America; yet there are a dozen more adventurous songs scattered across Sergeant Pepper’s or the White Album, including ‘Revolution’. But, to be fair, Sawyers uses these selections as jumping off points to assess the transformation in our culture that each of these artists generated.

Sawyers is back on firmer ground with ‘Respect’, a song that, though written by Otis Redding, was transformed into an anthem by Aretha Franklin. Even Otis was reported as saying: ‘That little girl done took my song away’. But perhaps the song that transcends daily struggle and protest was John Lennon’s simple Utopian dream ‘Imagine’, a song made even more poignant in the light of his senseless murder in a New York street in 1980.

If Sawyers has one complete miss, it would have to be her final selection — the Sugerhill Gang’s 1979 single ‘Rapper’s Delight’ — purportedly there for its being the first recorded example of hip hop/rap. But if this one-hit wonder carries more gravitas than, say, Public Enemy’s ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’, well, I’ll eat my shorts.

Sawyers’ book is an easy read, and there’s a certain satisfaction to be had in measuring your own selections up against this sort of all-encompassing list. If pressed to do so, I’d be putting my hand up for Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ and Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Goin’ On’. To her credit, Sawyers adds an appendix listing ‘100 Additional Recordings that Changed the World’, each with a paragraph or two arguing the case. This broader selection allows her to stretch her wings a little, finding room for Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddam’, the Who’s ‘My Generation’, James Brown’s ‘Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)’, CSN&Y’s ‘Ohio’, Bob Marley’s ‘Get Up, Stand Up’, Sly’s ‘There’s a Riot Goin’ On’, Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, and our very own Oil’s ‘Beds are Burning’.

Where Sawyers lets us down, however, is in her over-reliance on the work of other writers. She’s read widely, but there’s very little original research on offer here, and anyone who has read Peter Guralnick on Elvis, Jon Savage on the Sex Pistols, and virtually anyone on the Beatles will be familiar with many of the stories told in her book.

At the end of Sawyers’ book, I found myself in two minds about whether a song could change the world, unclear whether Sawyers really conclusively nails her case. A book can express an idea that is so revolutionary – let’s say Copernicus or Marx – that it turns the world on its ear. While a song is a far more expressive form, capable of anger, solace, grief, love and a thousand other emotions, it is rarely a vehicle for ideas. But then I put on Sam Cooke, and replay in my mind the images of Obama’s recent inauguration, or I think of John Lennon seated at a white piano in a white room singing ‘Imagine’, and for a moment I think that maybe it is just possible, that songs can change the world.


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