When he emerged from the nightclubs of Greenwich Village, Bob Dylan was often identified as a "protest" singer. As early as 1962, however, Dylan was already protesting the label: "I don't write no protest songs," he told his audience on the night he debuted "Blowin' in the Wind."
"Protest" music is largely perceived as an unsubtle art form, a topical brand of songwriting that preaches to the converted. But popular music of all types has long given listeners food for thought. Fifty years before Vietnam, before the United States entered World War I, some of the most popular sheet music in the country featured anti-war tunes. The labor movement of the early decades of the century was fueled by its communal "songbook." The Civil Rights movement was soundtracked not just by
the gorgeous melodies of "Strange Fruit" and "A Change Is Gonna Come," but hundreds of other gospel-tinged ballads and blues.
In Which Side Are You On, author James Sullivan delivers a lively anecdotal history of the progressive movements that have shaped the growth of the United States, and the songs that have accompanied and defined them. Covering one hundred years of social conflict and progress across the twentieth century and into the early years of the twenty-first, this book reveals how protest songs have given voice to the needs and challenges of a nation and asked its citizens to take a stand -
asking the question "Which side are you on?"
James Sullivan is the author of five books, with subjects ranging from the comedian George Carlin and the performer James Brown to high school football and a cultural history of blue jeans. He is a longtime contributor to the Boston Globe and a former staff critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, and he has written for Rolling Stone, the Atlantic and many other publications. He lives with his wife and three sons in Massachusetts.