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February 28, 2019

James Sullivan's Playlist for His Book "Which Side Are You On?"

Which Side Are You On?

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, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

James Sullivan's book, Which Side Are You On?, is a fascinating overview of the power of protest music from the Civil War to the present.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"Sullivan's fluid prose and attention to detail serve him admirably in this engaging title, which should awaken nostalgia in those of a certain age and introduce new generations to these musical catalysts for social change."


In his own words, here is James Sullivan's Book Notes music playlist for his book Which Side Are You On?:



A confession: the title of my book Which Side Are You On? 20th Century American History in 100 Protest Songs isn’t entirely accurate. In the book, I’ve actually referenced far more than 100 songs. I’ve taken some liberties with my own self-imposed format, just as I’ve taken plenty of liberty in stretching the common perception of what defines a “protest” song.

But that’s what the whole book is about: taking liberties. It’s about the modern history of singing for freedom. FDR’s “four freedoms”: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Singing for the right to live peacefully. The right to earn a decent living. The rights of women and people of color and the LGBT family.

Each chapter covers another social movement – for peace, civil rights, the environment – by examining ten (or so) songs that attached themselves to the issues. Some, such as Florence Reece’s labor-rallying “Which Side Are You On?,” were written expressly for the cause; others (Lesley Gore’s feminist anthem “You Don’t Own Me,” for instance) were pre-existing songs that simply made themselves available at the right time and place. Here are ten songs – most included in the book, with a few bonus tracks – that have a bone to pick.

“What Is Truth” by Johnny Cash

At Richard Nixon’s request, Johnny Cash performed at the White House in 1970. The president wanted to hear “A Boy Named Sue” (sure, fine) and “Okie from Muskogee” (Merle Haggard’s inscrutable counter-protest song). Cash didn’t know that one, he responded. Instead, he played a new song of his own. “What Is Truth” imagined a child asking his father to explain war for him. “‘Son, that’s when people fight and die’/A little boy of three says, ‘Daddy, why?’”

“Sixteen Tons” by Merle Travis

Best known as a surprise Number One pop hit by the country crooner Tennessee Ernie Ford (he recorded it as a B-side), “Sixteen Tons” is credited to the folk singer Merle Travis. He released it on his 1947 collection “Folk Songs of the Hills”: “You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?/Another day older and deeper in debt.” In those days the working man owed his soul to the company store. Today, it’s the credit card companies.

“It Isn’t Nice” by Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers

Naturally, Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger and Joan Baez are all amply represented in a book about protest music. But one of the underappreciated giants of topical songwriting was the late Malvina Reynolds, known to some readers (if they know her at all) for her later-life appearances on “Sesame Street.” A lifelong activist, Reynolds wrote “Little Boxes,” a poke at stultifying suburbia, and the no-nukes protest “What Have They Done to the Rain.” In the husky voice of fellow Bay Area lefty Barbara Dane – another force of nature – Reynolds’ “It Isn’t Nice” scoffed at “polite” society’s reservations during the Civil Rights era: “It isn’t nice to block the doorway/It isn’t nice to go to jail/There are nicer ways to do it/But the nice ways always fail.”

“Don’t Make Me Over” by Dionne Warwick

“Accept me for what I am,” the young singer demanded of the songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David, who were hedging, she felt, on a promise to help make her a star. Inspired by this elegant song’s assertive message, two young (and male) Philly songwriters named David White and John Madara wrote another song for an independent woman to sing, “You Don’t Own Me.”

“Burn On” by Randy Newman

On the first Earth Day, in 1970, students from Cleveland State University marched to the banks of the Cuyahoga River. The previous year, the heavily polluted waterway made national headlines when it caught fire. In fact, the river had burned several times prior, dating all the way back to the 1880s. A young Los Angeles songwriter named Randy Newman was mesmerized by the absurd news footage of a river on fire. “Now the Lord can make you tumble/And the Lord can make you turn,” he wrote, addressing the beleaguered river directly. “And the Lord can make you overflow/But the Lord can’t make you burn.” Only humankind could pull off such a stunt.

“Rumble” by Link Wray

One of the guiding principles behind this book project was the notion that whole genres of music have arisen in the spirit of protest. The blues form emerged as a response to oppression. Folk music was the voice of working people. In its infancy, rock ‘n’ roll was the voice of a younger generation whose historic predecessors were expected to keep quiet. The brazen antagonism of “Rumble,” which was banned on the radio in many markets, created something unusual: a piece of music ruled a menace to society despite its having no lyrics.

“Any Other Way” by Jackie Shane

The R&B singer Chuck Jackson scored a modest 1963 hit with the song “Any Other Way,” in which he instructs a friend to tell an old flame he’s doing fine without her: “Tell her that I’m happy/Tell her that I’m free/Tell her I wouldn’t have it/Any other way.” But the songwriter William Bell, who’d recorded it first, had written a slightly different lyric: tell her that I’m “gay.” That was the version that appealed to a Nashville singer named Jackie Shane, who has lived most of her life as a transgender woman.

“Morning Dew” by Bonnie Dobson

Bonnie Dobson couldn’t sleep. She was staying with some friends, who’d been discussing the Atomic Age fear of the end of the world. Gripped by anxiety, she stayed up and wrote the first song of her young life, a folkie lament about the dread of nuclear fallout. The song would become a folk-scene staple, later adopted by the Grateful Dead and Devo, among others.

“Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)”

The title borrows from a line shared between Alexander Hamilton and Marquis de Lafayette in the blockbuster hip-hop musical Hamilton: “Immigrants – we get the job done.” On The Hamilton Mixtape, rappers with roots in Somalia, Mexico, Pakistan, and Puerto Rico come together to celebrate the new arrivals whose presence, as the song’s video director has said, “make this country great.”

“Political World” by Bettye LaVette

In choosing a set of Dylan songs to cover for her latest album, just nominated for a Grammy Award, it’s hardly surprising that the soul singer Bettye LaVette would gravitate to a topical song such as this one. “We live in a political world/Where love ain’t got no place,” she begins on the dramatic, au courant intro, before her band unleashes the funk. “We’re living in times/Where men commit crimes/And crime ain’t got no face.”


James Sullivan and Which Side Are You On? links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Booklist review
Library Journal review
No Depression review
New York Times review


also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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