An interview with
author Denise Sullivan, on the past,
present and future of protest music.
BY FRED MILLS
Arguably coming of age
and hitting its stride during the Civil Rights movement of the sixties, protest music continues to
exert its relevance with each new
generation – sometimes, to cultures with no obvious connection to those earlier
eras. (Hello, Arab Spring.) In her latest book Keep On Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip-Hop (Lawrence
Hill Books), Denise
Sullivan traces protest music from its origins through the
present, interviewing the likes of Buffy Sainte-Marie, Solomon Burke, Wayne
Kramer and Michael Franti while making a strong case for that ongoing
author of White Stripes: Sweethearts of
the Blues, R.E.M.: Talk About the Passion: An Oral History and Rip It Up!: Rock ‘n’ Roll Rulebreakers,
and a regular columnist for the Crawdaddy! website. In a recent interview she discussed what went into putting her
book together, some of the revelations she experienced while writing it, and
what direction contemporary protest music might take.
BLURT: Is there anything from your own
childhood or teenage years, in terms of intersecting with some of the music or
related events, that stands out in your mind
re: a foreshadowing that you might one day want to write a book about it?
SULLIVAN: Back then, message music was in the air and we were lucky enough to
have been exposed to it every time we turned on the TV and the Top 40 radio,
which as you know, gave equal time to rock and soul. As I remember, folk music
was part of California
public school curriculum (or maybe I just had some right on teachers). While at
home, I studied the liner notes of my dad’s jazz records like they were the
Dead Sea Scrolls (I thought Nat Hentoff was related to me, I saw his name so
much). So this mix of jazz, folk, soul and rock, the artists who made it, and
what they stood for, came into focus for me pretty early. I was also a child news hound and everyday, I
read the paper, and it was filled with local reports of student, political and
black power movement.
What I got from all of it was examples of
democracy in action: the student protestors, Marvin Gaye and John and Yoko
became like teachers, which later added up to me being well disposed to Horses by Patti Smith, “Hurricane” by
Bob Dylan, and the songs of Bob Marley. Those records hit me hard and still do.
By the time I got to college radio, I guess it was only natural I’d find my
people, among the punk rockers and DJs who segued the Clash with Sugarhill and
Stax Records and Gil Scott-Heron.
To have been alive to witness all that
we have, from the civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights movements, to the
births of both punk and hip hop, while watching the world turn from analog to
digital blows my mind on pretty much a daily basis. It seemed important to pass
on another version of the story and soundtrack of our extraordinary lifetime to
the people coming of age right now, as they use parts of it to render changes
and innovations of their own.
What was the initial impetus behind your
research and the book?
I’d say the
lifelong interest converged with a number of other factors, as these things
often do. When I finished writing my last book, The White Stripes: Sweethearts of the Blues, there was so much in
their story concerning the origins of the country blues and the circumstances
of the musicians who played it that I’d left unsaid which lead me to wanting to
write a book about rock and race, but I didn’t quite know how to approach it,
till I was at a book fair and ran into the writer Nelson George. I’ve admired his work since he was one of the
few journalists to cover hip hop in the early ‘80s, and I told him as much,
before asking him what he thought about a woman like me writing African
American history. He said, “I think more
white people should write about it.”
Basically, his encouragement gave me
the confidence to move forward, as did a few things Solomon Burke said when I
interviewed him. I also received inspiration from everything from fine art
photography to a mixtape compiled by a friend: At some point, it all added
I picture you and Peter Case [Sullivan’s
partner] talking about a lot of this music as well, given his obvious love for
You are right
that Peter and I can talk music and trade tracks for days and it helps that I
have someone with whom I can bounce around ideas. Certainly, I owe my interest
in pre-war blues to him, and I appreciate having a resident expert to check in
with on questions of song construction, melody and rhythm patterns. He’s the
number one supporter of my work, as I am of his.
What were some of the key revelations or
biggest surprises you encountered while putting the book together?
It was exciting
for me to make the connection that poetry is a big part of the story of freedom
music. From the blues and Langston Hughes, to Amiri Baraka and the Black Arts
Movement, Allen Ginsberg and Greenwich Village, Len Chandler, Richie Havens and
Nina Simone, Gil Scott-Heron, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, H. Rap Brown, and of
course the rhymes in hip hop, it’s key. Personally, I’m so happy to have made
this connection because it opened a door into the world of poetry and now that
I’ve walked through it, I get to explore and enjoy it on a much deeper level
than I have before.
“From Blues to Hip-Hop” reads your
subtitle: what do you think are the key similarities and intersections between
the two song forms, and how would you convince, say, a die-hard John Lee Hooker
fan that NWA or Public Enemy might also be relevant to him?
from the obvious connection to groove, bold rhymes and extreme wordplay, the
voices telling stories have the same depth and feeling, whether poignant or
prideful. If you have the desire to get
inside the human condition and feel the similarities, or to receive an
uncensored, unembellished account of real life, then I’d say a blues fan could
definitely dig hip hop and vice versa; they’re both soulful forms of
What do you think people from other, not
necessarily African-American, cultures might be able to take away from your
book? John Trudell, who appears in your book, certainly grasped the parallels
between the black power movement and American Indian Movement. What about
similarly oppressed groups in Arab countries, for example?
expression can be personally and politically powerful. Songs have been known to
break down walls, open jailhouse doors and have contributed to major movements,
from civil rights in the US
to anti-apartheid efforts in South
Africa. Buffy Sainte-Marie didn’t set out to
write an international peace anthem, and yet, that’s what “Universal Soldier”
became; the ball got rolling because she wrote down what was in her heart. As
Freedom Singer Bernice Johnson Reagon says, “The songs are free.” Where there
is music, there is hope.
You mention a number of worthy, sincere,
contemporary artists such as Tom Morello who have picked up the baton of
protest music. Who else do you think we should be paying attention to?
PJ Harvey, and M.I.A. all have important things to say, as does “Born This Way.”
Plus, now that we have a common cause [Occupy Wall Street, etc.] I expect new anthems will emerge; I’d like to hear the people
singing. There is a tradition of writing new words to old melodies and there is
power in that tradition. It’s important that musicians of all kinds, set the
pace with simple songs to go with the movement – so everyday people can
Duly and absolutely noted because – speaking of
Morello – on Oct. 13 he appeared as his alter-ego The Nightwatchman at the
Occupy Wall Street gathering in NYC’s Liberty Plaza, doing Woodie Guthrie’s
“This Land Is Your Land” and a few other songs. What was your reaction to that?
Michael Franti and Jeff Mangum were there too. Every
important movement, from labor and civil rights to the anti-war movement has
had its songs so I expect this one will develop an anthem too, whether it’s an
old song rewritten or a new one. Music takes people from where they are to
where they want to be. When people of all races, creeds, genders and sexual
preferences sing together, for one purpose, that’s a powerful thing.