Dear 100 Hour Board,
I need a musical-political history of the twentieth century. I grew up on Beethoven and showtunes, which I still love but which left me unfortunately ignorant of anything my snobby music teachers considered low-brow. I've also recently become interested in the politicization of art, and especially in art as a means of protest.
So will you walk me through the most important moments in 20th-century music from a political standpoint? Who wrote political music? What issues were they responding to? How did their music change things (or fail to change things)? What bands or artists were most engaged in politics? How were they received? Why were they significant? If I were to make a playlist of "20th century American politics," what should I put on it and why?
You can also point me towards good books on the topic, if you prefer.
Hoping one of you is nerdy enough to help me out,
Dear Not Art,
Former writer Cognoscente was working on an answer for this, but due to top secret happenings related to variations in the time space continuum, he is unable to finish the answer at this time. He sent us his notes via time traveling pigeon and we will now share those with you along with some music recomendations
I love classical music, but your snobby music teachers were ignorant. The gulf between "high art" and "low art" is arbitrary, and perpetuated mostly through elitism and classism. All art is political and every kind of music is worth your time to appreciate.
The first thing to establish is that pop music is a product of several technologies that developed widely during the early 19th century. Prior to this time period, popular music as we refer to it was largely regional, performance-centered, and shared through printed sheet music. Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in the late 19th century, using wax cylinders to record and replay sounds, but it wasn't until the gramophone several years later that the first flat records began to be mass produced, containing enough space for an entire 4 minute song. (In case you've ever wondered, that's why most pop songs clock in at 3-4 minutes even to this day.) These shellac singles allowed everyday people to purchase music and listen to it over and over. Engineers refined their reproduction technologies, and by the 1930s, we had the earliest versions of the higher fidelity vinyl records we're familiar with today.
Along with that, the first entertainment radio broadcasts began in 1920, with the first syndicated national programming becoming popular in the mid-30s. This was important, because all of a sudden you didn't have to go to the store and make a purchase to hear a new popular tune. As long as you had electricity and a radio receiver, you could hear what other people all over the town, state, or even country were listening to. Regional musical movements became national, then international.
Protest music during the first few decades of the 20th century were mostly centered on the plight of Labor. Socialists, anarchists, and trade unionists fought against huge businesses for rights like a 40 hour workweek and 8 hour workday. Folk musicians supported their struggles.
20th century American politics playlist
Billie Holiday - Strange Fruit
This Land Is Your Land
Sam Cooke - A Change is Gonna Come
Creedence Clearwater Revival - Fortunate Son
What's Going On?
Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young - Ohio
Sex Pistols - God Save The Queen
Bruce Springsteen - Born In The USA
Killing In The Name
Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)
This Is America
If you are interested in even more info, feel free to shoot us another question and we'll give it another try for you.
The Editors + a Mysterious Stone Tablet signed Cognoscente
I don't have much to say except DON'T forget the 90's and the politics of gangster rap. Season 3 of the Slow Burn podcast is on the murders of Tupac and Biggie. It goes into some of the politics and rivalries, is very good, and has a companion playlist! Listen to the whole thing while playing Stardew Valley on your phone! That is nine hours of April quarantine well spent, let me tell you.
Check out Your Song Changed My Life by Bob Boilen. It's dense with music references but if you look into artists he talks about for more than a paragraph, you'll come away with a pretty good sense of important music in most genres from the 60's forward.
And watch this time-lapse video of Billboard Best-Selling charts over the last 50 years. This gives you a really general sense of what was happening. So cool.