In celebration of Banned Books Week, we (HUGE book fans, all of us) are doing all sorts of bookish things. We all went to the Uncensored bash at MLK Library last Friday evening, a preview party for Banned Books Week, sponsored by the DC Public Library Foundation. It was the coolest spot in town (full disclosure, we helped host the event), featuring provocative art and music and literature and drink. You gotta love provocative drink.
And now, we are pleased and proud to present a guest playlist composed by DCPL's own Tony Ross. Enjoy.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF BANNED AMERICAN MUSIC IN 10 SONGS
Selections and notes by Tony Ross, DCPL Librarian
1. “Love For Sale” by Cole Porter (1930)
as sung by Billie Holiday (1956)
This Cole Porter song written/sung from the perspective of a prostitute is from the 1930 Broadway musical “The New Yorkers.” The original staging had a white actress singing it in front of a popular restaurant of the day, however in response to negative public reaction, the producers restaged it with a black actress singing it in front of The Cotton Club. Despite its popularity, the song was banned from radio at the time, as was this later Billie Holiday version.
2. ”Take Your Hand Off It” by Billy Hughes (1948)
In 1948, the Vice-Mayor and Police Chief of Memphis agreed that three songs popular on local jukeboxes were obscene. Police rounded up and destroyed about 400 records including this country swing song with its double-entendre lyrics. The other songs were “Operation Blues” by Amos Milburn and “Move Your Hand Baby” by Count Waterford.
3. “The Hammer Song” by The Weavers (1950)
In 1950, The Weavers had a #1 hit with their version of “Goodnight Irene” and appeared poised for long-term success. However, the folk quartet's ties to the progressive labor movement led to two of them (one was Pete Seeger) being called before the Sen. Joe McCarthy's House Committee on Un-American Activities. They refused to testify and were summarily blacklisted and placed under FBI surveillance. Their record label terminated The Weavers’ contract and refused to sell their records. They were forbidden from playing on the radio or TV, and concert promoters were strongly encouraged not to book them, and with no means to make a living the group disbanded in 1952. Following the Red Scare, they reformed in various incarnations, culminating in a famous 1980 concert at Carnegie Hall.
4. “Louie, Louie” by The Kingsmen (1964)
Although the song had been recorded by several artists since 1955, you probably are most familiar with this 1963 version. Recorded in a rush under trying conditions with a singer wearing new braces and unable to fully enunciate, the slurred lyrics engendered an countrywide urban legend that there were filthy lyrics concealed in the song. Indiana's Governor personally banned it from the state's airwaves, and FBI bureaus in a number of states were required to investigate allegations of interstate commerce of obscene materials related to the sale of the single. The FBI's 100+ page file on the song can be found at vault.fbi.gov.
5. “Kick Out the Jams” by MC5 (1969)
The famous opening lines of the Detroit band's album include the word “motherfucker,” which was printed as part of the liner notes. When some stores refused to stock it, it was reissued with a new cover omitting the word. The vinyl came in two versions: a “clean” version that was on display, and the original version which customers would have to know to ask for. Even then, Detroit's chain of Hudson Department Stores refused to carry either version. The band responded with an ad in two underground magazines reading “Fuck Hudson’s” and their record label promptly dropped them.
6. “The Pill” by Loretta Lynn (1972-75)
This song was recorded in 1972, but withheld by Lynn's record company for three years
due to concern over how a song explicitly about birth control and female sexuality would be received. When it finally was released, it was a hit -- at least where it could be heard. Many country stations refused to play it.
7. “Banned in DC” by Bad Brains (1983)
Bad Brains is generally considered the most influential of the early DC punk/hardcore bands. However, booking agents at the city’s music venues didn't know what to make of the raucous music and the strangely attired fans who came to their shows. Eventually, the band found it next to impossible to book any shows, and ended up playing out of their own house before relocating to New York, where they recorded this song.
8. “Darling Nikki” by Prince (1984)
The Tipper Gore-headed Parents Music Resource Center was founded in 1985 with goal of protecting America's youth from the evils of popular music. They published a list of songs called "The Filthy Fifteen" that they recommended be banned. This song by Prince topped the list due to sexual content.
9. “Banned in the USA” by 2 Live Crew (1990)
Florida rap group 2 Live Crew released three albums from 1987-89 with escalating controversy around the graphic sexual lyrics of each. Record store clerks in several southern states were arrested for selling 2 Live albums to undercover police, and in one case, charged with a felony. In 1990, a Florida district court judge ruled that their album "Nasty as They Wanna Be" was obscene, and the group was arrested while performing live. With support from a broad spectrum of free speech advocates, including Henry Louis Gates, Jr., they were acquitted. The US Court of Appeals overturned the previous obscenity ruling, and the US Supreme Court declined to revisit the issue. This song (with the endorsement of Bruce Springsteen) was their response to the controversy.
10. “Mosh” by Eminem (2004)
Released just two weeks prior to the 2004 election, this anti-war song and accompanying video stridently attacked President Bush and the war in Iraq. However some outlets insisted on only playing a version where the words "Bush" and "AK-47" in the lyrics "Strap Bush with an AK-47, let him go fight his own war, let him impress daddy that way" were removed and Walmart would only sell that version of the song. Eminem has been forced to alter lyrics to several other songs, including "We As Americans" and "Rap Game" to remove wishful references to the death of President Bush.
You can listen to most of these songs with a spotify login. Have a listen...