Protest songs in the United States
The tradition of protest songs in the United States is a long one that dates back to the 18th century and colonial period, the American Revolutionary War and its aftermath. In the 19th century topical subjects for protest in song included abolition, slavery, poverty, and the Civil War amongst other subjects. In the 20th century civil liberties, civil rights, women's rights, economic injustice, politics and war were among the popular subjects for protest in song. In the 21st century the long tradition continues.
- Nineteenth Century 1.1
Twentieth Century 1.2
- 1900–1920; Labor Movement, Class Struggle, and The Great War 1.2.1
- 1920s–1930s; The Great Depression and Racial Discrimination 1.2.2
- 1940s–1950s; The labor movement vs McCarthyism; Anti-Nuclear songs 1.2.3
- 1960s: The Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and Peace and Revolution 1.2.4
- 1970s; The Vietnam War, soul music 1.2.5
- 1980s: Anti-Reagan protest songs, and the birth of rap 1.2.6
- 1990s; Hard-Rock Protest Bands, Women's Rights, and Protest Parodies 1.2.7
Twenty-First Century 1.3
- The Iraq War and the revival of the protest song 1.3.1
- Contemporary protest songs 2
- Criticism 3
- See also 4
- References 5
- Further reading and listening 6
19th-century protest songs dealt, for the most part, with three key issues: war, and the Civil War in particular (such as "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye" from Ireland, and its American variant, "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again", among others); the abolition of slavery ("Song of the Abolitionist" "No More Auction Block for Me", "Oh Freedom", and "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child", among others); and women's suffrage, both for and against in both Britain and the U.S.
Perhaps the most famous voices of protest in America at the time were the Hutchinson Family Singers. From 1839, the Hutchinson Family Singers became well known for their songs supporting abolition. They sang at the White House for President John Tyler, and befriended Abraham Lincoln. Their subject matter most often touched on relevant social issues such as abolition, the temperance movement, politics, war and women's suffrage. Much of their music focused on idealism, social reform, equal rights, moral improvement, community activism and patriotism.
The Hutchinsons's career spanned the major social and political events of the mid-19th century, including the Civil War. The Hutchinson Family Singers established an impressive musical legacy and are considered to be the forerunners of the great protest singers-songwriters and folk groups of the 1950s and 60s, such as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, and are often referred to as America's first protest band.
Many Negro spirituals have been interpreted as thinly veiled expressions of protest against slavery and oppression. For example, "Oh, Freedom" and "Go Down Moses" draw implicit comparisons between the plight of enslaved African Americans and that of enslaved Hebrews in the Bible. These spiritual songs antedated the Civil War but were collected and widely disseminated only after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865. The first collection of African-American spirituals appeared in Thomas Wentworth Higginson's book Army Life in a Black Regiment, which was published in 1870, but collected in 1862–64 while Higginson was serving as a colonel of the First South Carolina Volunteers, the first regiment recruited from former slaves for the Federal service. (Secretary of War Edwin McMasters Stanton required that black regiments be commanded by white officers.)
A fervent abolitionist, Transcendentalist critic, and poetry lover, who was a friend and enthusiastic champion of American poet Emily Dickinson, Higginson had been deeply impressed by the beauty of the devotional songs he heard the soldiers singing around the regiment's campfires. Higginson wrote down the texts, in dialect, as he heard them, but failed to provide tunes. The second influential book about African-American spirituals was the 1872 collection Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, by Thomas F. Steward, comprising songs sung by students of Fisk University on their fund-raising tours throughout the county, arranged and harmonized according to 19th-century classical music conventions.
Arguably, one of the best known African-American spirituals is the anthem "Lift Every Voice and Sing". Originally written as a poem by African-American novelist and composer James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), it was set to music in 1900 by his brother John Rosamond Johnson (1873–1954) in 1900 and first performed in Jacksonville, Florida as part of a celebration of Lincoln's birthday on February 12, 1900, by a choir of 500 schoolchildren at the segregated Stanton School, where James Weldon Johnson was principal. In 1919, the NAACP adopted the song as "The Negro National Anthem". This song contained strong appeals to the ideals of justice and equality, and singing it could be interpreted as an act of grass-roots self-assertion by people who were officially still barred from speaking out too overtly against Jim Crow and the resurgence of Ku Klux Klan activity in the 1920s. By the 1920s, copies of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" could be found in black churches across the country, often pasted into the hymnals by the congregation members.
A topical parlor song that is arguably a precursor of New York Mirror and published in that paper, set to music composed by British-born composer Henry Russell. Verses include: "That old familiar tree, / Whose glory and renown / Are spread o'er land and sea / And wouldst thou hack it down? / Woodman, forbear thy stroke! / Cut not its earth, bound ties; / Oh! spare that ag-ed oak / Now towering to the skies!" This song has never caught on as a movement song, however.
1900–1920; Labor Movement, Class Struggle, and The Great War
The vast majority of American protest music from the first half of the 20th century was based on the struggle for fair wages and working hours for the working class, and on the attempt to unionize the American workforce towards those ends. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was founded in Chicago in June 1905 at a convention of two hundred socialists, anarchists, and radical trade unionists from all over the United States who were opposed to the policies of the American Federation of Labor. From the start they used music as a powerful form of protest.
One of the most famous of these early 20th century "The Preacher and the Slave" (1911). The song calls for "Workingmen of all countries, unite / Side by side we for freedom will fight / When the world and its wealth we have gained / To the grafters we'll sing this refrain." Other notable protest songs written by Hill include "The Tramp", "There Is Power in a Union", "Rebel Girl", and "Casey Jones—Union Scab".
Another one of the best-known songs of this period was "Bread and Roses", by James Oppenheim and Caroline Kohlsaat, which was sung in protest en masse at a textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts during January–March 1912 (now often referred to as the "Bread and Roses strike") and has been subsequently taken up by protest movements throughout the 20th century.
The advent of The Great War (1914–1918) resulted in a great number of songs concerning the 20th century's most popular recipient of protest – war; songs against the war in general, and specifically in America against the U.S.'s decision to enter the European war – starting to become widespread and popular. One of the most successful of these protest songs to capture the widespread American skepticism about joining in the European war was "I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier", (1915) by lyricist Alfred Bryan and composer Al Piantadosi. Many of these war-time protest songs took the point of view of the family at home, worried about their father/husband fighting overseas. One such song of the period which dealt with the children who had been orphaned by the war was "War Babies", from 1916, with music composed by James F. Hanley and lyrics written by Ballard MacDonald, which spoke to the need for taking care of orphans of war in an unusually frank and open manner. For a typical song written from a child's point-of-view, see Jean Schwartz (music), Sam M. Lewis & Joe Young (lyrics) and their song "Hello Central! Give Me No Man's Land" (1918), in which a young boy tries to call his father in No Man's Land on the telephone (then a recent invention), unaware that he has been killed in combat.
1920s–1930s; The Great Depression and Racial Discrimination
The 1920s and 30s also saw the continuing growth of the union and labor movements (the IWW claimed at its peak in 1923 some 100,000 members), as well as widespread poverty due to the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, which inspired musicians and singers to decry the harsh realities which they saw all around them. It was against this background that folk singer Aunt Molly Jackson was singing songs with striking Harlan coal miners in Kentucky in 1931, and writing protest songs such as "Hungry Ragged Blues" and "Poor Miner's Farewell", which depicted the struggle for social justice in a Depression-ravaged America. In New York City, Marc Blitzstein's opera/musical The Cradle Will Rock, a pro-union musical directed by Orson Welles, was produced in 1937. However, it proved to be so controversial that it was shut down for fear of social unrest. Undeterred, the IWW increasingly used music to protest working conditions in the United States and to recruit new members to their cause.
The 1920s and 30s also saw a marked rise in the number of songs which protested against racial discrimination, such as Fats Waller's "(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue" in 1929, and the anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit" by Lewis Allan and performed and recorded by Billie Holiday, which contains the lyrics "Southern trees bear strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze". It was also during this period that many African American blues singers were beginning to have their voices heard on a larger scale across America through their music, most of which protested the discrimination which they faced on a daily basis. Perhaps the most famous example of these 1930s blues protest songs is Lead Belly's "The Bourgeois Blues", in which he sings, "The home of the Brave / The land of the Free / I don't wanna be mistreated by no bourgeoisie."
Elvaunte Edwards was one of the best song writers and composers during that time period. He had both of his songs at the top of the Bill Boards Chart List, and He was call the best that ever lived.
1940s–1950s; The labor movement vs McCarthyism; Anti-Nuclear songs
The 1940s and 1950s saw the rise of music that continued to protest labor, race, and class issues. Protest songs continued to increase their profile over this period, and an increasing number of artists appeared who were to have an enduring influence on the protest music genre. However, the movement and its protest singers faced increasing opposition from People's Songs. Initially known as the No Name Quartet, by 1950 it was enjoying great popular success as The Weavers. Several of the Weavers most popular songs, such as "If I Had a Hammer", were protest songs or implicitly supported Israel (Tzena, Tzena, Tzena), although the political content was not explicit. Although some in the left wing press derided them as having sold out their beliefs in exchange for popular success, their fans nevertheless recognized what their songs were about because their international and multi-racial repertoire strongly suggested support for racial justice and world peace. Because of the Red Scare and McCarthyism, the Weavers' managers directed them to avoid appearing at progressive venues and prohibited them from performing or recording songs with political content. Former Almanac members Seeger and Hays were listed in the publication Red Channels and a former Communist who had worked at People's Songs, Harvey Matusow denounced the group as Communists Party members (he later recanted and admitted that he had lied). Although their manager went to the Red Channels office in person and with promises that the group would avoid trouble, they were placed under FBI surveillance and blacklisted by the entertainment industry during the McCarthyism era. Right-wing and anti-Communist groups protested at their performances and harassed promoters. As a result, a planned Weavers's television appearance was canceled, they lost radio airplay (and royalties), and Decca Records terminated their recording contract. Because of its New Deal and popular front associations, folk music itself was under a cloud as potentially subversive, regardless of content, and disappeared from the mass media. For the remainder of the 1950s, Seeger continued to appear at camps and schools and to write songs and pro-labor union and anti-war editorials, which appeared in his column in the folk music magazine Sing Out! under the pen name of "Johnny Appleseed". The Weavers were temporarily silenced but returned to sing before a rapturous crowd of fans in a reunion concert at Carnegie Hall in 1955. Issued in 1957, the album documenting this concert, The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, became a highly influential best-selling LP album.
A second Weavers LP, Folk Songs Around the World, issued in 1959, was limited to traditional songs and spirituals.
Peace Arch on the border between Washington state and the Canadian province of British Columbia on May 18, 1952. Robeson stood on the back of a flat bed truck on the American side of the U.S.-Canada border and performed a concert for a crowd on the Canadian side, variously estimated at between 20,000 and 40,000 people. Robeson returned to perform a second concert at the Peace Arch in 1953, and over the next two years two further concerts were scheduled.
In the 1940s, one of the leading musical voices of protest from the African American community in America was Josh White, one of the first musicians to make a name for himself singing political blues. White enjoyed a position of political privilege, especially as a black musician, as he established a long and close relationship with the family of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and would become the closest African American confidant to the President of the United States. He made his first foray into protest music and political blues with his highly controversial Columbia Records album Joshua White & His Carolinians: Chain Gang, produced by John H. Hammond, which included the song "Trouble", which summarised the plight of many African Americans in its opening line of "Well, I always been in trouble, 'cause I'm a black-skinned man." The album was the first race record ever forced upon the white radio stations and record stores in America's South and caused such a furor that it reached the desk of President Roosevelt. On December 20, 1940, White and the Golden Gate Quartet, sponsored by Eleanor Roosevelt, performed in a historic Washington, D.C. concert at the Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which abolished slavery. In January 1941, White performed at the President's Inauguration, and two months later he released another highly controversial record album, Southern Exposure, which included six anti-segregationist songs with liner notes written by the celebrated and equally controversial African American writer Richard Wright, and whose sub-title was "An Album of Jim Crow Blues". Like the Chain Gang album, and with revelatory yet inflammatory songs such as "Uncle Sam Says", "Jim Crown Train", "Bad Housing Blues", "Defense Factory Blues", "Southern Exposure", and "Hard Time Blues", it also was forced upon the southern white radio stations and record stores, caused outrage in the South and also was brought to the attention of President Roosevelt. A month later, White sang as a member of the Almanac Singers on their much criticized anti peace-time draft album, Songs for John Doe. Despite this, however, and White's membership in the Almanac Singers, instead of making White persona-non-grata in segregated America, it resulted in President Roosevelt asking White to become the first African American artist to give a White House Command Performance, in 1941, for the Roosevelts were great fans of folk music.After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, many people the world over feared nuclear warfare, and many protest songs were written against this new danger. The most immediately successful of these post-war anti-nuclear protest songs was Vern Partlow's "Old Man Atom" (1945) (also known by the alternate titles "Atomic Talking Blues" and "Talking Atom"). The song treats its subject in comic-serious fashion, with a combination of black humour puns (such as "We hold these truths to be self-evident / All men may be cremated equal" or "I don't mean the Adam that Mother Eve mated / I mean that thing that science liberated") on serious statements on the choices to be made in the nuclear age ("The people of the world must pick out a thesis / "Peace in the world, or the world in pieces!""). Folk singer Sam Hinton recorded "Old Man Atom" in 1950 for ABC Eagle, a small California independent label. Influential New York disc jockey Martin Block played Hinton's record on his "Make Believe Ballroom". Overwhelming listener response prompted Columbia Records to acquire the rights for national distribution. From all indications, it promised to be one of the year's biggest novelty records. RCA Victor rush-released a cover version by the Sons of the Pioneers. Country singer Ozzie Waters recorded the song for Decca's Coral subsidiary. Fred Hellerman – then contracted to Decca as a member of the Weavers – recorded it for Jubilee under the pseudonym "Bob Hill". Bing Crosby was reportedly ready to record "Old Man Atom" for Decca when a right-wing "committee" headed by Bronx, N.Y., Rabbi Benjamin Schultz and closely associated with the publications Red Channels and Counterattack, began attacking Columbia and RCA Victor for releasing a song that Schultz alleged reflected Communist ideology. According to a New York Times report on September 1, 1950:
Rabbi Benjamin Schultz, national director of the Joint Committee Against Communism, conceded last night that members of his committee, acting as individuals, had made known their feelings of opposition to the song to the recording companies. Those who protested against the song's issuance on records insisted that it parroted the Communist line on peace and reflected the propaganda for the Stockholm "peace petition." Mr. Partlow said yesterday, according to an Associated Press dispatch from Los Angeles, that his song was "not part of the Stockholm or any other so-called peace offensive." He added, "It was written five years ago long before any of these peace offensives."Buckling under, both Columbia and RCA Victor withdrew "Old Man Atom" from distribution. Henceforth, mainstream pop music would avoid songs that mentioned potentially controversial topics until the folk revival of the 1960s.
Other anti-nuclear protest songs of the immediate post-war period had included "Atom and Evil" (1946) by the Golden Gate Quartet, ("If Atom and Evil should ever be wed, / Lord, then darn if all of us are going to be dead.") and "Atomic Sermon" (1953) by Billy Hughes and his Rhythm Buckeroos
1960s: The Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and Peace and Revolution
The 1960s was a fertile era for the genre, especially with the rise of the Civil Rights movement, the ascendency of counterculture groups such as "hippies" and the New Left, and the escalation of the War in Vietnam. The protest songs of the period differed from those of earlier leftist movements; which had been more oriented towards labor activism; adopting instead a broader definition of political activism commonly called social activism, which incorporated notions of equal rights and of promoting the concept of "peace". The music often included relatively simple instrumental accompaniment, including acoustic guitar and harmonica. Many Americans still remember Odetta's performance at the 1963 civil rights movement's March on Washington where she sang Oh Freedom. One of the key figures of the 1960s protest movement was Bob Dylan, who produced a number of landmark protest songs, such as "Blowin' in the Wind" (1962), "Masters of War" (1963), "Talking World War III Blues" (1963), and "The Times They Are A-Changin'" (1964). While Dylan is often thought of as a 'protest singer', most of his protest songs spring from a relatively short time-period in his career; Mike Marqusee writes:
"The protest songs that made Dylan famous and with which he continues to be associated were written in a brief period of some 20 months – from January 1962 to November 1963. Influenced by American radical traditions (the Wobblies, the Popular Front of the thirties and forties, the Beat anarchists of the fifties) and above all by the political ferment touched off among young people by the civil rights and ban the bomb movements, he engaged in his songs with the terror of the nuclear arms race, with poverty, racism and prison, jingoism and war."Dylan often sang against injustice, such as the murder of African American  On another occasion that same year, however, he reproached fans in Northern England, when they booed him for allegedly abandoning the left, saying, "Come on, all my songs are protest songs." Ray Pratt, professor of political science at Montana State University, believes that Dylan stopped writing anthems and other explicit protest songs because he felt that, under the highly repressive conditions prevailing at the time, there was no side with which he wanted to be associated: "'It's vulgar, the idea that somebody has to say what they want to say in a message type song ... 'Which side are you on?' That's such a waste? I mean, which side can you be on.'"
His next explicit topical protest song would be "Hurricane", written twelve years later, in 1976.
Pete Seeger, founding member of the Almanac Singers and The Weavers, was a major influence on Dylan and his contemporaries, and continued to be a strong voice of protest in the 1960s, when he composed "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" (written with Joe Hickerson) and "Turn, Turn, Turn" (written during the 1950s but released on Seeger's 1962 album The Bitter and The Sweet). Seeger's song "If I Had a Hammer", written with Lee Hays in 1949 in support of the progressive movement, rose to Top Ten popularity in 1962 when covered by Peter, Paul and Mary, going on to become one of the major Freedom Songs of the American Civil Rights movement. "We Shall Overcome", Seeger's adaptation of an American gospel song, continues to be used to support issues from labor rights to peace movements. Seeger was one of the leading singers to protest against then-President Lyndon Johnson through song. Seeger first satirically attacked the president with his 1966 recording of Len Chandler's children's song, "Beans in My Ears". In addition to Chandler's original lyrics, Seeger sang that "Mrs. Jay's little son Alby" had "beans in his ears", which, as the lyrics imply, ensures that a person does not hear what is said to them. To those opposed to continuing the Vietnam War, the phrase suggested that "Alby Jay", a loose pronunciation of Johnson's nickname "LBJ", did not listen to anti-war protests as he too had "beans in his ears". Seeger attracted wider attention in 1967 with his song "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy", about a captain – referred to in the lyrics as "the big fool" – who drowned while leading a platoon on maneuvers in Louisiana during World War II. In the face of arguments with the management of CBS about whether the song's political weight was in keeping with the usually light-hearted entertainment of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the final lines were "Every time I read the paper / those old feelings come on / We are waist deep in the Big Muddy and the big fool says to push on." And it was not seriously contested that much of the audience would grasp Seeger's allegorical casting of Johnson as the "big fool" and the Vietnam War the foreseeable danger. Although the performance was cut from the September 1967 show, after wide publicity, it was broadcast when Seeger appeared again on the Smothers Brothers show the following January.
The Town Hall and Carnegie Hall. Politically, Ochs described himself as a "left social democrat" who turned into an "early revolutionary" after the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which had a profound effect on his state of mind. Some of his best known protest songs include "Power and the Glory", "Draft Dodger Rag", "There but for Fortune", "Changes", "Crucifixion", "When I'm Gone", "Love Me, I'm a Liberal", "Links on the Chain", "Ringing of Revolution", and "I Ain't Marching Anymore". Other notable voices of protest from the period included Joan Baez, Buffy Sainte-Marie (whose anti-war song "Universal Soldier" was later made famous by Donovan), and Tom Paxton ("Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation" - about the escalation of the war in Vietnam, "Jimmy Newman" – the story of a dying soldier, and "My Son John" – about a soldier who returns from war unable to describe what he's been through), among others. The first protest song to reach number one in the United States was P.F. Sloan's "Eve Of Destruction", performed by Barry McGuire in 1965.
The American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s often used Negro spirituals as a source of protest, changing the religious lyrics to suit the political mood of the time. The use of religious music helped to emphasize the peaceful nature of the protest; it also proved easy to adapt, with many improvised call-and-response songs being created during marches and sit-ins. Some imprisoned protesters used their incarceration as an opportunity to write protest songs. These songs were carried across the country by Freedom Riders, and many of these became Civil Rights anthems. Many soul singers of the period, such as Sam Cooke ("A Change Is Gonna Come" (1965)), Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin ("Respect"), James Brown ("Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud" (1968); "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I'll Get It Myself)" (1969)), Curtis Mayfield & Impressions ("We're a Winner") (1967); and Nina Simone ("Mississippi Goddam" (1964), "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" (1970)) wrote and performed many protest songs which addressed the ever-increasing demand for equal rights for African Americans during the American civil rights movement. The predominantly white music scene of the time also produced a number of songs protesting racial discrimination, including Janis Ian's "Society's Child (Baby I've Been Thinking)" in 1966, about an interracial romance forbidden by a girl's mother and frowned upon by her peers and teachers and a culture that classifies citizens by race. Steve Reich's 13-minute long "Come Out" (1966), which consists of manipulated recordings of a single spoken line given by an injured survivor of the Harlem Race Riots of 1964, protested police brutality against African Americans. In late 1968, Sly and the Family Stone released the single "Everyday People", which became the band's first number-one hit. "Everyday People" was a protest against prejudices of all kinds, and popularized the catchphrase "different strokes for different folks." The Family Stone featured Caucasians Greg Errico and Jerry Martini in its lineup, as well as females Rose Stone and Cynthia Robinson; making it the first major integrated band in rock history. Sly & the Family Stone's message was about peace and equality through music, and this song reflects the same.
In the 1960s and early 1970s many protest songs were written and recorded condemning the war in Vietnam, most notably "Simple Song of Freedom" by Bobby Darin (1969), "I Ain't Marching Anymore" by Ochs (1965), "Lyndon Johnson Told The Nation" by Tom Paxton (1965), "Bring Them Home" by Seeger (1966), "Requiem for the Masses" by The Association (1967), "Saigon Bride" by Baez (1967), "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" by Seeger (1967), "Suppose They Give a War and No One Comes" by The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band (1967), "The "Fish" Cheer / I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag" by Country Joe and the Fish (1968), "The Unknown Soldier" by The Doors (1968), "One Tin Soldier" by Original Caste (1969), "Volunteers" by Jefferson Airplane (1969), "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969), and the album Back to the World by Curtis Mayfield. Woody Guthrie's son Arlo Guthrie also wrote one of the decade's most famous protest songs in the form of the 18-minute long-talking blues song "Alice's Restaurant Massacree", a bitingly satirical protest against the Vietnam War draft. As an extension of these concerns, artists started to protest the ever-increasing escalation of nuclear weapons and threat of nuclear warfare; as for example on Tom Lehrer's ""So Long, Mom (A Song for World War III)," "Who's Next?" (about nuclear proliferation) and "Wernher von Braun" from his 1965 collection of political satire songs That Was the Year That Was.
In Jamaica, the ravages of poverty and racism were not lost upon the youth movement there. The birth of reggae music addressed issues of all kinds, but it can be argued that Bob Marley had perhaps the most impact on a generation there, with songs addressing his views on nuclear proliferation, and slavery, in his famous "Redemption Song", recorded shortly before his premature death shortly afterward. The song urges listeners to "Emancipate yourself from mental slavery," because "none but ourselves can free our minds."The 1960s also saw a number of successful protest songs from the opposite end of the spectrum – the political right, which supported the war. Perhaps the most successful and famous of these was "Ballad of the Green Berets" (1966) by Barry Sadler, then an active-duty staff sergeant in the United States Army Special Forces, which was one of the very few songs of the era to cast the military in a positive light and yet become a major hit. Merle Haggard & the Strangers's "Okie from Muskogee" (1969), despite being strongly nationalistic, was listed in PopMatters's July 2007 list of the top 65 protest songs because it is, as the webzine puts it,
in fact a protest against changing social mores, alternative lifestyles, and, well, protests [...] In a time when protest songs filled the airwaves, it is ironic that Haggard scored his biggest hit protesting the rise of a discontented culture.
The Youngbloods, best known for the song "Get Together", subsequently recorded "Hippie from Olema" in response to, and satirizing, Haggard. To prevent any ambiguity about who its intended target was, the song contained the line, "We still take in strangers if they're haggard".
1970s; The Vietnam War, soul music
The Kent State shootings of May 4, 1970 amplified sentiment that was portrayed by the United States's invasion of Cambodia and the Vietnam War in general, and protest songs about the Vietnam War continued to grow in popularity and frequency. There were anti-war songs such as Chicago's "It Better End Soon" (1970), "War" (1969) by Edwin Starr, "Ohio" (1970) by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and "Bring The Boys Home" by Freda Payne (1971). Another great influence on the anti-Vietnam war protest songs of the early seventies was the fact that this was the first generation where combat veterans were returning prior to the end of the war, and that even the veterans were protesting the war, as with the formation of the "Vietnam Veterans Against the War" (VVAW). Graham Nash wrote his "Oh! Camil (The Winter Soldier)" (1973) to tell the story of one member of VVAW, Scott Camil. Other notable anti-war songs of the time included Stevie Wonder's frank condemnation of Richard Nixon's Vietnam policies in his 1974 song "You Haven't Done Nothin'". Protest singer and activist Baez dedicated the entire B side of her album Where Are You Now, My Son? (1973) to recordings she had made of bombings while in Hanoi. Steely Dan's "King of the World" on their 1973 album Countdown to Ecstasy joined the protest against nuclear war.
There has been speculation that the Guess Who's anti-war protest song "American Woman" (1970) is addressed to a female U.S. armed-forces recruiter by a draft-dodger.
While war continued to dominate the protest songs of the early 1970s, there were other issues addressed by bands of the time, such as Helen Reddy's feminist hit "I Am Woman" (1972), which became an anthem for the women's liberation movement. Dylan also made a brief return to protest music after some twelve years with "Hurricane" (1975), which protested the imprisonment of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter as a result of alleged acts of racism and profiling against Carter, which Dylan describes as leading to a false trial and conviction. "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to Go" is a funk/soul song originally recorded by Curtis Mayfield for his album Curtis (1970). The song was meant to serve as a warning regarding the state of race relations and the tempest growing in America's inner cities.
Soul music carried over into the early part of the 70s, in many ways taking over from folk music as one of the strongest voices of protest in American music, the most important of which being Marvin Gaye's 1971 protest album What's Going On, which included "Inner City Blues", "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)", and the title track. Another hugely influential protest album of the time was poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron's Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, which contained the oft-referenced protest song "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised". The album's 15 tracks dealt with myriad themes, protesting the superficiality of television and mass consumerism, the hypocrisy of some would-be Black revolutionaries, white middle-class ignorance of the difficulties faced by inner-city residents, and fear of homosexuals.
1980s: Anti-Reagan protest songs, and the birth of rap
The 10,000 Maniacs.
The 1980s also saw the rise of rap and hip-hop, and with it bands such as Grandmaster Flash ("The Message" ), Boogie Down Productions ("Stop the Violence" ),"N.W.A ("Fuck tha Police" ) and Public Enemy ("Fight the Power" , "911 (Is a Joke)"), who vehemently protested the discrimination and poverty which the black community faced in the U.S., in particular focusing on police discrimination. In 1988 The Stop the Violence Movement was formed by rapper KRS-One in response to violence in the hip hop and black communities. Including some of the biggest stars in contemporary East Coast hip hop (including Public Enemy), the movement released a single, "Self Destruction", in 1989, with all proceeds going to the National Urban League.
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Punk music continued to be a strong voice of protest in the 1980s, especially as relating to the Cold War, nuclear fear, and conservative politics. As the decade progressed, punk developed a heavier and more aggressive sound, as typified by Black Flag (whose debut album, Damaged (1981), was described by the BBC as "essentially an album of electric protest songs [... that] takes a swing at the insularities and shortcomings of the 'me' generation."), Dead Kennedys (whose sweeping criticism of the U.S., "Stars and Stripes of Corruption" (1985), contains the lyric "Rednecks and bombs don't make us strong / We loot the world, yet we can't even feed ourselves"), and Bad Religion; a tradition carried on in the following decades more modern punk band like Anti-Flag and Rise Against. Of the few remaining old-school punks still recording in the late 80s, the most notable protest song is Patti Smith's 1988 recording "People Have the Power".
1990s; Hard-Rock Protest Bands, Women's Rights, and Protest Parodies
In 1990, singer Melba Moore released a modern rendition of the 1900 song "Lift Every Voice and Sing" – which had long been considered "The Negro National Anthem" and one of the 20th century's most powerful civil rights anthems – which she recorded along with others, including R&B artists Anita Baker, Stephanie Mills, Dionne Warwick, Bobby Brown, Stevie Wonder, Jeffrey Osborne, and Howard Hewett; and gospel artists BeBe and CeCe Winans, Take 6, and The Clark Sisters. Partly because of the success of this recording, "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" was entered into the Congressional Record as the official African American National Hymn. Rage Against the Machine, formed in 1991, has been one of the most popular 'social-commentary' bands of the last 20 years. A fusion of the musical styles and lyrical themes of punk, hip-hop, and thrash, Rage Against the Machine railed against corporate America ("No Shelter", "Bullet in the Head"), government oppression ("Killing in the Name"), and Imperialism ("Sleep Now in the Fire", "Bulls on Parade"). The band used its music as a vehicle for social activism, as lead singer Zack de la Rocha espoused: "Music has the power to cross borders, to break military sieges and to establish real dialogue".
The 1990s also saw a sizable movement of pro-women's rights protest songs from many musical genres as part of the Third-wave feminism movement. Ani DiFranco was at the forefront of this movement, protesting sexism, sexual abuse, homophobia, reproductive rights as well as racism, poverty, and war. Her "Lost Woman Song" (1990) concerns itself with the hot topic of abortion, and with DiFranco's assertion that a woman has a right to choose without being judged. A particularly prevalent movement of the time was the underground feminist punk Riot Grrrl movement, including a number of outspoken protest bands such as Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Jack Off Jill, Excuse 17, Heavens to Betsy, Huggy Bear, Sleater-Kinney, and also lesbian queercore bands such as Team Dresch. Sonic Youth's "Swimsuit Issue" (1992) protested the way in which women are objectified and turned into a commodity by the media. The song, in which Kim Gordon lists off the names of every model featured in the 1992 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, was selected as one of PopMatters's 65 greatest protest songs of all time with the praise that "Sonic Youth reminds us that protest songs don't have to include acoustic guitars and twee harmonica melodies stuck in 1965. They don't even have to be about war."
But, for the most part, the 1990s signaled a decline in the popularity of protest songs in the mainstream media and public consciousness – even resulting in some parodies of the genre. The 1992 film Bob Roberts is an example of protest music parody, in which the title character, played by American actor Tim Robbins, who also wrote and directed the film, is a guitar-playing U.S. Senatorial candidate who writes and performs songs with a heavily reactionary tone.
The Iraq War and the revival of the protest song
After the 1990s, the protest song found renewed popularity around the world after the turn of both the century and the "Third Millennium" as a result of the War in Iraq – as well as Living With War, an album of anti-Bush and anti-war protest songs. Smith wrote two new songs indicting American and Israeli foreign policy – "Qana", about the Israeli airstrike on the Lebanese village of Qana, and "Without Chains", about the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay.
R.E.M., who had been known for their politically charged material in the 1980s, also returned to increasingly political subject matter since the advent of the Iraq War. For example, "Final Straw" (2003) is a politically charged song, reminiscent in tone of "World Leader Pretend" on Green. The version on their Around the Sun album is a remix of the original, which was made available as a free download from the band's website. The song was written as a protest against the U.S. government's actions in the Iraq War.
Waits has also covered increasingly political subject matter since the advent of the Iraq war. In "The Day After Tomorrow", Waits adopts the persona of a soldier writing home that he is disillusioned with war and thankful to be leaving. The song does not mention the Iraq war specifically, and, as Tom Moon writes, "it could be the voice of a Civil War soldier singing a lonesome late-night dirge." Waits himself does describe the song as something of an "elliptical" protest song about the Iraqi invasion, however. Thom Jurek describes "The Day After Tomorrow" as "one of the most insightful and understated anti-war songs to have been written in decades. It contains not a hint of banality or sentiment in its folksy articulation." Waits' recent output has not only addressed the Iraqi war, as his "Road To Peace" deals explicitly with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Middle East in general.
Springsteen was also vocal in his condemnation of the Bush government, among other issues of social commentary. In 2000 he released "American Skin (41 Shots)" about tensions between immigrants in America and the police force, and of the police shooting of Amadou Diallo in particular. For singing about this event, albeit without mentioning Diallo's name, Springsteen was denounced by the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association in New York who called for the song to be blacklisted and by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani amongst others. In the aftermath of 9/11 Springsteen released The Rising, which exhibited his reflections on the tragedy and America's reaction to it. In 2006 he released We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, a collection of 13 covers of protest songs made popular by Seeger, which highlighted how these older protest songs remained relevant to the troubles of the modern America. An extended version of the album included the track "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?" in which Springsteen rewrote the lyrics of the original to directly address the issue of Hurricane Katrina. His 2007 long-player, Magic, continues Springsteen's tradition of protest song-writing, with a number of songs which continue to question and attack America's role in the Iraqi war. "Last to Die", with its chorus of "Who'll be the last to die for a mistake... Whose blood will spill, whose heart will break", is believed to have been inspired by Senator-to-be John Kerry's 1971 testimony to the US Senate, in which he asked "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" "Gypsy Biker" deals with the homecoming of a US Soldier killed in action in Iraq, and Springsteen has said that "Livin' in the Future" references extraordinary rendition and illegal wiretapping. "Long Walk Home" is an account of the narrator's sense that those people living at home "he thought he knew, whose ideals he had something in common with, are like strangers." The recurring lyric "it's gonna be a long walk home" is a response to the violation of "certain things", such as "what we'll do and what we won't", in spite of these codes having been (in the words of the narrator's father) "set in stone" by the characters's "flag flyin' over the courthouse."
Contemporary protest songs
Modern-day mainstream artists to have written protest songs on this subject include
The hip-hop group Beastie Boys had a number of protest songs on their 2004 release To the 5 Boroughs. Songs such as "It Takes Time To Build" and "Right Right Now Now" take particular aim at the Bush administration and its policies.
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American avant-garde singer Bobby Conn wrote an album of anti-Bush songs with his 2004 collection The Homeland. Conn has stated that "[a]ll the records that I've done are a critique of what's going on in contemporary America". Conn has admitted that while he actively protests what he sees as the evils of American society, he is not always at ease with such a label for himself. "I've always done lots of social commentary that I believe in pretty strongly but I am very uncomfortable with the role of the artist as a meaningful social critic... my whole generation [is] a confused group of people with an ambivalent way of dealing with protest." Discussing his 2007 album King for a Day, Conn stated "it's political, but just in a contemporary culture kind of way [...] Two of the songs are about Tom Cruise, and I don't know if there's a more political statement than Tom Cruise. He kind of symbolizes a lot of what's going on in this country right now and how people are responding to it."
Bobb Conn on being a "protest singer":
|“||It's great when Curtis Mayfield does it, but when Mick Jagger writes about being a street-fighting man, it just kind of makes you sick. Or the Beatles singing about revolution. They're entertainers – it's a pose, it's bullshit. I'm more of a vaudevillian than I am a political commentator. I don't think people should turn to music for their serious information. People should read the newspaper.||”|
In particular, rapper Mosh", "White America", and "We As Americans" have either targeted Bush or the U.S. government in general. Eminem registered to vote for the first time in 2004, just for the sake of voting Bush out of office.
Outside of pop music, folk, punk and country music continue to follow their strong traditions of protest. Utah Philips, and David Rovics, among many other singers, have continued the folk tradition of protest. In John Mayer's 2006 release CONTINUUM, the lead single "Waiting on the World to Change", Mayer is critical of the desensitizing of politics in youths. He goes on to say in "Belief", "What puts a hundred thousand children in the sand? Belief can. What puts the folded flag inside his mother's hand? Belief can." Folk singer Dar Williams's song "Empire" from her 2005 album My Better Self accuses the Bush administration of building a new empire based on the fear of terror, as well as protesting the administration's policy on torture: "We'll kill the terrorizers and a million of their races, but when our people torture you that's a few random cases." Lucy Kaplansky, who has also performed protest songs with Dar Williams in their side project Cry Cry Cry, has written many songs of protest since 9/11, including her tribute to that day – "Land of the Living" – however, her most recognised protest song to date is "Line in the Sand", which includes the line: "Another bomb lights up the night of someone's vision of paradise but it's just a wasted sacrifice that fuels the hate on the other side." Tracy Grammer's song "Hey ho", from her 2005 album Flower of Avalon addresses how children are taught from a young age to play at war as soldiers with plastic guns, perpetuating the war machine: "Wave the flag and watch the news, tell us we can count on you. Mom and dad are marching too; children, step in line."
Punk rock still is a formidable force and constitutes a majority of the protest songs written today. Artists such as Anti-Flag, Bad Religion, NOFX, Rise Against, Authority Zero, to name just a few, are noted for their political activism in denouncing the Bush administration and the policies of the American government in general. The political campaign Punkvoter, which started the project Rock Against Bush, was kicked off with a collection of punk rock songs critical of President Bush called "Rock Against Bush, Vol. 1", and a sequel was released in 2004. Representatives from the punk community such as Fat Mike of NOFX, Henry Rollins (formerly of Black Flag), and Jello Biafra of The Dead Kennedys are noted for their continuing political activism. In 2009, Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band released Roosevelt Room, which among many things protests the perils of America's wealth gap specifically involving the United States' working class.
While country music has offered the loudest voice in support of the war through artists such as Charlie Daniels, many established country artists have released strongly critical anti-war songs. These include Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, the Dixie Chicks ("Not Ready to Make Nice" (2006)) and Nanci Griffith.
Some artists who are not traditionally right-leaning have questioned the validity of the recent spate of anti-war protest songs. Florida-based punk band Against Me! released a song called "White People For Peace" that questions the effectiveness of people singing "protest songs in response to military aggression" when their governments simply ignore them.
More recently anti-globalization writer Naomi Klein has attacked the replacement of grass-roots protest by celebrity-endorsed festivals or events, such as the Make Poverty History campaign; a trend which she calls the "Bono-isation" of protests against world poverty. She is quoted in The Times newspaper as attesting that "The Bono-isation of protest, particularly in the UK, has reduced discussion to a much safer terrain [...] there's celebrities and then there's spectators waving their bracelets. It's less dangerous and less powerful [than grass roots street demonstrations]."
- "The African-American Mosaic". The Library of Congress. Retrieved 2007-10-03.
- "NO MORE AUCTION BLOCK FOR ME Official Site of Negro Spirituals, antique Gospel Music". Spiritual Workshop. Retrieved 2007-10-03.
- "UVa Library: Exhibits: Lift Every Voice". University of Virginia Library. Retrieved 2007-10-03.
- "Sweet Chariot, the Story of the Spirituals". The University of Denver. Retrieved 2007-11-07.
- "Woodman Spare That Tree!". Amaranth Publishing. Retrieved 2007-10-03.
- I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier": Singing Against the War""". History Matters. Retrieved 2007-10-15.
- "America's Music Goes to War Part 2 B., December 2000". The Parlor Songs Association, Inc. Retrieved 2007-10-15.
- Hello Central! Give Me No Man's Land" audio""". Michael Duffy. Retrieved 2007-10-15.
- "STRANGE FRUIT. Protest Music - The Great Depression". Independent Television Service (ITVS). Retrieved 2007-10-03.
- "THE PROTEST SINGER: Pete Seeger and American folk music.". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2007-10-15.
- See (June, 1941)Atlantic Monthly"The Poison in Our System" (excerpt) by Carl Joachim Friedrich, .
Compare Woody Guthrie's statement about folk music in a letter to Alan Lomax of 1940:
I think real folk stuff scares most of the boys around Washington. A folk song is what's wrong and how to fix it, or it could be who's hungry and where their mouth is, or who's out of work and where the job is or who's broke and where the money is or who's carrying a gun and where the peace is – that's folk lore and folks made it up because they seen that the politicians could find nothing to fix or nobody to feed or give a job of work. We don't aim to hurt you or scare you when we get to feeling sorta folksy and make up some folk lore, we're doing all we can to make it easy on you. I can sing all day and all night sixty days and sixty night but of course I ain't got enough wind to be in office. (Woody Guthrie, Letter to Alan Lomax, quoted in Roy Pratt, Rhythm and Resistance: Explorations in the Political Uses of Popular Music,  p. 115.)
It included "Venga Jaleo" an anti-Fascist song from the Spanish Civil War. The Spanish-language lyrics probably were not understood by most of the audience:
On the eighteenth of July,
In the courtyard of a convent,
The people of Madrid
Formed the Fifth Regiment.
Come, clap out the rhythm,
Dream of a machine gun
And Franco will do the walking!
And Franco will do the walking!
- Duberman, p. 400
- Duberman p. 411
- "Josh White and the Protest Blues". elijahwald.com.
- For Benjamin Schultz, see: Richard A. Schwartz "How the Film and Television Blacklists Worked", Department of English, Florida International University.
- "Old Man Atom". Fortune City.
- Lyrics quoted on the website of the Atomic Platters, along with the information that the members of the Golden Gate Quartet left the U.S. to tour Europe during the McCarthy period and decided to became permanent residents of France.
- "Atomic Sermon". conelrad.com.
- World mourns passing of Odetta
- "The Politics of Bob Dylan". Red Pepper. Retrieved 2007-01-09.
- Gilliland 1969, show 31.
- Who Killed Davey Moore?" lyrics""". bobdylan.com. Retrieved 2007-01-19.
- Dylan performed Only a Pawn in Their Game and When the Ship Comes In
- Scaduto, Bob Dylan, p. 151.
- "Dylan is positively on top of his game". USA Today. 2001-09-10. Retrieved 2007-01-19.
- Pratt (1990), p. 208.
Pratt (1990), p. 208. According to Pratt, Dylan told a friend in 1964:
All I can say is politics is not my thing at all. I can't see myself on a platform talking about how to help people. Because I would get myself killed if I really tried to help anybody. I mean if somebody really had something to say to help somebody out, just bluntly say the truth, well obviously they're gonna be done away with. They're gonna be killed" (Pratt , p. 208).
- Gilliland 1969, show 19.
- "Beans in My Ears lyrics".
- "How "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" Finally Got on Network Television in 1968". peteseeger.net.
- Schumacher (1996), p. 201
- Gilliland 1969, show 34.
- """Geoffrey Nunberg - the history of "protest. Geoffrey Nunberg. Retrieved 2007-10-03.
- Gilliland 1969, show 33.
- "African American Civil Rights (Freedom) Songs". Coco Jams.
- "UVa Library: Exhibits: Lift Every Voice". University of Virginia Library. Retrieved 2007-10-03.
- Gilliland 1969, show 51.
- "PopMatters Music 65 Greatest Protest Songs; Part 2: Janis Ian to Jimi Hendrix (1966-1970)". PopMatters Media, Inc. Retrieved 2007-10-03.
- which contains the lines: "Come on mothers throughout the land / Pack your boys off to Vietnam. / Come on fathers, don't hesitate / Send your sons off before it's too late. / You can be the first one on your block / To have your boy come home in a box."
- Gilliland 1969, show 42.
- "I'll sing you a tale / Of Wernher Von Braun / A man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience / ...'Once the rockets are up / Who cares where they come down? / That's not my department' says Wernher Von Braun"
- "BBC - Rock/Indie Review - Black Flag, Damaged". BBC. Retrieved 2007-10-06.
- Wooldridge, Simon (February 2000), "Fight the Power," Juice Magazine.'.' Retrieved October 6, 2007.
- List Of Riot Girl Bands
- "PopMatters 65 Greatest Protest Songs: Part 5: Public Enemy to Dixie Chicks (1989-2006)". PopMatters. Retrieved 2007-10-06.
- http://www.itsaboutmusic.com/jakeholmes.html Jake Holmes: "Mission Accomplished", George W. Bush protest song
- allmusic ((( Real Gone > Review )))
- "41 Shots: Bruce Springsteen and freedom of expression". Freedom Forum. Retrieved 2007-10-15.
- Levine, Stuart (2007-09-25). "Springsteen's 'Magic' is a rockin' good time".
- Quillen, Shay (2007-10-06). "Springsteen's 'Magic' ends with a political wallop". The San Jose Mercury News. Retrieved 2007-11-05.
- "Bright Eyes, Big Ditty". Willamette Week. Retrieved 2007-10-15.
- Moss, Corey. "Lenny Kravitz, R.E.M. Record Anti-War Songs". MTV News.
- "Colin Meloy quotes". Think Exist.
- Kelly, Jennifer. "Bobby Conn is completely serious". Splendid Magazine.
- Halpern, Ashlea. "Bobby Conn". Magnet Magazine.
- "Bobby Conn: Music: Ben Rubenstein: CenterstageChicago.com". Centrestage Chicago. Retrieved 2007-10-03.
- "MAGNET Interview: Bobby Conn". Magnet. Archived from the original on 2007-09-13. Retrieved 2007-10-06.
- Ben Hoyle (2007-10-11). "‘Forget Bono and bracelets, protest for real’". London: The Times. Retrieved 2007-10-17.
Further reading and listening
- Greenway, John (1953). American Folksongs of Protest. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Reprint: New York: A.S. Barnes, 1960.
- Lomax, Alan; compiler and editor. Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People. Woody Guthrie, Introduction and Song Notes. Pete Seeger, Music Editor, Transcriptions, and Afterword. John Steinbeck, Foreword. Irwin Silber, New Foreword. University of Nebraska Press, 1999.