Writing postcards and letters to your reps and need a little music to inspire you? How about some protest music?
Songs about the state of the world, social issues, historical events and many other acts of demonstrations are as ingrained in humanity as telling stories around a campfire. Whatever the state of affairs, someone in the mix was probably upset enough to sing about it. We can guess that cavemen probably sang (grunted?) their tales of woe in song about a bad hunt or warring tribal neighbors. Maybe after painting it on the wall they crooned about it around the fire.
In some cases, songs were used as codes to either warn or announce something of great importance to the local people. In early Ireland when invading peoples brought their own religion to replace the homogeneous one, code songs helped alert villagers whether it was safe to pray in their religion or remain hidden.
Fast forward a couple of thousand years and with the advent of recording, we’ve quite an abundance of music that’s defined an era or event in recent history.
Middle Tennessee State University’s John Fabke published a Web exhibit (last updated in 2014) on the History of Political Songs and Jingles in Tennessee. The site also includes a bit of history of political songs in the United States, in which the earliest reference is from 1856.
In the 1930s, during the crux of the Great Depression, a musician traveling with displaced Oklahoma farmers wrote songs detailing their experiences. The collection eventually became Woody Guthrie‘s first recorded release titled, Dust Bowl Ballads. Years later, Guthrie moved to New York to continue his music career. While there, and in annoyance of constantly hearing Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” he penned “This Land is Your Land.” Seventy-six years later, A group of Vermont musicians recorded the song as a tribute to Bernie Sanders, who had recorded the song in 1987 with another group of Vermont artists.
In 1941 Guthrie wrote “Talking Hitler’s Head Off Blues,” a scathing criticism of fascism and anti-war song. Anne E. Neimark writes in her book, “In a fit of patriotism and faith in the impact of the song, he painted on his guitar THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS” (There Ain’t Nobody That Can Sing Like Me: The Life of Woody Guthrie).
Feeling indignation with the political climate of his time, he wrote other lyrics with titles such as, “All You Fascists” and “Christ for President.” These lyrics eventually found their way into modern audiences via Guthrie’s daughter Nora Guthrie.
In the early ’90s, Nora approached British folk and protest singer/songwriter Billy Bragg about putting music to some of the thousand or so lyrics that her father had written. Bragg worked with Jeff Tweedy of the band Wilco that rendered three albums — Mermaid Avenue and Mermaid Avenue Vol. II and Vol. III.
For many, Guthrie is considered the father of modern protest music. His songs and life have inspired musicians from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen. For instance, take this rendition of “This Land is Your Land” by My Morning Jacket. It’s quite a testament to the song’s power to transcend generations.
Beyond Guthrie, songs such as “Give Peace a Chance (1969) by the Plastic Ono Band (John Lennon and Yoko Ono) or Country Joe and the Fish’s “Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” are interwoven with the Vietnam War. Or U2’s blistering commentary on the Troubles in Northern Ireland with “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” (as is their entire album “War” (1983)). Or Midnight Oil’s “Beds are Burning” in protest of the lands taken away from Australian native tribes. All of these songs and performers are as much a part of the historical fabric as the events, themselves.
So here we are in 2017 and protest songs are as vigorous as ever. Here are some of the latest:
While not about Trump, this sure fits…
Kula Shaker originally wrote this song about G. W. Bush but it fits our current administration, as well.
Protest songs can also be tributes to something we feel we’ve lost. How could we forget Kate McKinnon’s tearful rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on Saturday Night Live in dismay of Hillary Clinton’s loss?
Or another classic Saturday Night Live piece — this tribute to Barack Obama.
And finally, a new protest song against Trump by the queen of protest songs, Joan Baez, aptly titled “Nasty Man.”
The start of a playlist
- “Give Peace a Chance” (1969)
Plastic Ono Band
- “We Shall Overcome” (1963)
- “The Times They Are a-Changin'” (1964)
- “What’s Going On” (1971)
- “A Change Is Gonna Come” (1964)
- “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (1983)
- “Eve of Destruction” (1965)
- “Revolution” (1968)
- “Imagine” (1971)
- “For Pete’s Sake (In this Generation)” (1967)
- “Rock the Casbah” (1982)
- “I Give You Power” (2017)
- “Strange Fruit” (1939)
- “This Land is Your Land” (1944)
- “Get Up, Stand Up” (1973)
- “Born in the USA” (1984)
- “Rockin’ in the Free World” (1989)
- “Help Save the Youth of America” (1986)
- “Leaders of the Free World” (2005)
- “Pride (In the Name of Love)” (1984)
What would you add? Tell us in the comments below.
The above list was curated based on these stories:
- Rolling Stone Magazine Reader’s Poll
- Radio X Music that Changed the World
- TBS Magazine The 25 Best Protest Songs of All Time
- Konbini The 10 Best Modern Protest Songs to Get You All Fired Up
- 20 Modern Protest Songs to Help You Survive Donald Trump’s Presidency