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.
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.
The Hutchinsons’ 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.
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.)
One of the 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.
In the 20th century, the union movement, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement, and the war in Vietnam (see Vietnam War protests) all inspired protest songs.
1900–1920; Labor Movement, Class Struggle, and The Great War
Joe Hill, one of the pioneering protest singers of the early 20th century
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.
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 successful 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.
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.
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 McCarthyism. One of the most notable pro-union protest singers of the period was Woody Guthrie (“This Land Is Your Land”, “Deportee”, “1913 Massacre”, “Dust Bowl Blues”, “Tom Joad”), whose guitar bore a sticker which read: “This Machine Kills Fascists”. Guthrie was also an occasional member or the hugely influential labor-movement band The Almanac Singers, founded by Millard Lampell, Lee Hays, and Pete Seeger, which had a floating personnel. Politics and music were closely intertwined with the Almanac’s Popular Front political beliefs. Their first release in May 1941, an album called Songs For John Doe, performed by Seeger, Hays, Lampell, Josh White, and Sam Gary, urged non-intervention in World War II and opposed the peacetime draft and unequal treatment of African-American draftees.
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.
Paul Robeson, singer, actor, athlete, and civil rights activist, was investigated by the FBI and was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for his outspoken political views. The State Department denied Robeson a passport and issued a “stop notice” at all ports, effectively confining him to the United States. In a symbolic act of defiance against the travel ban, labor unions in the U.S. and Canada organized a concert at the International 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.
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.
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, Vietnam War, and Peace and Revolution
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom leaders marching from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, August 28, 1963.
Bob Dylan with Joan Baez during the March on Washington in Washington, D.C., 1963
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 and 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.
Dylan often sang against injustice, such as the murders of Emmett Till in The Death Of Emmett Till (1962) and Civil Rights Movement activist Medgar Evers in “Only a Pawn in Their Game” (1964), or the killing of the 51-year-old African American barmaid Hattie Carroll by the wealthy young tobacco farmer from Charles County, William Devereux “Billy” Zantzinger in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (1964) (Zantzinger was sentenced to six months in a county jail for the murder). Many of the injustices about which Dylan sang were not even based on race or civil rights issues, but rather everyday injustices and tragedies, such as the death of boxer Davey Moore in the ring (“Who Killed Davey Moore?” (1964), or the breakdown of farming and mining communities (“Ballad of Hollis Brown” (1963), “North Country Blues” (1963)).
By 1963, Dylan and then-singing partner Joan Baez had become prominent in the civil rights movement, singing together at rallies including the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech. However, Dylan, glancing towards the Capitol, is reported to have asked, cynically: “”Think they’re listening?” Then he is also reported to have answered: “No, they ain’t listening at all.”” Anthony Scaduto contends that many of Dylan’s songs of the period were adapted and appropriated by the 1960s Civil Rights and counter-culture “movements” rather than being specifically written for them. Scaduto reports that by 1964 Dylan was attempting to extract himself from the movement, much to the chagrin of many of those who saw him as a voice of a generation. Indeed, some of Dylan’s topical songs appear to have been retrospectively aligned with issues which they in fact pre-date. For example, “Masters of War” (1963) which protests against governments who orchestrate war, is sometimes misconstrued as dealing directly with the Vietnam War. However, the song was written at the beginning of 1963, when only a few hundred Green Berets were stationed in South Vietnam and came to be re-appropriated as a comment on Vietnam in 1965, when US planes bombed North Vietnam for the first time, with lines such as “you that build the death planes” seeming particularly prophetic.
In contrast to other topical singers of the day, Dylan never mentioned Vietnam by name in any of his songs. Dylan himself has stated rather mysteriously that, although the song “is supposed to be a pacifistic song against war. It’s not an anti-war song. It’s speaking against what Eisenhower was calling a military-industrial complex as he was making his exit from the presidency. That spirit was in the air, and I picked it up.” This understandably must have seemed a distinction without much of a difference to his many anti-war fans. Similarly, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (1963) was perceived by some as about the Cuban missile crisis, although Dylan had composed and performed it more than a month before John F. Kennedy’s TV address to the nation (October 22, 1962) initiated the Cuban missile crisis. Dylan’s initial and extremely fruitful 20-month period of overt protest songs ended in 1964, when he changed his musical style from acoustic folk to an electrified, rock-orientated sound, and his increasingly personal, abstract lyrics became seemingly more purely aesthetic.
Pete Seeger was a major civil rights advocate (1955).
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 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.
Phil Ochs, one of the leading protest singers of the decade (or, as he preferred, a “topical singer”), performed at many political events, including anti-Vietnam War and civil rights rallies, student events, and organized labor events over the course of his career, in addition to many concert appearances at such venues as New York City’s 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 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 & The 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 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.
Bob Marley’s music impacted people in his native Jamaica, and around the world
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.”
1970s; The Vietnam War, soul music
“Machine Gun” is a song written by American musician Jimi Hendrix, and originally recorded by Band of Gypsys for their self-titled live album (1970). It is a lengthy, loosely defined (jam-based) protest of the Vietnam War, and perhaps a broader comment on conflict of any kind. 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.
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 Reagan administration was also coming in for its fair share of criticism, with many mainstream protest songs attacking his policies, such as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984), and “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down” by The Ramones.
This sentiment was countered by songs like “God Bless The USA” by Lee Greenwood, which was seen by many as a protest against protests against the Reagan Administration. Billy Joel’s “Allentown” protested the decline of the rust belt, and represented those coping with the demise of the American manufacturing industry.
Reagan came under significant criticism for the Iran-Contra Affair, in which it was discovered that his administration was selling arms to the radical Islamic regime in Iran and using proceeds from the sales to illegally fund the Contras, a guerilla/terrorist group in Nicaragua. A number of songs were written in protest of this scandal. “All She Wants to Do Is Dance”, (1984) by Don Henley, protested against the U.S. involvement with the Contras in Nicaragua, while chastising Americans for only wanting to dance, while molotov cocktails, and sales of guns and drugs are going on around them, and while “the boys” (the CIA, NSA, etc.) are “makin’ a buck or two”. Other songs to protest America’s role in the Iran-Contra affair include “The Big Stick” by Minutemen, “Nicaragua” by Bruce Cockburn, “Please Forgive Us” by 10,000 Maniacs, and “Managua” by Naked Raygun.
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 (“F**k 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.
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
Neil Young, pictured here on the CSN&Y “Freedom Of Speech Tour ’06,” returned to the front of the protest music scene with his album Living With War.
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 9/11 attacks in America, and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars in the Middle East, with America’s former president George W. Bush facing the majority of the criticism.
Many famous protest singers of yesteryear, such as Neil Young, Patti Smith, Tom Waits, Jake Holmes and Bruce Springsteen, returned to the public eye with new protest songs for the new war. Young approached the theme with his song “Let’s Impeach the President” – a rebuke against President George W. Bush and 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.
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.”
Protest against GMO
Neil Young may be the first artist in the 21st century to record and issue a single protesting against genetically modified food. His single, “A Rock Star Bucks A Coffee Shop” which is from his concept album The Monsanto Years. The song itself is about Starbucks and it’s alleged support of GMO. The group that backs up Young on the track is Promise of the Real which includes two of Willie Nelsons sons Lukas and Micah Nelson. By the end of May 2015, the song which has attracted a lot of media attention was video of the week on the Food Consumer website.
Mike Adams, editor of the Natural News did record a rap song in 2010 “Just Say No to GMO” which was a protest against GMO which was featured on an album. It wasn’t released as a single.
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.
Black Lives Matter and Police Violence
After the death of Michael Brown, Black Lives Matter has become a widely known social movement. Artist have begun creating songs in support of Black Lives Matter and anti-police brutality. A primary protest slogan of Black Lives Matter is “I Can’t Breathe” following the death of Eric Garner. These were Garner’s last words before he died. Garner’s siblings, Ellisha and Steven, took his last words and made the song “I Can’t Breathe”. Garners family told Billboard the song is dedicated to “the struggle everyone is going through.” During the song, Steven raps “A system that took my brother from me / No matter how money I receive, I can hear my brother crying ‘I can’t breathe.”
Beyoncé has become a face of Black Lives Matter with her song, “Formation”. In the music video of “Formation”, there are images of Beyoncé laying on top of a sinking New Orleans police car and walls with “Stop Killing Us” painted on it. While she received criticism for appropriation of Hurricane Katrina, her song was important for the movement. A leader of Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza, welcomed Beyoncé to the movement when it was released. In an article Garza wrote for Rolling Stones, she applauds Beyoncé and says she “joins only a handful of celebrities courageous enough not just to reference a growing movement happening around her, but to proudly place herself within it.” Garza sees the song as support of the movement as she states “Bey told us who her people are, how that makes her who she is,” and that the “best revenge is being successful; that she likes her men black, with the nostrils to match.” Beyoncé continued support when she performed the song at Super Bowl 50’s halftime show which peaked at 115.5 million viewers during halftime. When asked about critiques saying the song is anti-police Beyoncé says, “let’s be clear: I am against police brutality and injustice. Those are two separate things. If celebrating my roots and culture during Black History Month made anyone uncomfortable, those feelings were there long before a video and long before me.”
Kendrick Lamar’s song “Alright” has become an anthem for Black Lives Matter. The lyrics include “Wanna kill us dead in the street of sho'” and “My knees getting’ weak and my gun might blow / But we gon’ be alright.” “We gon’ be alright” has become a protest chant during the movements of Black Lives Matter. Lamar discusses his song’s relation with the movement during a New York Times interview in 2015. When asked if he knew it was becoming an anthem for Black Lives Matter he says, “When I’d go in certain parts of the world, and they were singing it in the streets. When it’s outside of the concerts, then you know it’s a little bit more deep-rooted than just a song. It’s more than just a piece of a record. It’s something that people live by – your words.”
After the death of Michael Brown, J Cole went to Ferguson, MO to speak with the protestors. In response to the shooting, Cole released “Be, Free”. Cole wrote that “We become distracted. We become numb. I became numb. But not anymore. That coulda been me, easily. It could have been my best friend… I made a song. This is how we feel.” The lyrics of the song include “I’m letting’ you know / That there ain’t no gun they make that can kill my soul / Oh, no.” Cole performed “Be, Free” on the David Letterman’s late show in 2014.
Janelle Monáe and Wondaland Records also recorded their own song in protest of the extrajudicial killings of African American men and women titled “Hell You Talmbout”.
These are considered the 10 Most Effective American Protest Songs
- Rage Against the Machine, “Sleep Now the Fire”
- Dixie Chicks, “Not Ready to Make Nice”
- Bruce Springsteen, “American Skin” (41 Shots)”
- Public Enemy, “Fight the Power”
- Johnny Cash, “The Man in Black”
- Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, “Ohio”
- System of a Down, “Boom!”
- Woody Guthrie, “This Land is Your Land”
- Bob Dylan, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”
- Nina Simone, “Mississippi Goddamn”
- Rage Against the Machine, “Sleep Now the Fire” Face it, everything Rage Against the Machine has ever done has been about rebellion and protest. Pick a song out of a hat — let’s go with that time they prevented the New York Stock Exchange from opening while they took over the entrance to make a video — and a point — with “Sleep Now in the Fire,” directed by Michael Moore.
- Dixie Chicks, “Not Ready to Make Nice” Boy, those girls sure pissed off a lot of people when lead singer Natalie Maines told a London audience she was ashamed to be from the same state as then-president George W. Bush on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Apparently, some Americans think that dissent is worthy of album-burnings and death threats. The band remained unapologetic and struck back with their next album in 2006.
- Bruce Springsteen, “American Skin” (41 Shots)” Bruce is America’s favorite son! He recorded that patriotic “Born in the U.S.A.” song!
Well, no. Anyone who’s listened to the lyrics knows that’s a song about America treating its war veterans like shit. Not that people can be faulted for this; even Ronald Regan misinterpreted the song’s message when he tried to co-opt it during his 1984 presidential campaign — until Springsteen told him to quit it.
There’s no misinterpreting this song Springsteen and the E. Street Band debuted on July 4, 2000, in Atlanta, followed by a show in New York City where the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association called for a boycott of the show. The song depicts the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo by NYC cops. The unarmed Guinean immigrant was shot 41 times by four NYC plainclothes police who ordered him to stop because they mistook him for a serial rapist. The shooting occurred when Diallo reached for his wallet.
- Public Enemy, “Fight the Power” Released in 1989 when racial tensions were exploding, spurred by violence against blacks in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighborhood. Public Enemy called for people to stand up to abuses of power and made digs at sacred icons of white culture.
- Johnny Cash, “The Man in Black” Who’s more American than Johnny Cash? Make no mistake — Cash was pissed off about the treatment of fellow Americans beaten by the system: the poor, prisoners, the elderly, addicted and soliders in Vietnam. He wore black as a reminder of injustice.
- Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, “Ohio” Some radio stations banned the song because it dared to implicate President Richard Nixon in the National Guard killings of four students at Kent State University during an antiwar protest on the campus. The song was released on May 21, 1970 — seventeen days after the incident.
- System of a Down, “Boom!” Originally released on the band’s 2002 album Steal This Album!, the song protested the disparity in funds spent on war when so little went to poverty relief. A few months later, it fit the antiwar sentiments that many felt weren’t being broadcast in the lead-up to the Iraq War. The video was directed by Michael Moore at worldwide protests on February 15, 2003. The group released the video on March 19 — the day American forces invaded Iraq.
- Woody Guthrie, “This Land is Your Land” Remember that sweet folk tune you sang in elementary school music class about this land being made for your and me? Guthrie wrote it because, in 1940, he was sick of hearing “God Bless America,” which he felt was unrealistic after the suffering of the Great Depression. The original included two verses that your elementary music teacher probably didn’t teach you, because they endorsed trespassing and the Commie idea of not letting a few people own everything.
- Bob Dylan, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” The most noted writer of American protest songs, Dylan didn’t set out to protest through his music; he wrote about events and stories that touched him, which often coincided with issues like the civil-rights and antiwar movements. Case in point: “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” the true story of a black barmaid murdered buy a rich tobacco farmer who only served six months in county jail for the killing. Dylan shunned the system, not wanting to be associated with any political side or movement.
- Nina Simone, “Mississippi Goddamn” Spurred by the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of a church in Alabama that killed four little girls, Simone penned her first protest song, railing on people who asked for patience in civil rights changes while others died. Not surprisingly, the song was banned in many of the states it was aimed at, ostensibly because of the word “goddamn.” Riiiiight.
Before it was all said and done, Simone performed the song at Carnegie Hall in 1964 during a recording of a live album, and at the end of the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965, where she crossed police lines along with James Baldwin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Harry Belafonte.