March 26, 2006

Essential protest songs

Viva la power of music. That’s the message behind the list of fourteen “Essential Protest Songs,” put together by the American Sociological Association in the latest issue of the journal Contexts.

Here is the list of the 14 they came up with, reflecting a varied and long musical history. I appreciate how the list shows songs from many genres and time periods, and musicians of all stripes. You can listen to a selection of the song clips here. And if I were writing the list, I might also suggest the addition of Otis Redding singing “Change Is Gonna Come” (aching with festering oppression and a longing for a new day) and Marvin Gaye doing “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler).” How ’bout you – what suggestions would you add?

Their list reads:

“Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Lyrics by James Weldon Johnson; music by J. Rosamand Johnson. Key lyric: “We have come over a way that with tears has been watered / We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.” Known as the “Black National Anthem”—the antidote to “America, the Beautiful.”

“Which Side Are You On?” By Florence Reece. “Don’t scab for the bosses, don’t listen to their lies / Us poor folks haven’t got a chance unless we organize.” Written during the labor struggles in Harlan County, Kentucky, in the 1930s, it was later adopted by the civil rights movement.

“Pastures of Plenty.” By Woody Guthrie. “Every state in this union us migrants has been /‘Long the edge of your cities you’ll see us, and then / We’ve come with the dust and we’re gone in the wind.” Guthrie’s ode to America’s migrant workers.

“The Times They Are A-Changin’.” By Bob Dylan. “There’s a battle outside and it’s raging / It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls.” Tough call between this and Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “Masters of War,” “With God on Our Side,” etc., etc.

(MY NOTE: Speaking of Dylan and his protest anthems, I wanted to post something about “Masters of War.” The first time I remember hearing it (in a backwards way, I know) when I was 13 or 14 when Ed Vedder performed it at Madison Square Garden in 1992 at a tribute to Bob Dylan. Some attendees remember Vedder’s unbridled emotional performance as the highlight of all the performances that night. While Vedder and I have decided to an “agree to disagree” arrangement when it comes to many political issues, the power he injects into this song cannot be denied. He practically spits the lyrics. Because of Vedder, this was probably the first Dylan song I remember learning by heart.)

Masters of War” (Dylan cover) - Ed Vedder, Mike McCready, and G.E. Smith. 10/16/92

Back to the list …

“We Shall Overcome.”Adapted from a gospel song, the anthem of the civil rights movement. “Deep in my heart, I do believe / We shall overcome some day.” Infinitely adaptable.
“Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round.”Also adapted from a Negro spiritual. “I’m gonna keep on walkin’, keep on talkin’ / Fightin’ for my equal rights.” Another powerful civil rights anthem.

“I Ain’t Marching Anymore.” By Phil Ochs. “It’s always the old to lead us to the war / It’s always the young to fall / Now look at all we’ve won with the saber and the gun / Tell me is it worth it all?” An antiwar classic, complete with a revisionist history of American militarism.

“For What It’s Worth.” Performed by Buffalo Springfield. By Stephen Stills. “There’s something happening here / What it is ain’t exactly clear / There’s a man with a gun over there / Telling me I’ve got to beware.” Eerily foreboding.

“Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).” By James Brown. “Now we demand a chance to do things for ourself / We’re tired of beatin’ our head against the wall and workin’ for someone else.” A Black Power anthem by the Godfather of Soul.

“Respect.” Performed by Aretha Franklin. By Otis Redding. “I ain’t gonna do you wrong while you’re gone / Ain’t gonna do you wrong ‘cause I don’t wanna / All I’m askin’ is for a little respect when you come home.” The personal is political.

“Redemption Song.” By Bob Marley. “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery / None but ourselves can free our minds.” Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” is also a contender.

“Imagine.” By John Lennon. “Imagine no possessions / I wonder if you can / No need for greed or hunger / A brotherhood of man.” Lennon as utopian socialist.

“Fight the Power.” By Public Enemy. “Got to give us what we want / Gotta give us what we need / Our freedom of speech is freedom or death / We got to fight the powers that be.” An exuberant hip-hop call to arms.

And the last one on their list is another one I want to talk about:

“Strange Fruit.” Performed by Billie Holiday. By Abel Meeropol. “Pastoral scene of the gallant south / The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth.” A chilling protest against lynching. Maybe the greatest protest song of all time. Read all the lyrics here.

I’ve heard this song but never listened to it, you know? I didn’t know it was about lynching. Being young enough that I tend to take for granted civil rights and human equality in this country, it really is chilling to the bone to concertedly listen to this song and to picture a time when the reality of life for a black person in the American South could be something altogether terrifying.

Strange Fruit” – Billie Holiday (1939)

To me, the intro sounds tinny and redolent with sadness – like the soundtrack to an old black and white silent film, the accompaniment to a news reel showing black human beings strung up in trees. Billie’s wavering voice is pregnant with sadness and suppressed anger. And I can only imagine what the reaction must have been when this song first came out, when people first heard it over their radio as they stood in their kitchen washing dishes, or when it came on as they drove along a dark highway at night. It is absolutely arresting when you actually listen to it.

When I read the Strange Fruit lyrics, they reminded me of a line from the rich Toni Morrison novel, Beloved. I’ll give you the whole paragraph, because it is a resonant, poetic, sad picture (as is the whole book). Morrison’s writing gives me chills, and this book is probably my favorite literary work to read in terms of style and depth. This passage is Sethe, an ex-slave, talking about a flashback to her days at Sweet Home, the plantation where she was enslaved:

“And then sopping the chamomile away with pump water and rags, her mind fixed on getting every last bit of sap off — on her carelessness in taking a shortcut across the field just to save a half mile, and not noticing how high the weeds had grown until the itching was all the way to her knees. Then something.

The plash of water, the sight of her shoes and stockings awry on the path where she had flung them; or Here Boy lapping in the puddle near her feet, and suddenly there was Sweet Home rolling, rolling, rolling out before her eyes, and although there was not a leaf on that farm that did not make her want to scream, it rolled itself out before her in shameless beauty.

It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too. Fire and brimstone all right, but hidden in lacy groves. Boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the world. It shamed her — remembering the wonderful soughing trees rather than the boys. Try as she might to make it otherwise, the sycamores beat out the children every time and she could not forgive her memory for that.”

Recommended reading (and re-reading): Beloved, by Toni Morrison
(and please, I beg you, do not let the movie substitute for reading this stunner)

Keep on singing.


  • Great post, we could use some good protest songs today. So I’m curious, what political beliefs do you and Vedder disagree on? I would of thought you two were pretty like-minded.

    JMH — March 26, 2006 @ 7:24 pm

  • Heather

    You could add Shipbuilding (anti the UK war with Argentina) by Elvis Costello and Christmas in Washington by Steve Earle (“come back Woody Guthrie, come back to us now …”)

    Chris (from Tottington UK)

    Anonymous — March 26, 2006 @ 11:12 pm

  • As soon as I saw the headline for this post, I immediately thought of “Masters of War.”

    From beginning to end, Dylan unleashes a verbal assault on the Military Industrial Complex and concludes with this message to its leaders:

    And I hope that you die
    And your death’ll come soon
    I will follow your casket
    In the pale afternoon
    And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
    Down to your deathbed
    And I’ll stand o’er your grave
    ‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead

    My favorite anti-protest song is “Revolution,” which many people incorrectly assume to be a protest song. But a simple reading of the lyrics reveals that Lennon is criticizing those clamoring for a revolution:

    But when you talk about destruction
    Don’t you know that you can count me out
    Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right

    You ask me for a contribution
    Well, you know
    We’re doing what we can
    But when you want money
    for people with minds that hate
    All I can tell is brother you have to wait

    (And my favorite line of the song)
    But if you go carrying pictures of chairman Mao
    You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow

    Dan — March 27, 2006 @ 9:52 am

  • Excellent post. Thanks so much for bringing attention to these songs. Protest songs are sorta out of fashion these days, and I think it is indicative of an unfortunate cultural acceptance of the state of things. As if it couldn’t be different. But, we know it can.

    Sam — March 27, 2006 @ 2:04 pm

  • great post, as always. have you heard jeff buckley’s acoustic cover of strange fruit? it’s amazing. i think it’s from a kcrw session.

    Dance Hall Hips — March 27, 2006 @ 4:38 pm

  • Uh… “For What It’s Worth,” while written by Stills, is a Buffalo Springfield song predating CS&N.

    Awesome blog in every other respect. I’ll be back. :)

    Michael A. — March 27, 2006 @ 5:32 pm

  • Michael A., you are absolutely right. That caught my eye when I was posting the list, but then I forgot to change it before I posted it. Thanks!

    heather — March 27, 2006 @ 5:48 pm

  • Great post. I have a love/hate relationship with most protest songs(Love the songs, hate the hippies), and I am glad to see that I’m not the only PJ fan who “agrees to disagree” with Eddie. These are all fantastic songs. You have the best mp3 blog out there. keep up the good work.

    Aaron — March 27, 2006 @ 7:46 pm

  • i couldnt belive that with all the wonderful scathing protest songs that pure relationship fluff (which i do enjoy by the way) such as respect would make the list.

    i think this list needed some rage against the machine. seriously.

    Don't Need Anything — March 27, 2006 @ 10:05 pm

  • AMEN. HOW could I have forgotten Rage? Killing In The Name Of? Wake Up? Know Your Enemy? I used to love Rage.


    That gets me all riled up feisty-like, gotta go listen to some Rage. Thanks!

    heather — March 27, 2006 @ 10:11 pm

  • Nice to see someone recognize Ochs. Great post.

    TripleJ — March 28, 2006 @ 1:52 pm

  • Heather, you are on fire with this . . . man!

    Jennings — March 28, 2006 @ 5:51 pm

  • There are plenty of new songs that are protest songs it’s just that most of them don’t carry the respect of these old guys mostly because our society isn’t the same as it was when protest songs flourished in the 60′s. For what its worth though, off of Ben Harper’s new album “Both Sides of the Gun” the song “Gather ’round the stone” is a pretty good example of a present day war protest song and he has plenty more on his other albums (Like a King, How many miles must we march are other example protest songs). Also, what about “Ohio” by CSN our was this list restricted to war protest songs?

    Juice — March 30, 2006 @ 1:28 pm

  • There is an mp3 of a great version of “Masters of War” by Carla Bozulich and the Scott Amendola Group at Bozulich’s site – Highly recommended for fans of the song. ~Enik

    Anonymous — May 20, 2006 @ 10:10 am

  • Masters of war is a great song, no doubt about it. And thank you for including Phil Ochs in your list :-)
    (I’m sick of seeing protest lists without his name on them)

    Good job!

    Kesey29 — September 1, 2006 @ 7:25 pm

  • If you want good protest songs, check out this late 70′s early 80′s punk band from Northern Ireland called “Stiff Little Fingers”. They have some aggresive songs (“Tin Soldier”, “Wasted Life”). Some catchy songs (“Suspect Device”, “Alternative Ulster”). And a sad song (“Jonny was”). Do yourself a favor and find some of their stuff.

    Anonymous — September 28, 2006 @ 11:42 pm

  • Hmm, interesting list! I was actually thinking of this subject the other day. I’m not so sure I would have come up with the same songs. The first artist that comes to mind is Billy Bragg. Great English song-writer. He presents an interesting picture of the working-man-Brit of the 80′s. Especially such songs like “Help save the youth of America,” “Between the wars,” “There is power in a union”. If unfamiliar with these tunes, I highly suggest checking them out, and his entire ‘best of’ cd “Must I Paint you a Picture? The Essentials of Billy Bragg.”

    generation-reconciliation — October 3, 2006 @ 5:29 pm

  • HEY!! What about U2′s “Sunday Bloody Sunday”?!?!Im astonished you left that one out as an essential protest song.

    Anonymous — October 9, 2006 @ 10:18 pm

  • Just stumbled upon this terrific post (and subsequent excellent additional suggestions). In the same spirt, I would offer “Signs” by the Five Man Electrical Band (and more recently covered by a group whose name escapes me at the moment…).

    Chris in Madison

    Chris — February 9, 2007 @ 11:29 pm

  • great list. i also like “roll with it” by ani. i think it’s a cover…

    Leslie — March 13, 2007 @ 6:23 pm

  • No love for “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil-Scot Heron?

    Jason — March 16, 2007 @ 10:53 am

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

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