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”â€”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 /â€˜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 â€˜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 â€˜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.