A History of American Protest Music in 10 Songs
  • MONDAY, JULY 18, 2016

  • Posted by: Robert Steiner

Even if you don't follow the news or keep up with current events, it's clear that we are living in contentious times. With a US election featuring the two most disliked candidates in American history, race-related violence and protests all over the country, and a new mass shooting almost every day, it's understandable to feel sad, confused, angry, or all of the above. Even though it seems the world is coming to an end, it's important to remember there have always been battles to be fought, and one way to discover that for yourself is through music.

Even before recorded music was invented, protest songs are a long-held tradition all over the world, and are used as a way for artists to express themselves, have their voice be heard, and inspire others to take action and change things for the better. In order to put in perspective how far we've come, as well as how much has stayed the same, here's a brief history of American protest music, represented by 10 songs spanning about eight decades. These are by no means the only songs out there, but they are definitely some of the most memorable whose messages still resonate in some way, shape, or form to this day


1. "Strange Fruit" - Billie Holiday (1939)


The earliest and arguably darkest song on this list, Billie Holiday was initially hesitant in singing this tune, but decided to do it in honor of her friends and family who had been lynched all over the Deep South. The song is on the shorter side, but effectively leaves its mark with its disturbing description of a lynching victim rotting away on a tree, exposing the horrible violence Southern African-Americans had to face every day. Many artists have offered their take on the song, including a haunting version by Nina Simone, but it was Holiday who brought the song to the forefront of American culture, and was one of the earliest instances of recorded music being used as a tool for protest.

2. "This Land Is Your Land" - Woody Guthrie (1944)


This may come off as a standard folk tune or even a light-hearted nursery rhyme to some, but Guthrie actually wrote this folk tune after being fed up with hearing Irving Berlin's idealistic "God Bless America" on the radio all the time, especially when the events like the Great Depression and WWII gave very little to be proud about. A bold song with hints of Marxism at a time where artists employing these kinds of themes were practically asking to be deported, "This Land Is Your Land" remains a folk staple and Guthrie's most well known tune.

3. "Masters of War" - Bob Dylan (1963)


It would've been impossible to make a list of protest songs and not include one of the most influential and important songwriters of all time. While classics like "Blowin' In the Wind" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'" usually come to mind when talking protest-era Dylan, "Masters of War" is a lesser-known but incredibly powerful track from his groundbreaking record, 1963's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. A damning and angry track, Dylan calls out the people "behind walls" and "behind desks" who send others to die in battle while making a profit off the fear and destruction. Even while this song was written at the beginning of the 1960s, it only gained relevance as the decade went on, as the rising Vietnam War would change the lives of an entire generation of young people.

4. "A Change Is Gonna Come" - Sam Cooke (1964)


The Civil Rights movement was an incredibly important time in American history, marking a time of great progressive change across the country while also serving as a reminder of how there is still work to be done. A B-side and a modest-selling single at the time of its release, Sam Cooke's personal tale of hope for the future became a defining anthem for the Civil Rights Movement and one of Cooke's most beloved songs. Cooke wrote the tune after being turned away from a white-only motel, and intended to document the struggle he and other African Americans faced every day just trying to live their lives. It's a beautifully composed and emotionally stirring song that will always be associated with fighting for equality and looking forward towards success.

5. "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" - Country Joe & the Fish (1965)


Probably the best known song from Country Joe's legendary 1969 performance at Woodstock, this satirical call-to-arms is deeply cynical and infectiously cheerful all at the same time. Of the many, many protest songs to come out of the late 60s, this song best encapsulates a much darker point of view that directly conflicts with the joyful optimism of the "Summer of Love". Playing on themes like blind patriotism and xenophobic hysteria, the song is directly about Vietnam, but can really be about any major war of the 20th century. Not bad for a sub-3 minute song. It's a simple, fast-paced track that'll have you singing "Whoopee! We're all gonna die," in no time.

6. "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" - Gil Scott-Heron (1971)


Confrontational, controversial, and amazingly descriptive, Gil Scott-Heron's spoken word peace takes a stab at just about everyone, from the people causing problems to the bystanders only watching the problems unfold on TV. As critique on consumerist culture as much as it is a call to arms for those who want to end injustice and racism, this song served as an inspiration for many to follow its advice and demand the change they wanted to see. In a culture where everyone views the world through smartphones, all while race relations have only intensified in recent years, Scott-Heron's words are incredibly relevant despite being written over four decades ago.

7. "Stars and Stripes of Corruption" - Dead Kennedys (1985)


Even though the Sex Pistols and the Clash are both solid candidates to represent late-70s/80s punk, there was no band from this era as loud, rowdy, and pissed off as the Dead Kennedys. This six-and-a-half minute monster spits on just about every aspect of Regan-era American society. Pissing on the Capitol Building, comparing the Washington monument to a boner, taxing religion, "mining the world like a slave plantation," this track is more or less an Anarchist manifesto, and is a staple of the hardcore punk scene to this day.

8. "911 Is a Joke" - Public Enemy (1990)


Being one of the most important acts in Hip-Hop because of their use of music for political and social activism, Public Enemy obviously had a lot of songs to choose from, but for this list, I went with the deep cut featuring clock-wearing hype man and human cartoon Flava Flav. While the song has some pretty funny lyrics and shows off Flav's rapping skills, the up-front mocking of the police in their inability, or rather unwillingness, to keep the African American community safe is especially relevant today, where police brutality has reached disgraceful levels of violence. "911 Is A Joke" offers a glimpse into both how much and how little has changed since its release, and was a crucial precursor for later groups to be even more blatant in their problems with society.

9. "When the President Talks to God" - Bright Eyes (2005)

President George W. Bush was clearly not a liked president, and very few songs from the Bush era capture the disdain and annoyance over our Texas-loving, God-fearing 43rd president better than Conor Oberst's folk-tinged track. As Bright Eyes, Oberst takes the "mission-from-God" mentality that strengthened out of post-9/11 anxieties and rips it to shreds, calling out Bush for his hypocritical decision-making and inability to run the country. Coming off more like an angry rant that happens to include acoustic guitar, it's a masterwork of poetry that will have you more intrigued with each passing line. If anyone tries to argue that 21st-century music doesn't have teeth, point them to this track to convince them otherwise.

10. "The Blacker the Berry" - Kendrick Lamar (2015)


It's extremely rare to put out a record and have people call it a classic a little over a year since its release, but Kendrick Lamar did just that with 2015's To Pimp A Butterfly. An album that explores heavy and incredibly relevant topics like race, violence, and identity, it was tempting to just put Butterfly in its entirety as the final entry on this list, but "The Blacker the Berry" arguably best represents everything Lamar wanted to say on this record. A cutthroat track that explores what it means to be African-American in the US, Lamar holds nothing back in his scathing criticisms of white privilege, the problems within the African American community, and even himself. It's powerful, radical, and even frightening at times, but no one can deny "The Blacker the Berry's" potency in regards to current issues in the US today, as well as Lamar's lyrical and musical genius.

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