Back in 1954 in the classic film “The Wild One,” there’s a scene where a biker, played by Marlon Brando, is asked why he’s so rebellious. “What are you protesting?” asks a reporter. Brando’s character spits back, “Whadda ya got?”
Art as a form of protest — in paintings, in music, in films, in photography — has been a particularly potent way of expressing our contempt for society’s ills. Protest music in particular has been around in this country ever since pre-Civil War slaves came up with songs bemoaning their brutal lot in life.
By the 1920s and ’30s, Delta blues musicians like Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sonny Boy Williamson and others wrote many dozens of blues songs about lack of money, lack of food, cheating spouses, broken down cars and other woes of bad breaks and hard times. In 1939, Albert King summed it all up this way: “Born under a bad sign, I been down since I began to crawl, if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”
In the ’40s and 50s, folk music leaders like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger began writing lyrics that exposed the hardships of the downtrodden and the unemployed. The songs espoused peace and humanity, and took issue with political leaders who seemed to have darker agendas. They posed philosophical questions (“Where have all the flowers gone?”) and described the horrors every soldier endures when war is waged (“Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”).
The Sixties became known as the golden age of protest, when marches, sit-ins, demonstrations and rallies occurred regularly in big cities across the nation and around the Free World. And the lyrics in songs by Bob Dylan and others seemed to play a crucial, even central role in the proceedings. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” — these were meaningful messages that, for the first time, were infiltrating the realm of popular music. But even Dylan knew a song had only so much power to persuade: “This land is your land, and this land is my land, sure, but the world is run by people who never listen to music anyway.”
The number one rule of an effective protest song is this: The song has to be great. Musically, it must have a strong, accessible melody/chorus. Without that, the words you’re hoping will reach the masses will most likely fall on deaf ears.
The greatest protest songs of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s have both the music and the words to become iconic, memorable anthems. Only a relative few made a big impression on the charts, but most have seeped into the public consciousness anyway, and have become audio benchmarks for various noble causes, from inequality to war, from oppression to the environment.
Seven powerful protest songs that reached the charts and became broadly known:
“Give Peace a Chance,” John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, 1969
Not much more than a chant full of wordplay and catch phrases, recorded by a ragtag group of fellow travelers in a Montreal hotel room, this song nevertheless became the anthem Lennon hoped it would be, peaking at #14 on the charts and becoming pretty much his epitaph after his violent death 11 years later: “All we are saying is give peace a chance…”
“For What It’s Worth,” Buffalo Springfield, 1967
When a thousand young people showed up on the famed Sunset Strip in West Hollywood one night in 1966 to protest the new curfew laws, the authorities responded with what many saw was disproportionate force. A young Stephen Stills was there to see it unfold, and he wrote about it in this watershed protest song (#7 on the charts), recorded by his band, Buffalo Springfield: “Paranoia strikes deep, into your life it will creep, it starts when you’re always afraid, step out of line, the man come and take you away, I think it’s time we stop! Hey, what’s that sound, everybody look what’s going down…”
“Ohio,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, 1970
Canadian Neil Young saw the Life Magazine coverage of the National Guard shootings of four college students at Kent State and was immediately moved to write about it. He gathered David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash in the studio a day later, and within three weeks, it was in the stores and on
the radio, reaching #14. Perhaps the best example of current events sparking a popular song: “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, we’re finally on our own, this summer I hear the drumming, four dead on Ohio…”
“Born in the USA,” Bruce Springsteen, 1984
Ronald Reagan never even took the time to read the words to this anti-war ode about mistreated U.S. veterans before he attempted to exploit it as a patriotic anthem for his 1984 Presidential campaign. As The Boss said at the time, “I would encourage him to actually listen to it before he embraces it.” In the #9 song, Springsteen’s lyrics bemoan the harrowing post-traumatic stress and shabby treatment of veterans of U.S. military service by our government: “Got in a little hometown jam, so they put a rifle in my hand, sent me off to a foreign land to go and kill the yellow man… Come back home to the refinery, hiring man said, ‘Son, if it was up to me…,’ Went down to see my V.A. man, he said, ‘Son, don’t you understand…'”
“Fortunate Son,” Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1969
At the height of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, it was discovered how many young men with wealth or connections were able to avoid being shipped off to Southeast Asia while other unlucky boys went in their place. Creedence’s John Fogerty found this an outrageous injustice and wrote about it in this #14 hit: “Some folks are born, silver spoon in hand, Lord, don’t they help themselves…it ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no millionaire’s son, it ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one, no…”
“War,” Edwin Starr, 1970
This was one of many songs Motown songwriting team Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong wrote for The Temptations, but it was another version by solo artist Edwin Starr that took the country by storm in the summer of 1970, vaulting to #1. It reached the Top Ten again in 1986 in a live version by Bruce Springsteen, and remains the most successful protest song ever: “War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing! Say it again…”
“What’s Goin’ On,” Marvin Gaye, 1971
After nearly a decade reigning as the smoothest, suavest voice in Motown singing about love, Gaye burst into social consciousness in 1971 with his vital “What’s Goin’ On” album, with multiple songs lamenting the state of the world. The hit (#2) title track, written by Renaldo Benson, Al Cleveland and Gaye, oozes a laconic serenity even as its lyrics cry out in pain: “Father father, we don’t need to escalate, war is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate…”
There are many dozens of protest songs that missed the charts but are still highly regarded and revered for their important lyrics about major issues of the day. Five favorite examples:
“The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Bob Dylan, 1964
It’s hard to believe this enormously influential song, recorded by dozens of artists, never once was a hit single. No matter — it’s one of the most quoted lyrics of all time about the inevitability of change when society demands it: “Come Senators, Congressmen, please heed the call, don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall, for he who gets hurt will be he who has stalled, there’s a battle outside and it’s raging…”
“Get Up Stand Up,” Bob Marley, 1973
One of the biggest selling songs in Jamaican history, this defiant tune by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh has taken on an even bigger role since Marley’s death in the mid-’80s. Just about every group with a grievance has adopted this song in an effort to carry on the struggle: “If you know what life is worth, you will look for yours on Earth, and now you see the light, you stand up for your rights, get up, stand up, stand up for your rights!…”
“I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” Country Joe and the Fish, 1969
Joe McDonald led a ragged, regionally popular Bay Area group that secured a spot on the lineup at Woodstock, and he certainly made the most of it. He first changed his trademark “Fish” cheer to a “F**k” cheer (“Gimme an F!…”), and then launched into his darkly comedic anti-war ditty, which featured “follow the bouncing ball” lyrics on screen in the “Woodstock” film: “Come on mothers, throughout the land, pack your boys off to Vietnam, come on fathers, don’t hesitate, send your son off before it’s too late, be the first one on your block to have your boy sent home in a box, all right! And it’s one, two, three, what’re we fighting for?…”
“A Change is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke, 1964
Just as the civil rights movement was reaching its apex, and legislation was about to bring about sea changes in American life, Cooke wrote and recorded this amazing soulful song that long outlasted its composer, who was shot and killed two weeks before its release. In some circles, it ranks up there with “We Shall Overcome” as a musical pillar of the movement: “It’s been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come, yes it will…”
“Sunday Bloody Sunday,” U2, 1983
Still a brash young Irish band at the time of this song’s release, U2 has since evolved into one of the biggest rock bands in history. With spokesman Bono at the forefront, they have continued to speak out about a broad range of humanitarian concerns around the world. This track refers pointedly to the violence in Northern Ireland in the ’70s, but it’s really more about the centuries-long futility of war: “I can’t believe the news today, I can’t close my eyes and make it go away, how long, how long must we sing this song?”
There isn’t room for a thoroughly comprehensive list of protest songs, but I’ve provided nearly 50 worthy ones for you all to investigate. If I left out one of your favorites, my apologies. (Methinks you doth protest too much…)
Songs protesting war in general:
“It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” R.E.M., 1983; “Games Without Frontiers,” Peter Gabriel, 1980; “Military Madness,” Graham Nash, 1971; “Other Arms,” Robert Plant, 1983; “Draft Dodger Rag,” Phil Ochs, 1965; “War Pigs,” Black Sabbath, 1971; “The Dogs of War,” Pink Floyd, 1987; “It Better End Soon,” Chicago, 1970; “Brothers in Arms,” Dire Straits, 1985; “Universal Soldier,” Donovan, 1965; “Nighttime for the Generals,” CSN&Y, 1988, “Machine Gun,” Jimi Hendrix, 1970.
Songs protesting the neglect of the environment:
“Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” Marvin Gaye (1971); “Big Yellow Taxi,” Joni Mitchell, 1970; “Wind on the Water,” Graham Nash and David Crosby, 1975; “Burn On,” Randy Newman, 1970; “Goodbye to a River,” Don Henley, 2000; “Before the Deluge,” Jackson Browne, 1974; “Farm on the Freeway,” Jethro Tull, 1987.
Songs protesting specific tragedies:
“Abraham, Martin & John,” Dion, 1968; “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” Bob Dylan, 1964; “Give Ireland Back to the Irish,” Paul McCartney & Wings, 1972; “American Skin (41 Shots),” Bruce Springsteen, 2005; “He Was My Brother,” Simon and Garfunkel, 1964; “Hurricane,” Bob Dylan, 1976; “Chicago,” Graham Nash, 1971.
Songs protesting inequality and oppression:
“Give a Damn,” Spanky & Our Gang, 1969; “Inner City Blues,” Marvin Gaye, 1971; “Sisters are Doin’ It For Themselves,” Aretha Franklin & Annie Lennox, 1985; “Society’s Child,” Janis Ian, 1965; “Allentown,” Billy Joel, 1982; “Southern Man,” Neil Young, 1970; “Youngstown,” Bruce Springsteen, 1995; “Woman is the Nigger of the World,” John Lennon, 1972; “Down in the Boondocks,” Billy Joe Royal, 1966; “Respect,” Aretha Franklin, 1967;
Songs calling for activism:
“Waiting on the World to Change,” John Mayer, 2006; “The Rising,” Bruce Springsteen, 2002; “We Can Be Together,” Jefferson Airplane, 1969; “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution,” Tracy Chapman, 1988; “Power to the People,” John Lennon; “Street Fighting Man,” Rolling Stones, 1968; “Lives in the Balance,” Jackson Browne, 1986.
Songs espousing peace and brotherhood:
“Imagine,” John Lennon, 1971; “Get Together,” The Youngbloods, 1969; “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding,” Elvis Costello, 1978; “One,” U2, 1991; “Peace Train,” Cat Stevens, 1972; “In the Eighties,” Graham Nash, 1980.