You’ve got to speak your mind if you dare

I’ve written about protest music before, but current events have compelled me to readdress the topic.  The “golden age” of protest songs may have been in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but that doesn’t mean artists from more recent decades haven’t felt the need to compose and record tunes that speak strongly about hot-button issues, some of which — war and racial injustice, to name just two — are the same damn issues we sang about a half-century ago.

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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.  In particular, protest music 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 famously brought marches, sit-ins, demonstrations and rallies, which 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.”

In a blog post four years ago, I wrote about protest songs that had become commercially successful — songs like CSN&Y’s “Ohio,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance,” Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” Edwin Starr’s “War” and Creedence’s “Fortunate Son.”  I also listed another few dozen songs that, while not mainstream hit singles, nonetheless became popular in the both the counterculture and the wider culture of the time.

In this post, I’m stepping outside Hack’s Back Page’s comfort zone once again to write about music — protest music — from the most recent two decades.  It seems entirely appropriate to do so as protestors and law enforcement have faced off against each other in the streets of America these past two weeks.

Here are ten songs of protest released since 2000 that I’ve found worthy of discussion and your attention.  If there are others that strike a fervent chord with you, I’m eager to hear about them.

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“I Give You Power,” Arcade Fire with Mavis Staples, 2017

Unknown-360Arcade Fire may be a Canadian band, but they still have the right to make their feelings known about political power in a free society, be it in the U.S. or elsewhere.  Written by leader Win Butler with help from singer Mavis Staples in the spring of 2016 and released the day before Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, “I Give You Power” is a brilliantly concise reminder to those who win elections that they can lose their political power as easily as they win it:  “I give you power, power, where do you think it comes from, who gives you power, where do you think it comes from, I give you power, I can take it all away, I can take it away, watch me take it away…”

“False Prophet,” Bob Dylan, 2020

Unknown-363The man who offered up such iconic ’60s protest songs as “The Times They Are A-Changin'” and “Masters of War” is still at it nearly 60 years later with a new album of thought-provoking tunes.  In addition to a 17-minute epic about the Kennedy assassination called “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan has written “False Prophet,” which comments on our current situation but ends with hope:   “Another day that don’t end, another ship goin’ out, another day of anger, bitterness, and doubt, I know how it happened, I saw it begin, I opened my heart to the world and the world came in…”  Later, he makes reference to Trump and where he might be headed soon:  “Hello stranger, a long goodbye, you ruled the land, but so do I, you lost your mule, you got a poison brain, I’ll marry you to a ball and chain…”

“World Wide Suicide,” Pearl Jam, 2006 

images-195Pearl Jam has a whole slew of overtly political songs in their catalog, and for their 2006 album “Pearl Jam,” several tracks dealt with the Iraq War and its aftermath, as well as the “War on Terror,” as it was referred to by the Bush Administration.  I think “World Wide Suicide” is the best of the bunch.  Singer Eddie Vedder has never been shy about challenging authority nor bemoaning the horrors of war in his lyrics:  “It’s a shame to awake in a world of pain, what does it mean when a war has taken over, it’s the same everyday and the wave won’t break, tell you to pray while the devil’s on their shoulder, the whole world over, it’s a worldwide suicide….”

“Land of the Free,” The Killers, 2019

images-196A Las Vegas-bred rock band since the early 2000s, The Killers have been led by singer-keyboardist Brandon Flowers, who has written or co-written nearly every song in their five-album repertoire, which have sold nearly 30 million copies worldwide.  Flowers recently wrote “Land of the Free,” a song that makes ironic use of the title to protest issues that still bedevil us in this country, specifically mentioning immigration, gun control and racism.  In regards to the unfairness of systemic racism:  “When I go out in my car, I don’t think twice, but if you’re the wrong color skin, you grow up looking over both your shoulders… Incarceration’s become big business, it’s harvest time out on the avenue in the land of the free…” 

“Song for Sam Cooke (Here in America),” Dion with Paul Simon, 2020

Unknown-365Dion DiMucci, popular singer of ’50s and ‘early ’60s hits like “The Wanderer” and “Runaround Sue,” has re-emerged recently with Paul Simon for a powerful duet about the late Sam Cooke, one of the best soul/gospel singers of all time, who was gunned down in 1964 by a white motel owner.  The lyrics deal with the racism of those times while reminding us that race relations are still tenuous in many parts of the country today:  “I never thought about the color of your skin, I never worried ’bout the hotel I was in, here in America, here in America, but the places I could stay, they all made you walk away, you were the man who earned the glory and the fame, but cowards felt that they could call you any name, you were the star, standing in the light that won you nothing on a city street at night…”

“When the President Talks to God,” Bright Eyes, 2005

Unknown-366Since the beginnings of the nation, presidents have mentioned God and the need for guidance, but none quite as arrogantly as George W. Bush, who claimed to have actual conversations with God.  Conor Oberst, the singer-songwriter behind the indie rock band Bright Eyes, wrote this piece that took strong exception to Bush’s use of God to justify his policies and decisions.  In early 2005, NBC surprisingly gave the green light to Bright Eyes performing the song on “The Tonight Show.”  It was released as a free track on iTunes shortly after:  “Does he fake that drawl or merely nod when the president talks to God?  Does God suggest an oil hike when the president talks to God?  Does what God says ever change his mind when the president talks to God?  When he kneels next to the presidential bed, does he ever smell his own bullshit when the president talks to God?…”

“Million Dollar Loan,” Death Cab For Cutie, 2016

Unknown-367Ben Gibbard, singer-songwriter for the popular alt-rock band Death Cab for Cutie, said he was outraged by then-candidate Trump saying during one of the 2016 presidential debates that he self-made his fortune “with just a small million-dollar loan” from his father.  “He made it sound like anyone could get a million dollar loan,” Gibbard said, “which is just insane.”  Gibbard poked a sharp stick at Trump’s silver-spoon upbringing:  “He’s proud to say he built his fortune the old fashioned way, because to succeed, there’s only one thing you really need, a million dollar loan, nobody makes it on their own without a million dollar loan, you’ll reap what you’ve sown from a million dollar loan, call your father on the phone and get that million dollar loan…”

“Not Ready to Make Nice,” The Dixie Chicks, 2006

Unknown-369The Texas-based, three-woman country group, riding high in 2003 as one of country music’s most popular acts, came out against the Iraq War while performing in England, adding, “We’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”  The backlash from the group’s conservative fan base was fierce and instantaneous, and most country radio stations began boycotting their music.  It took them off the charts for a few years before they returned with “Not Ready to Make Nice,” which reinforced their previous statements, not angrily but with a heartfelt rejoinder that defended their right to speak their minds:  “How in the world can the words that I said send somebody so over the edge that they’d write me a letter, saying that I better shut up and sing or my life will be over?  I’m not ready to make nice, I’m not ready to back down…”

“What About Us,” Pink, 2017

Unknown-370Alecia Beth Moore, better known as the multi-talented singer-songwriter Pink, has enjoyed a spectacular solo career since her debut 20 years ago.  Selling upwards of 90 million albums worldwide with multiple #1 albums and singles, she avoided being typecast as a mindless pop act by writing songs of real substance and using her gymnast-like dancing skills to reach new levels of artistry in her live performances.  When she wrote “What About Us” for her 2017 album “Beautiful Trauma,” she kept it general enough so it could be interpreted to be about a failed relationship, but most believe it to be a political protest song about the Trump administration:  “We are billions of beautiful hearts, and you sold us down the river too far, we were willing, we came when you called, but man, you fooled us, enough is enough…  What about all the times you said you had the answers? What about all the plans that ended in disasters?  What about love? What about trust?  What about us?…”

“Hell You Talmbout,” Janelle Monae, 2015

Unknown-371Not so much a song as a chant with gospel overtones, this track (the title is a contraction for “What the hell are you talking about?”) is a powerful message piece that Monae wrote and recorded with a loose collective of musicians she called Wondaland.  Originally, the verses painted vignettes of three black people who died at the hands of overzealous police, but as more such incidents began occurring, the lyrics evolved into a chanting of names of the victims, imploring listeners to “say their names!”  David Byrne, late of Talking Heads, was so impressed by it that he has been concluding all his concerts lately with his own rendition of it.  A live recording of Byrne with a chorus and tribal drums is included in the Spotify list below.

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I’ve include two Spotify playlists.  One features the recent songs discussed above, while the other offers a handful of classic protest songs from the old days.

I was tossin’ and turnin’ all night

How are you sleeping these days?

It’s common knowledge that a good night’s sleep — six, seven, eight hours of uninterrupted slumber — is crucial to one’s well-being.

images-194If you typically enjoy restful sleep, well, consider yourself lucky, for there are millions of people out there who struggle often with restless sleep, or no sleep at all.  They may have acute or chronic insomnia, brought on by anxiety, stress, depression or grief.  When you want to sleep but can’t, it’s one of the more frustrating things humans can experience.

Insomnia has evidently affected more people since the quarantine for COVID-19 began.  The uncertainty of it all has only increased stress levels and affected sleep patterns for many.

A friend of mine has said he’s been sleeping poorly and wondered if I might put together a blog that focuses on rock songs about sleeping (or not sleeping).  I’ve done my usual due diligence and found quite a few that fit the bill.  Let’s take a look at 15 or so that provide a cross section of views on how sleep affects us.  As always, there’s a Spotify playlist at the end.

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“I’m Only Sleeping” (1966) “I’m So Tired” (1968), The Beatles

Unknown-344When he was with The Beatles, John Lennon wrote two songs that explore both sides of the subject of sleep.  It’s no secret Lennon liked to experiment with recreational drugs, some that put him to sleep and others that kept him up.   For the “Revolver” album, he wrote “I’m Only Sleeping,” which Unknown-6celebrates sleep as a wonderful thing:  “When I wake up early in the morning, lift my head, I’m still yawning, when I’m in the middle of a dream, stay in bed, float up stream, please don’t wake me, no, don’t shake me, leave me where I am, I’m only sleeping…”  Then, for “The White Album,” he wrote “I’m So Tired,” which laments the exasperation of being unable to sleep:  “I’m so tired, I haven’t slept a wink, I’m so tired, my mind is on the blink…  You know I can’t sleep, I can’t stop my brain, you know it’s three weeks, I’m going insane, you know I’d give you everything I’ve got for a little peace of mind…”

“Talking in Your Sleep,” The Romantics, 1983

Unknown-348The Detroit-based group The Romantics had graduated to become a warm-up act for The Cars, Cheap Trick and The Kinks, and that exposure helped them when they released their fourth LP, “In Heat,” which included “Talking In Your Sleep,” a #3 hit in the US and #1 in Canada.  The lyrics talk about a man whose woman has been tight lipped about her feelings, but she reveals her love for him when she talks in her sleep:  “I can hear the things that you’re dreaming about when you open up your heart and the truth comes out… You tell me that you love me and I know that I’m right ’cause I hear it in the night, I hear the secrets that you keep when you’re talking in your sleep…”  (In 1971, Gordon Lightfoot wrote a song with the same title, in which the results are quite different:  “From your lips, there came that secret I was not supposed to know…”)

“Daysleeper,” R.E.M., 1998

Unknown-349Singer Michael Stipe said he saw a “Daysleeper” sign on an apartment door one afternoon and realized how noisy he was being for the poor guy living there who evidently worked at night.  “I wrote this song about a daysleeper that’s working an 11–7 shift,” said Stipe, “and how difficult the balance is between the life that you live and the work that you have to do in order to support the life that you live.”  Said R.E.M. guitarist Mike Mills, “It’s about the sort of alien nature of working a night shift — the weird lighting, the fluorescent lights, the isolation of working the graveyard shift and how it screws up your sleep patterns.”

“Don’t Sleep in the Subway,” Petula Clark, 1967

Unknown-350Clark was a child actress who also recorded many French language songs before she reached stardom in the mid-’60s with “Downtown,” “I Know a Place,” “My Love” and a half dozen others singles that charted well in the US and the UK.  One of my favorites was the intriguingly titled “Don’t Sleep in the Subway,” which centers on a romantic relationship from which the self-centered man leaves in a huff, only to return at the woman’s urging:  “Goodbye means nothing when it’s all for show, so why pretend you’ve somewhere else to go?/Don’t sleep in the subway, darlin’, don’t stand in the pouring rain, don’t sleep in the subway, darlin’, the night is long, forget your foolish pride, nothing’s wrong, now you’re beside me again…”

“Asleep,” The Smiths, 1985

ThornsmithsSinger-songwriter Morrissey, who was leader of the UK band The Smiths before he began a more successful solo career, is an amazing wordsmith with many thought-provoking lyrics.  Many of his songs, however, lean toward pessimistic and morose, even suicidal.  “Asleep,” which served as the B-side of The Smiths 1985 single “The Boy With the Thorn in His Side,” is one of those, in which the sleep he’s referring to is of the permanent variety:  “Sing me to sleep, sing me to sleep, and then leave me alone, don’t try to wake me in the morning ’cause I will be gone, don’t feel bad for me, I want you to know, deep in the cell of my heart, I will feel so glad to go…”

“Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” Lead Belly, 1948

Unknown-354Also known under the title “In the Pines,” this traditional folk song dates from late 1800s, and was first recorded in 1925.  It has been reinterpreted as a blues tune by numerous artists, most notably Huddie Ledbetter, known professionally as Lead Belly, a major figure who influenced everyone from Bob Dylan to Eric Clapton.  His recording of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” in 1948 is considered definitive, and has influenced such latter-day artists as Kurt Cobain, who recorded it with Nirvana in the MTV Unplugged sessions in 1993.  The lyrics question the fidelity of the narrator’s lover:  “My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me, tell me where did you sleep last night, come on and tell me, baby, in the pines, in the pines where the sun don’t ever shine, I would shiver the whole night through…”

“(Last Night) I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All,” The 5th Dimension, 1972

Unknown-346In 1971, songwriter Tony Macauley was visiting Tokyo and was struggling with the time change from England.  He wanted to sleep but couldn’t, so he wrote about it in this famous song.  He thought it would be perfect for The Carpenters, but they declined because of the lyric about taking sleeping pills.  “We don’t do songs that mention drugs,” he was told.  So he offered it to The 5th Dimension instead, who took it to #5 on the charts.  “Oh, last night, I didn’t get to sleep at all, no, no, the sleeping pill I took was just a waste of time, I couldn’t close my eyes ’cause you were on my mind, and last night, I didn’t get to sleep, didn’t get to sleep, no, I didn’t get to sleep at all…”

“How Do You Sleep?” John Lennon, 1971

Unknown-347Following The Beatles’ breakup, Lennon and McCartney took turns writing song lyrics disparaging each other.  McCartney’s “Too Many People” criticized Lennon for sabotaging  the band he founded:  “That was your first mistake, you took your lucky break and broke it in two, now what can be done for you?…”  Lennon responded with this vicious tune in which he belittled McCartney’s lightweight music and public persona, wondering how he could look himself in the mirror:  “A pretty face may last a year or two, but pretty soon they’ll see what you can do, the sound you make is muzak to my ears, you must have learned something all those years, how do you sleep? Ah, how do you sleep at night?…”

“Sleepwalker,” The Kinks, 1977;  “Sleepwalker,” The Wallflowers, 2000

Unknown-352Here are two completely different songs with the same title released 23 years apart.  Both have lyrics that address the disorder of sleepwalking that affects hundreds of thousands of people every year.  For The Wallflowers’ third LP, “Breach,” Jakob Dylan wrote about how a sleepwalking episode might Unknown-353prove beneficial:  “Sleepwalker, don’t be shy, now don’t open your eyes tonight, you’ll be the one that defends my life while I’m dead asleep dreamin’…”  Ray Davies of The Kinks, on the other hand, came up with a more menacing perspective on what a sleepwalker might do:  “I’m a sleepwalker, I’m a night stalker, when everybody’s fast asleep, I start to creep, through the shadows of the moonlight, I walk my beat, better close your window tight, I might come in for a bite…”

“I’m Not Sleeping,” Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, 1999

Unknown-351This swing revival band from Ventura, California, got its name when guitarist Scotty Morris met blues guitar legend Albert Collins at a concert.  “He signed my poster ‘To Scotty, the big bad voodoo daddy’,” Morris explains. “I thought it was the coolest name I ever heard, so when it came time to name this band, I didn’t really have a choice.  I felt like it was handed down to me.”  This track comes from the band’s third LP:  “I’ll get right down to it, and I said, I’ve stopped sleepin’, I told myself I’d never close my eyes again, I’m not sleepin’, I’m doin’ now the best that I can…” 

“You Can Sleep While I Drive,” Melissa Etheridge, 1989

Unknown-359Etheridge has had an enviable career, beginning with her debut in 1988 and still ticking 14 albums later, with both commercial and critical success for most of her work.  She is known for her mixture of confessional lyrics, pop-based folk-rock, and raspy, smoky vocals.  On her breakthrough album, “Brave and Crazy,” Etheridge came up with this fine tune about the desperate desire to hang on to a lover who seems to be losing interest in the relationship:  “I’ll pack my bag and load up my guitar, in my pocket I’ll carry my harp, I got some money I saved, enough to get underway, and baby, you can sleep while I drive…”

“Who Needs Sleep?” Barenaked Ladies, 1998

Unknown-355One of Canada’s most entertaining bands of the past 30 years, these guys have written dozens of lighthearted, catchy songs like “If I Had $1,000,000” and “Be My Yoko Ono,” and have scored high on the charts in Canada but also occasionally in the US.  Their live performances feature comedic banter and freestyle rapping between songs.  Their fourth LP, “Stunt,” is one of their best, reaching #3 in the States, and included the #1 hit single “One Week.”  Also on the album is this track that bemoans the narrator’s inability to get a decent night’s sleep:  “My hands are locked up tight in fists, my mind is racing, filled with lists of things to do and things I’ve done, another sleepless night’s begun…”

“Sleep Song,” Graham Nash, 1971

Unknown-345Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young didn’t last long initially, chiefly because there were four talented songwriters and not enough room on albums to fit all the excellent songs they were writing.  Each went off on their own to create strong solo albums that were well received.  Nash’s debut, “Songs For Beginners,” is a magnificent LP that included not only the hit single “Chicago” but also “Military Madness,” “I Used to Be a King,” “Simple Man” and this affectionate lullaby with its gentle acoustic melody and tender lyrics:  “And when I return, I will kiss your eyes open, take off my clothes and I’ll lie by your side, and then I will wait ’til the sandman has done with you, and as you sleepily rise, you’ll find I’ll be there…”

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Honorable mention:

“I’m Not Sleeping,” Counting Crows, 1996;  “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” The Tokens, 1962;  “Sleeping With the Dogs,” Jethro Tull, 1991;  “I Don’t Like to Sleep Alone,” Paul Anka, 1975;  “Sleeping with the TV On,” Billy Joel, 1980;  “Sleepy Time Time,” Cream, 1966;  “Sound Asleep,” Blondie, 1979;  “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn,” Beastie Boys, 1986;    “Sleepless Nights,” Norah Jones, ;  “We All Sleep Alone,” Cher, 1987;  “Who’s Been Sleeping Here?” The Rolling Stones, 1966;  “Sleeping Around the Corner,” Lindsay Buckingham and Christine McVie, 2017;  “Sleep Walk,” Santo & Johnny, 1959.

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https://open.spotify.com/playlist/2GmiLn6SGdTNDaQ43bTruK?si=i8Ue6NCRSR6wB_XsarjbNw