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.



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.


“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.



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.

Rollin’, rollin, rollin’ on the river


From the Mighty Mississippi to the banks of the Seine, from the Rio Grande to the Blue Danube, from the great Amazon to the historic Jordan, rivers have provided inspiration for songwriters that dates back centuries.  Oceans, forests, mountains and plains have given composers food for thought as well, of course, but there’s something mysterious and compelling about rivers, the way they continue their onward march to the sea.

They are home to fishes and plant life, they move industry, they provide fun and recreation, they offer baptismal waters.  When settlers headed into the wilderness to establish outposts and cities, they followed or sought out rivers because they knew of the important role they would play in the development of the communities on which they were located.

images-163In the rock era, songwriters in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s made ample use of rivers in dozens of songs, be they #1 hits or obscure deep tracks.  The Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water” and Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary,” while not using “river” in their titles, aptly describe life on the paddleboats that navigate the Louisiana waterways.

The dozen songs about rivers I’ve selected here, and the “honorable mention” choices that follow, do indeed use “river” in the title, and they comprise a pretty great playlist, if I do say so myself.  Hope you enjoy reading their back stories as you contemplate your next trip to your nearest riverbank.


“The River,” Bruce Springsteen, 1980

The_River_(Bruce_Springsteen)_(Front_Cover)Influenced by the forlorn music of Hank Williams’ “Long Gone Lonesome Blues,” Springsteen wrote his 1980 title song “The River” as the story of a young couple whose hopes for the future must take a back seat to the realities of life.  The river, once the scene of romantic interludes, has now run dry, much like their dashed dreams:  “Now those memories come back to haunt me, they haunt me like a curse, is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse that sends me down to the river, though I know the river is dry…”

“She’s a River,” Simple Minds, 1995 

1200x1200bb-1England’s Simple Minds was a hugely popular band in their native UK (five #1 albums), but they struggled to make much chart success here beyond “Don’t You Forget About Me” in 1985.  Too bad; US listeners have missed out on many choice tracks on their other dozen album releases.  The opening tune from “Good News From the Next World” does a sweet job of pointing out how rivers and people’s lives both take many turns as they progress:   “Shadow let go, there’s something you should know, I just found my new direction and I hope you like the key, she’s a river and she’s turning there in front of me…”

“Watching the River Flow,” Bob Dylan, 1971

5c7c961b7ebfb29f9ad5ab3a83dd8063Eager to set a new course for himself and his music, Dylan contacted Leon Russell in 1970 to help him produce his next album.  He had been struggling with writer’s block as he tried to avoid the political lyrics of his early work, and then during a recording session covering older songs, he had a epiphany about how a river’s current could be likened to the creative muse when it kicks in.  “Right now I’ll just here so contentedly and watch the river flow…”  The result was a spirited blue tune carried by Russell’s piano, which stalled at #41 when released as a single that year.

“Take Me to the River,” Talking Heads, 1978

Unknown-271Soul singer Al Green wrote this fine tune in 1974 while visiting Hot Springs, Arkansas, located along the Ouachita River.  The lyrics make reference to the time-honored tradition of cleansing one’s soul by immersion in the river like a baptism, which Green evidently felt he needed after entertaining lustful thoughts of his first girlfriend.  Once he became a pastor, he deleted the song from his performance repertoire for many years.  The Talking Heads used a slower tempo and a swampy arrangement in their cover version of the song, which reached #26 in 1978.

“The River,” Dan Fogelberg, 1972

images-160“I was raised by a river, weaned upon the sky, and in the mirror of the waters, I saw myself learn to cry…”  Fogelberg was born in Peoria, Illinois, which sits on the banks of the Illinois River.  Among the songs found on his 1972 debut LP “Home Free” is this tune that presaged the many tunes he wrote about nature and environmental concerns.  Fogelberg was best known for the ballads that did well on the charts, but each album had deeper tracks (like this one) that showed he knew how to rock out as well.  He died of prostate cancer in 2007 at age 56.

“Green River,” Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1969

Unknown-272For three or four years, Creedence could do no wrong.  Everything John Fogerty wrote and everything the band released turned to gold, albums as well as singles.  They came up with a funky rock sound that came to be known as swamp rock, bringing a bayou vibe to rock ‘n roll roots.  I’ve always thought “Green River” epitomized the CCR groove, with lyrics that paint an evocative picture of carefree rural life:  “Well, take me back down where cool water flow, let me remember things I love, stoppin’ at the log where catfish bite, walkin’ along the river road at night, barefoot girls dancin’ in the moonlight…”

“Following the River,” The Rolling Stones, 1972

Unknown-273“Exile on Main Street” was viewed unfavorably upon its release but now is considered one of their top three albums.  I find it technically sloppy, and I don’t think the songs are as strong as they could be.  They could’ve deleted a throwaway like “I Just Want to See His Face” and inserted the sublime “Following the River,” which had been shelved and didn’t surface until the 2010 re-issue as a bonus track.  “Oh, if I can’t have you, I’ll be dreaming all about you, ’cause you always brought the best in me, I’ll be following the river, gonna join hands with the sea…”

“Rivers,” Lazarus, 1971

images-161One of the great unknown bands of the early 1970s that should’ve made it was Lazarus, a folk rock trio from Texas led by the great singer-songwriter Billie Hughes.  Their debut LP is truly stunning, with gorgeous soft melodies, soothing harmonies and a fine blend of acoustic guitar and piano.”  The album closer, “Rivers,” creatively uses piano to resemble the flow of a river, at first gently flowing and then more aggressively as it hits rapids. In the lyrics, Hughes urges us to live like rivers “which flow freely into the sea, joined in happy congregation.”

“Cry Me a River,” Joe Cocker, 1970

Unknown-274Written by Arthur Hamilton in 1953 as a bluesy jazz ballad, this tune was first made famous by Julie London when her smoldering version was featured in the 1956 rock ‘n roll film “The Girl Can’t Help It,” sending it to #9 on the pop charts.  Hamilton came up with the title phrase as a way of expressing bitter heartbreak:  “You say you’re sorry for being so untrue, well, cry me a river, I cried a river over you…”  Most of the 400-plus renditions of the song echoed London’s approach, but Joe Cocker tried a soulful rock arrangement that reached #11 in 1970.

“River Man,” Nick Drake, 1969

images-162Drake was a tragic example of a very talented musician suffering from “tortured artist syndrome.”  He wrote several dozen beautiful folk-rock tunes over three albums in 1969-1974, yet never achieved much success because of his unwillingness to perform due to a severe depression the made him take his own life.  The self-analysis that marks a song like “River Man” shows his feelings of unworthiness:  “Going to see the river man, going to tell him all I can, if he tells me all he knows about the way his river flows, I don’t suppose it’s meant for me…”

“Find the River,” R.E.M., 1992

Unknown-275“A river to the ocean goes, a fortune for the undertow, the river empties to the tide, all of this coming your way…”  On the closing track of R.E.M.’s popular 1992 LP “Automatic For the People,” the band reminds us of the inevitability of the river’s waters flowing inexorably to the sea, which can be a powerful metaphor for hope.  This talented group from Athens, Georgia got their start as one of the pioneers of alternative rock and eventually evolved into a more pop/rock sound that took them to the top of the charts in the early 1990s.

“River,” Joni Mitchell, 1971

Unknown-276In Canada, Mitchell’s home country, rivers often stay frozen over for many months.  When she wrote this gorgeous tune, she was hoping to escape some painful emotional feelings from a romantic breakup and, rather than run away, just skate away on the nearest river.  The song appeared on her 1971 “Blue” album and has become something of a Christmas standard in the years since.  British singer Ellie Goulding had a #1 hit in the UK with her cover of “River” last year.  “It makes me so happy that people have become new fans of Joni as a result,” she said.





Honorable mentions:

Down By the River,” Neil Young, 1969;  “The Sea Refuses No River,” Pete Townshend, 1982;  “Meeting Across the River,” Bruce Springsteen, 1975;  “Moon River,” Henry Mancini, 1960;  “Black Muddy River,” Grateful Dead, 1987;  “Back to the River,” Damnation of Adam Blessing, 1970;  “Don’t Cross the River,” America, 1972;  “The River of Dreams,” Billy Joel, 1993;  “Across the River,” Bruce Hornsby and The Range, 1988;  “River of Jordan,” Peter Yarrow, 1971;  “Watching the River Run,” Loggins and Messina, 1973.