The Times they are A’Changing: The Impact of Protest Songs

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An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times. – Nina Simone

The use of protest in music has a rich history that spans across all genres. Some of the greatest songs of the last century spoke out against injustice, oppression, and war. In fact, during times of conflict and unrest, it is often musicians who emerge as the most outspoken critics. Their music then represents a level of anger, passion and determination to bring change. You could consider this article to be a list of ‘best protest songs’. Overall we’ll be looking at the influential history of protest music. 

FREE AMERICA?

In the United States, protest songs date back as far as the 19th Century. In the Civil War soldiers began to appropriate hymns and marching tunes. The melodies would be combined with new lyrics to create politically-charged parodies. A notable example of this is Free America sung to the tune of the British military tune, The British Grenadiers. New lyrics extolled the virtues of the American soldiers through a distinctly anti-British sentiment. While it may not be called a ‘protest song’ by today’s standards, it fulfilled its purpose of uniting people in the face of conflict and uncertainty.

This sense of appropriation can also be seen in This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie. Retrospectively described as an 'alternative national anthem', the song borrows the tune of a gospel song titled When the World's on Fire. In the 1930s Guthrie was a musician on the road. He witnessed first hand the plight of families in the grip of The Great Depression. Guthrie’s encounters with poverty and social inequality turned his music into a form of social commentary. 

In fact, Guthrie wrote This Land is Your Land in direct response to the song God Bless America. This patriotic song was played heavily on the radio in the 1930s. Seeing economic opportunity as a privilege for the select few, the song’s original title was God Blessed America for Me. The lyrics talk about a love for the American landscape. This love, however, was on the condition that its bounty was free for everyone. After all, as Guthrie says, “this land was made for you and me.” By the 1940s, Guthrie’s career was tarred due to accusations that he was a Communist sympathiser. This led to his music being blacklisted from radio or television. The song instead spread on a grassroots level, a testament to the power of protest music. This Land is Your Land gained popularity as a folk anthem across schools, colleges and summer camps despite never receiving substantial airplay.

Decades after its original release, This Land is Your Land continues to be an anthem for both equality and freedom of movement. In an NPR series on ‘American Anthems’, Elizabeth Blair notes how ‘during the tense period of President Trump’s proposed travel ban, protestors sang it to passengers who’d been detained at JFK and Philadelphia International Airport.

HERE IS A STRANGE AND BITTER CROP

While American troops sang patriotic battlefield ditties, slaves on plantations sang folk spirituals. These spirituals combined traditional African songs with European melodies. They served a dual purpose; to boost morale among the slaves and maintain a productive rhythm for the backbreaking work. It is for this reason these songs became known as 'work songs.' They were also used for slaves to communicate with each other, as most were forbidden by law to read or write. This became vital as slaves and abolitionists began building the Underground Railroad. Songs like Swing Low, Sweet Chariot were used to transmit coded messages about escape routes.

Whilst slavery would be abolished following the Civil War, violence against African-Americans remained prevalent. One of the most brutal forms of racial violence, lynching, would inspire one of the 20th Century's most iconic protest songs. Strange Fruit was a poem written by English teacher Abel Meeropol under the pseudonym Lewis Allan. In the early 20th Century lynching served not only as a form of racial violence but also a public spectacle. Photographs of the public executions would often be distributed as postcards. Meeropol wrote Strange Fruit in 1937 after viewing one of these macabre postcards. The title refers to the macabre sight of the bodies hanging from trees. 

Following its publication, the poem became a song performed at left wing gatherings. Soon it drew the attention of legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday. The visceral lyrics - 'the bulging eyes and twisted mouth' were combined with Holiday's rich tone and intense performance. Holiday’s interpretation of the poem led to the birth of a truly transcendent song, as described in Dorian Lynskey's book 33 Revolutions a Minute. Lynskey writes that at this time “protest songs functioned as propaganda, but Strange Fruit proved they could be art.” 

Strange Fruit became the hallmark last song of Holiday’s sets in Harlem nightclubs. The tone of the piece dramatically informed its presentation. Service would halt during Holiday’s performance and there would be no encore. The melodic and lyrical beauty of Strange Fruit could not be disputed. However, Columbia – Holiday’s record label – feared its overt politics and therefore would not record the song. They would instead permit Holiday to record the song with another label, Commodore. Strange Fruit went on to sell over a million copies, a phenomenal success for the late 1930s. 

Strange Fruit continues to receive worthy acclaim nearly eighty years after its recording. In its list of ‘All-TIME 100 Songs’ Time Magazine counts it as one of the greatest songs of the 20th Century. Time described how the song showed ‘beautiful humanity in such a shameful topic.’  

THERE'S FAR TOO MANY OF YOU DYING 

Billie Holiday’s genre of choice, jazz, was a staple of what is now known as the Harlem Renaissance. The predominantly African-American New York borough began to flourish as an epicentre of art, music, literature, and politics. Black people soon found themselves in a contradictory bind. They were considered to be cultural tastemakers whilst still being treated as second-class citizens. Music would then become fundamental to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. While Strange Fruit embraced the unsettling power of metaphor, protest songs would be used to make bold, clear statements:

Picket lines and picket signs

Don’t punish me with brutality 

What’s Going On - Marvin Gaye (1971) 

The 1960s and 1970s were pivotal decades for protest music in the United States. Looking back, this period of time can be defined by conflict not just at home, but also overseas. The Vietnam War is arguably one of the most polarising conflicts in American history. Many young Americans opposed their country’s ‘interventionist’ foreign policy. However, their opposition did not stop some from being drafted for mandatory military service. Over the next few years, musicians would give a voice to the collective sense of dissent.

Protest songs would change dramatically as the conflict endured. The ‘peace and love’ approach of the 1960s can be seen in the popularity of folk music. Songs such as Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind and Get Together by The Youngbloods extolled the importance of non-violence and harmony. However, as the war raged on this approach began to feel fruitless. As public support for the war soured, Vietnam protest songs of the 1970s conveyed a sense of frustration and anger. One of the most iconic examples of this is War by Edwin Starr. The song served as a bombastic call to arms, brought to life by Starr's James Brown-inspired "soul shouting." Starr pleads to the powers that be to question the purpose of war, with ‘what is it good for? Absolutely nothing’ undoubtedly being the song’s most memorable line.

Like Strange Fruit decades before, War's subject matter hindered the song’s release. War was originally recorded by The Temptations for their album Psychedelic Shack. However, it was not released as a single due to fear of alienating the band’s more conservative fans. By this time, however, the song was surging in popularity on college radio stations. Motown compromised by re-recording War with a different act. Edwin Starr was already signed with Motown but considered a ‘second string’ act. However, when War was released in June 1970, Starr was catapulted to mainstream recognition. The song was number one in the charts for three weeks and is widely regarded as one of the first protest songs to become a pop hit. 

WE’VE GOT TO FIGHT THE POWERS THAT BE 

Hip-hop originated in the late 1970s in New York City. It grew from the city’s poorest boroughs, which were predominantly African-American and Latino. At the time, these communities faced a multitude of issues, from poverty and gang crime to drug use and police brutality. The latter in particular was a highly contentious issue. The 1980s and 1990s saw several high-profile allegations of police brutality in New York. This inspired a wave of ‘resistance’ narratives in African-American culture. One of the most renowned examples of these narratives is Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing and the title track Fight the Power by Public Enemy. Like many protest songs, Fight the Power serves as a collective call to arms. The iconic chorus beseeches ‘brothers and sisters’ to band together in the face of oppression: 

Fight the power (lemme hear you say)

Fight the power

Fight the power

Fight the power

Fight the power

Fight the power

We've got to fight the powers that be 

- Fight the Power – Public Enemy (1989)

Public Enemy were approached by Lee to compose the title track for Do the Right Thing. The movie that tracked simmering racial tensions over a day in Brooklyn, culminating in the death of an African-American teenager at the hands of a policeman. Lee dedicated Do the Right Thing to six victims of police brutality and their families. This makes the defiant, socially-conscious narrative of Fight the Power all the more resonant. This narrative was summed up succinctly by Public Enemy’s bass player Brian Hardgroove: “Fight the Power is not about fighting authority—it’s not that at all. It’s about fighting abuse of power.”

While the political resonance of hip-hop never truly abated, it has resurged in recent years with the Black Lives Matter movement. The movement was catalysed after the fatal shooting of teenager Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The public outcry following the shooting resulted in waves of protest and riots. Once again, 21st Century protest songs asked the masses to band together in the face of injustice.

One of the most prominent musicians involved in the “Black Lives Matter” movement is Kendrick Lamar. His album To Pimp a Butterfly was released in 2015 to universal acclaim. In a New York Times article that described him as a ‘generational spokesman’, Lamar was quoted as saying: “The album did what I wanted it to do. That’s not necessarily to sell tonnes of records – though it didn’t do bad at that either – but to actually have an impact on the people and on the culture of music.” What makes To Pimp a Butterfly so profound is that, while it doesn’t shy away from the harsh reality of conflict and violence, it also has a message of hope and unity. This is no more evident than in his song Alright, informally adopted as the anthem of Black Lives Matter:

I rap, I'm black, on track so rest assured

My rights, my wrongs are right till I'm right with God 

-       Alright – Kendrick Lamar (2015)

 Songs with this message remind us of the purpose of protest: to highlight struggles and inequality, but also to unite people and to conceive of a better future. Music continues to bring people together across communities, to remind people that they do not have to face hardship alone.

 Do you want to mobilise a new generation? Do you want your music to make a statement? Make sure that your recording is as powerful as your message. Book your next studio session at Kore Studios today.