Protest Music: An Introduction

Protest music is an old art form. As long as people have felt a need to speak out or challenge something music has provided a catalyst for that. In America the protest song has been linked to every major change in our history, from the Suffrage Movement to the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. Music plays a role in educating the public, igniting the youth and rallying the people around a common goal. Even in the days of slavery Black slaves sang spirituals that were coded with messages about obtaining their freedom and finding justice. In places like Mississippi and Louisiana blues and jazz players were really making protest music. It was music of a people who wanted justice. Blues itself is based in desperation and struggle, which was thrust upon the black community since the day they arrived in America.

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In the 1930’s during the great depression and into the 40’s there were songs of workers rights, union pride, and songs challenging the systems that were in charge of our country. Woody Guthrie was a pioneer when it came to folk music and the protest song. Guthrie not only sang revolutionary songs but he lived a life of one. He would travel around to labor camps hopping trains and really getting to understand the people affected by the Great Depression, The Dust Bowl, and the harsh conditions in mining towns.

Guthrie paved the way for a new generation of singer-songwriters that looked at life in a more gritty, in your face sense. The music was raw and simplistic but lyrically the songs had a whole lot to say. Artists like Utah Phillips, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Bob Dylan would learn directly from Guthrie thus taking the same spirit and energy to newer generations.

In many ways, Pete Seeger, was the higher brow version of Guthrie. Seeger, a self-proclaimed Communist, was at the forefront of the folk music boom of the 40’s and 50’s. He along with others began singing old Ledbelly tunes and Black Spirituals in news and too new audiences. They appealed to a wealthier class of folks, the college scene that became enamored with not only these old songs but also revolutionary ideas. The rise of Socialist propaganda led to McCarthyism in America, which targeted many of the folk singers including Seeger himself.

Pete Seeger

By the 1960’s there was a huge counter-culture shift amongst the youth. While in the 1950’s you saw a rise in Communism amongst writers and entertainers, the youth culture was still fairly untouched. Places like New York Cities Lower Eastside was really the main place any counter-culture activity was happening. That gave way to the Beat Generation and some of the best writers of the century but by the 1960’s Rock n Roll had changed a lot of what kids were into. Being writers and poets became a thing of the past, now it was about being loud and saying things that haven’t really been said before.

The 60’s saw the Civil Rights Movement as well as the Vietnam War go into full swing. It was also a time that drugs like Marijuana and LSD became extremely poplar amongst the counter-culture. Growing tensions between the generations over what America meant to them led to some of the best music ever created. While the Beatles and Stones were making girls scream there were other artists singing about Jim Crow and the battle for rights. The likes Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Richie Havens, and others brought attention to the growing issues of segregation and Civil Rights to more and more youth that may not have learned about it.

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The late 60’s into the 70’s saw more and more musicians writing songs that rallied people and openly criticized the powers that be. With leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X rallying the African American community to stand up for itself and speak out, black artists followed suit. Jimi Hendrix’s song “Machine Gun” is a perfect example of this soulful song in protest of the Vietnam War. Bill Withers epic “I Can’t Write Left Handed” and of course James Brown’s “Say It Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud!” became an anthem in Black America.

It was an era of protests against the war in Vietnam in which concerts were a big part of the demonstrations. In 1968 The MC5 played at the protests outside Democratic National Convention in Chicago for 8 hours because none of the other performers would or could get to the stage and play. Festivals like Woodstock began to emerge as a meeting point for counter-culture but also served as a platform for protest song-writers like Richie Havens and Country Joe And The Fish.

In the inner cities riots were breaking out due to frustrations tied to the civil Rights movements and the assassinations of Black Leaders. Militant groups like The Black Panthers gave a new feel to the push for equality amongst Black people and the music followed. Artists like Gil Scott-Heron of Harlem began pushing the envelope further writing songs like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “Whitey On The Moon”. Heron’s jazz/blues/poetry directly called out President Nixon and others in Washington as well as white people in general. It was a goal to give Black People music that challenged them and rallied around a common goal. His lyrics were in your face and held nothing back. To this day Heron is considered one of the Godfather’s of Hip Hop.

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Marvin Gaye released What’s Going On in 1971, which was a revolutionary step for one of Motown’s greatest pop artists. Gaye was frustrated by the troubling times in America and felt he needed to say something. The album to this day is one of the most beautiful pieces of protest music ever written. It caused a stir as his label thought is would be too controversial but in the end it likely opened more people up to the issues of the day in a soulful way. Around the same time in Jamaica, Bob Marley and the Wailers were beginning to make their way into American music with their own brand of protest songs. Along with Marley was a wave of Reggae artist like Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, and others that were speaking out in new ways that most Americans had never heard before. Marley’s “Redemption Song” is still on of the greatest protest songs ever written. It captured Marley’s heart for unity amongst all people but did not overlook the great struggle of his own people.

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The era between 1960-1980 saw so much great music that had such powerful messages being produced. It saw many bands like the Beatles and Stones move from just covering old R&B hits to writing revolutionary rock n roll. The Beatles “Revolution” and The Rolling Stones “Street Fighting Man” stand out as great examples of how protest music reached a wider audience. Creedance Clearwater Revival may seem like good time music but John Fogerty had plenty to say, as did Neil Young, The Flying Burrito Bros, The Byrds, and so many others that had more pop success. Black Sabbath though painted a gimmicky metal band was writing amazing protest music like “War Pigs” and “Hand Of Doom”. The 70’s saw the explosion of funk, which was full of anthems for the people by groups such as Sly And The Family Stone, and even the more Psychedelic Parliament Funkadelic was saying a lot in their own way. James Brown continued to also be a musical leader in Black America with his funk soul revolution. Even country artist’s like Johnny Cash were speaking out. The song “Man In Black” still gives me chills. So many great artists had so much to say, John Lennon’s “Imagine” is still considered one of the greatest songs ever written and it was a cry for equality.

At the end of the 1970’s came a new style of music that burst forth called Punk. While many of the bands like The Ramones were not really saying much lyrically the music itself stood in protest to the excess filled rock n roll monster that was American music. This was fast, angry and did not give a fuck about any rules. In the midst of all this bands used this new genre to speak their minds about the troubles in our world. No one did it better and with more success than The Clash. Joe Strummer had a way of crafting songs that challenged the listener to think more about others around them and not so much about self-preservation. I would say that “Guns Of Brixton” and “Clampdown” stand out in my mind as clear examples of protest music in the early days of Punk. More so than “Anarchy In The UK” really ever did as that was more for shock value.

Even in the excess of the 1980’s and 90’s we saw protest music come out from a range of artists. Singers like Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ Bout A Revolution” stands out for me. Springsteen’s “Born In The USA” is another that was greatly misunderstood and even misused by Ronald Reagan as a patriotic campaign song. The era also saw the birth of genres like hardcore and hip hop. These two subcultures began to push further the boundaries of what you can say with a song. The 80’s saw bands like Minor Threat speaking out against drinking and drug use and avant-garde punk rockers The Minutemen writing fast politically charged 40 song albums. Bad Religion and The Dead Kennedy’s brought to Hardcore and Punk a new way of being angry about things. They were bands fronted by educated people that were expanding kids minds as well as vocabularies.

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Hip Hop itself was a revolution as it was a uniquely Black and American style of music. The themes of hip hop have always centered around the urban experience. Lyrics about poverty, brutality, violence, drugs, gangs, and oppression have been staples with in the genre since it’s beginning. Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five really kicked off the protest side of things with “The Message” and “White Lines” which paved the way for Public Enemy’s epic “Fight The Power” and many others. Black leaders like Chuck D of Public Enemy and KRS-One emerged as respected voices in Black America.

Obviously, I can’t list everyone that made impacts in music with political lyrics but as the 80’s and 90’s moved forward so did the messages. The 80’s gave us many underground voices like REM, U2, and often over looked groups like Fishbone, who’s album Truth and Soul is a protest music masterpiece. During the Alternative music boom of the mid 90’s bands like Rage Against The Machine came out with an explosive sound that was charged by vocalist Zach De La Rocha’s politically venomous lyrics. They would bring a message of fighting against systems of oppression to new audiences and literally open people to new ways of thinking.

Truth and Soul

As time has gone on we still see voices rising up or going back to find the roots of where it began. Sure the music world is more and more about nothing but pop songs and affluence but the voice of revolution exists. Punk rock, hip hop, metal, indie, and so forth still have a huge impact of counter-culture youth and many are saying things that challenge the status quo. Many of the old timers are still around too, putting out songs that say “We aren’t done yet!” I saw Bruce Springsteen this Spring play for the first time and his show is filled with protest songs for the working class. The rendition of “Ghost of Tom Joad” he performed with Tom Morello was so moving I almost was brought to tears. To see two icons of two different generations coming together to create a powerful message like that is the magic of music.

I guess in conclusion with all that is happening in the world right now between Iraq and Ferguson, Missouri there is a lot to say. Many of us play music, write, do art and are frustrated. Don’t let that kill your spirit, instead create something powerful. Write a great protest song or a poem or paint a mural. The beauty of art is it can take what we want to say and give it life. It can change the world around us. So keep speaking your mind, keep supporting artists that speak out, and keep making your own art that challenges us to see things differently.

Jeremy Ritch
Jeremy Ritch is a published writer and poet currently traveling the U.S. working on his next book. Jeremy has had many interesting life experiences and you can hear about some of them on Episode 3 of The Farsighted Podcast. You can get your hands on Jeremy's collections of poetry at his Lulu store. If you prefer you books digitally, Sidewalk Stories and Other Poems is available for Kindle at a discount price. The long and the short of it is that Jeremy likes to write and we all like to read what he writes.
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