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  • Wesley Nielsen

200 Years of Protest Music

Updated: Jan 11, 2021

Protest music falls in the small intersection of the venn diagram of history and music.

As music, it is unique in its purpose. Historically, it can show us the political perspectives of the common people or the lower classes; people who otherwise might not have their voices heard.

This is probably best exemplified by slave spirituals. Historical perspectives of American slaves can be found in their music. For instance, the song “Go Down, Moses” was a spiritual inspired by the Old Testament story of Moses freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The song is even said to have been used as a code for the Underground Railroad. “Go Down, Moses” is a perfect example of how slaves were heavily inspired by Chrstianity. Slaves would sing a popular slogan, “I’ll be alright someday,” which later inspired hymns in Baptist and Methodist congregations in the South.

Protest songs in the late 1800s and early 1900s were mostly concerned with the labor movement and workers’ rights: songs and chants to be sung on the picket line. Methodist minister Charles Albert Tindley wrote a hymn, “I’ll overcome someday,” inspired by the aforementioned slave slogan, which was often sung by protesting workers on the picket line. Working women had unique music for their protests, like the song “Bread and Roses,” which was sung in textile factory strikes and in marches for women’s suffrage.

The American labor movement would be dismantled over the years, but its musical tradition was continued by folk protest music. Folk, music about common tales or the struggles of ordinary people, developed into a well-defined genre after the growth of radio, the first radio station being created in 1920. A good example of folk music used as protest music is “I’ll overcome someday,” which changed over time to “We’ll overcome someday.” This version was sung at a strike by tobacco workers in 1945. The strike inspired the Highlander Folk School, a center for social justice, to adapt “We’ll overcome someday” into an inspiring protest song with official lyrics entitled “We Will Overcome,” sung by Pete Seeger.

Woody Guthrie was an early country singer, and a pioneer for both folk music and protest music. His work would go on to inspire artists like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and John Lennon. Guthrie did much of his work in the 30s and 40s, and he grew famous for his anti-fascist music. However, he wrote many songs that criticized domestic policy, like “Old Man Trump,” a song critical of real estate moguls who raised rents and instituted redlining. Today, he is most famous for the children’s song “This Land Is Your Land.” Despite how it is deployed nowadays, the song was actually intended as a socialist anthem:

“There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me

The sign was painted, said private property

But on the back side it didn’t say nothin’

That side was made for you and me”

and this verse about the Great Depression:

“By the relief office, I'd seen my people.

As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,

Is this land made for you and me?”

Interestingly, Guthrie removed all the controversial verses in later recordings, either to make the song more saleable or to avoid the anti-communist fervor of the the early Cold War.

The labor movement had also concerned itself with issues of racial oppression, as exemplified by communist poet Abel Meeropol’s 1937 poem “Strange Fruit”. Two years later the song would be put to music and performed by Billie Holiday. Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is a landmark for protest music and for the civil rights movement. No protest song had ever seen the level of popularity “Strange Fruit” did. It is also remarkable that a piece of music so deeply critical of the American South could achieve popularity the same year that a patriotic song like “God Bless America” was taking the country by storm. The song is not explicitly political, but it was all the more effective at channeling dissatisfaction with the state of America during the Jim Crow era. “Strange Fruit” helped bring lynchings in the South into the American consciousness, despite the song being banned from most radio stations. It marked the start of a long tradition of music in the struggle for civil rights and racial equality. A 2000 review in the New York Times went so far as to call Holiday’s 1939 performance of the song the beginning of the civil rights movement.

It is worth noting that both “Strange Fruit” and “This Land Is Your Land” were written in 1939 (though the latter was published 5 years later). The late-Depression and early war period was characterized by a large-scale, if short-lived, progressive movement toward labor rights and radical democracy throughout the world. For our purposes, it also corresponded with the birth of protest/activist music in the form of folk music and songs pushing racial equality. These musical and progressive movements were soon eclipsed by the war, but would survive to take center-stage later in the 20th century.

The Vietnam War, and the backlash to it, is probably the event most closely associated with protest music for many Americans. Many anti-war songs from the era are still widely recognized today, like Edwin Starr’s 1969 piece succinctly named “War.”

There were more songs as the war prolonged and Johnson dropped bombs in Vietnam. At the first major anti-war protest in 1965, Joan Baez performed a rendition of Pete Seeger’s “We Shall Overcome,” which had become a protest anthem. The same year, Malvina Reynolds released a song called “Napalm,” criticizing the use of Napalm on Vietnamese civilians. The first two lines are directed at the first lady Lucy Baines Johnson:

“Lucy Baines, did you ever see that napalm?

Did you ever see a baby hit with napalm?”

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was another popular movement which corresponded with a resurgence of protest music. The invincible “We Shall Overcome” came to represent the movement. There was a famous performance at the Selma march in Alabama. President Lyndon B. Johnson even mentioned it when proposing the Civil Rights Act to Congress in 1965: “... it's all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome."

The next example has a less inspiring story - Nina Simone’s 1964 “Mississippi Goddam,” which was an articulation of her frustration over racial inequality and also bravely called out politicians:

“Alabama’s got me so upset,

and Governor Wallace has made me lose my rest”,

the complicit role of the media in demonizing protesters:

“They try to say it's a communist plot

All I want is equality

For my sister my brother my people and me

Yes you lied to me all these years”,

and the inaction of lawmakers:

“But that’s just the trouble - ‘Too slow’

Desegregation - ‘Too slow’”

Simone wrote the song in response to the bombing of a black church in 1963, the assassination of Medgar Evars, and the violent backlash to the movement. In fact the backlash to this song alone was fierce: it was banned in several states, radio stations refused to play it (reminiscent of how “Strange Fruit” was treated), and some stations sent Simone records of the song broken in half.

As the 60s went on, and the civil rights movement gained traction, there was more and more activist music, such as “Say It Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud,” inspired by a quote from Martin Luther King which was released by James Brown the same summer that the reverend was assassinated.

As the decades went on, protest music became a staple of mainstream music. During the Reagan era, “Born in the U.S.A.” masqueraded as a patriotic song while criticizing the abandonment of Vietnam veterans and working class Americans. The punk band Ramones released “Bonzo Goes To Bitburg” criticizing Reagan’s foreign policy and calling him a phony in response to the president’s controversial trip to an SS graveyard in Germany.

Don Henley of 70s rock band The Eagles released a single called “All She Wants To Do Is Dance.” It was one of several songs written in response to the U.S. funding of contra groups in Nicaragua. The song criticized American people: your government is killing all these people, and all you want to do is dance.

For all its successes, the Civil Rights movement faced a harsh and destructive backlash, including the war on drugs, overpolicing, and the rise of mass incarceration. Accordingly the music of the movement was continued through rap and hip hop. In 1989 one of the most iconic protest songs of all time was released, “Fight the Power,” by Public Enemy. Hip hop group NWA tackled the subject of police brutality and over policing in black neighborhoods with songs like “Straight Outta Compton” and the succinctly named 1988 song “F*ck Tha Police.” In 1991, Rage Against the Machine raged against the police in the song “Killing in the Name,” calling out deep ties between police and the KKK.

Despite the fact that the US was in a drawn-out war in Iraq, there was no Vietnam-level protest movement or protest music. Dorian Lynskey, author of 33 Revolutions per Minute, a book about American protest music blames the lack of a response on a general “waning faith in hands-on protest.” We in 2021 know that if there was a decline in protest music or hands-on protest, it was short-lived. In 2016, for example, A Tribe Called Quest released the single “We the People…” blatantly criticizing growing bigotry in the country:

"All you Black folks, you must go

All you Mexicans, you must go

And all you poor folks, you must go

Muslims and gays

Boy, we hate your ways"

And in 2018, Childish Gambino released the massively popular “This Is America” which touched on system racism, political apathy, and gun violence in schools. And of course last year, there was a popular uprising across the world for racial justice, which inspired Conway the Machine’s “Front Lines,” YG’s “FTP” (an homage to “F*ck Tha Police”), and Public Enemy’s newest album “What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down?”

Protest music has always been a vehicle of communication for the common people. As we have seen, the resurgence of protest music corresponds with popular movements to change the status quo. In 2020 it called for police reform when mainstream politicians called for the opposite. In the 1960s, it called for peace while the media and government were defending the Vietnam war. It was also a tool of the civil rights movement despite radio stations’ refusal to play it. In the 19th century it was used to advocate slaves’ freedom before abolitionism became popular. The trend is clear: when the powers that be are failing, music stands as a form of expression by and for the people.

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Jan 17, 2021

This is the best thing that I've seen in my life.


Jan 11, 2021

This was a great article that thoroughly explained how music has been used as a form of resistance and in activism for over two centuries, it is well researched and I highly recommend it!


Jan 11, 2021

It was a interesting read that made me realize there's more depth to the history of music and certain songs. I highly recommend it if you have a few minutes.

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