Updated: Oct 6, 2019
You are outraged and have written a protest song. You’d like it to be a part of the catalyst for change; march out in the streets, sing it, have all the radio stations play it with a new anthem for a better world out there and change on its way. Well…it’s happened before.
According to Wikipedia, a protest song is “a song that is associated with a movement for social change and hence part of the broader category of topical songs (or songs connected to current events). It may be folk, classical, or commercial in genre.”
Let’s face it, these times are screaming for protest songs and yet new protest songs are not exactly filling our media stream in this era. They are being written, but not really reaching a big audience.
During the late 50’s into the early 70’s the protest song enjoyed a Renaissance. There was a Folk Boom blossoming in popular culture in the late 50’s, along with the actions of the Civil Rights Movement. “We Shall Overcome”, arguably the most iconic and sing-along-able protest number still in use today, seemed to be the triggering battle cry. Pete Seeger is largely credited for bringing the number to international attention; variations of the song were in the ether since at least the early 1900’s. Seeger heard the song in 1947 from folklorist Zilphia Horton, he altered the title from, We Will Overcome and brought a new sense of rhythm to it. So really it was a team effort.
How do we get new protest songs that help us all feel like a change can come? These days comedians are picking up the slack. Sometimes the greatest relief is hearing a comedian skewer the news of the day. They have daily access to your attention, sympathize with your frustrations and package it all by taunting the oppressor in a way that feels, oh, so just.
Jon Stewart’s shaming of Congress to pass the September 11th Victim Compensation Bill used the same kind of star power that allowed Neil Young to get the protest song “Ohio” on the radio across the United States only ten days after the Kent State Massacre. Neil Young is still writing protest songs, they are just not becoming anthems. He wants you to know how messed up Monsanto is. But his new material doesn’t get that massive level of attention these days.
We all can and should write protest songs. You can put them online, try adding them to Spotify playlists, make videos for YouTube, and sing them at protests. Or maybe it is your role to find a song already in the ether, update it, and aid in bringing it to international recognition.
The modern pop music world needs to step up and use their star power to sing about something other than how fine their or your body is. Taylor Swift speaking out against Trump after he is already unpopular is a far cry from Bob Dylan’s “Masters Of War.” An August 2019 article in Vanity Fair stated, “Swift believed her public image would have made her something of “a hindrance,” but she’s gotten past that.” Well, I’m glad she is finally finding her voice, but it appears the latest musical pop stars may just be lacking substance.
Hopefully, the industry will enjoy a more inspired time where lyrics on the level of poetry make a comeback in Pop Music. That would surely aid in bringing forth more popular protest songs.
10 beautiful Protest Songs 1939-2019:
1) Nazi Punks Fuck Off- Dead Kennedys
2) Voicemail For Jill- Amanda Palmer
3) Billie Holiday- Strange Fruit
4) Johnny Cash- What Is Truth
5) I Ain’t Marching Anymore- Phil Ochs
6) Loretta Lynn- The Pill
7) Legalize It- Peter Tosh
8) Ani DiFranco- To The Teeth
9) Fuck The Police- NWA
10) The Revolution Will Not Be Televised- Gil Scott Heron
Let’s hope the protest song returns to prominence one day. It might just occur as folks begin asking, “Why is everyone getting so heavy? “Whatever happened to all of those great comedians from the early 21st century?”