Songs of protest and all they mean

(July 05, 2015)

Songs of protest range far and wide across the planet wherever anyone has something to protest against. Every movement of dissent has spawned its own raft of protest songs, covering everything from slave emancipation to universal suffrage, through racial discrimination and civil rights, to anti-war songs and false imprisonment. Usually, protest songs thrive where a disenfranchised portion of the populace have to resort to protest to get their point across, simply because whichever government, military junta or dictatorship prevails leaves them with no other option. Sometimes those ‘prevailing powers’ tolerate protest, sometimes they do not. 

From these shores and beyond

Protest songs are not a new concept, although you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise; and they are certainly not the province of folk alone. Active protest songs go back many hundreds of years raging against the injustices of religion and oppression. Interestingly though, it’s only relatively recently that these songs have stuck their heads over the parapet to protest openly as people were evicted, impressed, stolen from, persecuted or imprisoned. Taking your protest too far beyond your own village would see you falling foul of the powers that be, and it wasn’t too long ago that singing some protest songs in England would have you pilloried, branded or worse; and in the USA you could wake up tarred and feathered for singing the wrong song to the wrong folk.

Our ‘cousins across the pond’ in the USA spawned folk songs protesting in favour of civil rights – songs that ranted against inequality before the law, again the artists concerned had to be careful where they sung their songs. Such songs grew in power and presence among those who really wanted change and in the way of things slowly filtered into the wider world of the more enlightened. As Martin Luther King observed: “Songs of protest serve to give unity to a movement." So he clearly knew the power of a protest song. Arguably Bob Dylan, was one key folk figure of 60’s America protest, with seminal protest songs such as ‘Blowin' in the Wind’ and ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ although some argue that he was only following in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie and his contemporaries. Interestingly, although Dylan is sometimes considered a protest singer, most of his protest songs come from a relatively short time-period. He then decided to remove himself from protesting, changed his musical style from folk to rock, and alienated thousands in the process, but that’s another story. 

Even the Beatles became increasingly political (John Lennon in particular) and as they did so they delivered some notable protest songs, although most people rarely perceived them as such, and few consider them to fit the folk genre. In the 70’s louder (some may say tuneless) aggressive punk bands became young-Britain’s voice of protest. These bands attacked everything, although their protests were mainly anti-state and anti-capitalist. This violent hate-filled punk culture was in stark contrast with Lennon’s protest songs that promoted power through peace. The punk drive was individual freedom and anarchy. In their eyes, peace and love had failed and floundered, so they wanted direct action. A leading voice of protest in Britain during the 1980s was Billy Bragg. His style of punk folk political protest was easier to identify as such for it reflected many themes relevant to British people at the time – even though they were probably missed entirely by those he protested against.

Notable anti-war folk songs grew out of the English and American Civil Wars and still remain in common use today. In a more modern context, a huge number of songs opposed the USA’s participation in Vietnam. The Vietnam War spawned more protesting than most conflicts, because so many saw it as the first ‘wrong’ war. Also it was truly televised war, which as it went on, increasingly without censorship, showed unpleasant truths. It was also the first war that took place in an era when ‘global communication’ became words we all understood, and the messages of protest ranged far and wide. Such songs were also helped by the fact that many were written and sung by musicians with a global reach and in many cases global appeal.

American musicians most recently wrote songs protesting the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and the actions, foreign and domestic of George W. Bush – now there’s something that was worth protesting against. Famous American protest singers added their weight to the genre, writing songs with increasingly political subject matter but still not everyone agreed. Neil Young sang ‘Let’s Impeach the President’ and half of America stood up and cheered, although predictably the other half wanted Young’s head stuck on a pole – no fear and loathing there and absolutely no problem for free speech in the Land of the Free. Young is of course not alone - Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen are still writing protest songs. Does anyone recall Leadbelly's 1930s blues protest song, ‘The Bourgeoisie Blues’, in which the lyrics state: "The home of the Brave, The land of the Free, I don't wanna be mistreated by no bourgeoisie." Nothing changes in some parts of the world then.

Protest is alive and well

 Lately, folk music found another subject to protest – environmental issues. Although whetheror not ‘fashion’ has become more relevant than ‘feeling’ is another question. One wonders if some protest singers join the ‘green’ protest movement because it’s likely to gain them more airplay than slagging off governments, banks and unelected officials. The sense of injustice and desire to 'make the point' needs a ‘catalyst of force’ to create a protest song of presence, the feelings that create the song must be intensely felt and equally powerfully conveyed. That's why protest songs engendered by such emotions hit home.


The essence of the protest song, like it or not, has to include the elements of passion and truth, for without them what else is there? So where does protest go now? Will it be lying cheating, stealing bankers, over-paid politicians, the effects of recession, the crime of our ex-soldiers living ‘on-the-streets’, the rise of child pornography? They all deserve the attention of people with passion and unafraid to deliver the truth.

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