American Protest Music Over the Years

Artwork by Max Kolomatsky

Artwork by Max Kolomatsky

by Karigan Wright

Aretha Franklin, Bob Marley, John Lennon, Sam Cooke, Joan Jett, Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, and countless other artists are known for more than just their popular songs. Their musical talents have reached far more potential than just for entertainment purposes. These artists are responsible for some of the best protest music, using their fame and talent to speak out and make a change.

Work songs seem to be the first recorded evidence of the protest song, being born somewhere in the 1800’s during slavery. These daring yet vague tunes were used as communication between slaves while they worked, and were also used to communicate plans of escape across plantations. Harriet Tubman was a famous contributor to work songs, her most famous contributions being “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” and “In Wade in the Water”.

Follow the drinking gourd, follow the drinking gourd

For the old man is a-waitin' to carry you to freedom

Follow the drinking gourd

Congo Square came next, protest music continuing to develop during the early nineteenth century in New Orleans, Louisiana. Individuals living in New Orleans popularized Congo Square dances, with credit due to ritual ceremonies in Africa. The Congo Square dance was later called the ring shout, dancers moving in a counterclockwise circle, chanting, singing, and playing percussion and stringed instruments, forming a culture and eventually paving the way for jazz music to flourish.

The next popular time period of protest music was during World War I when in 1918, Alfred Bryan and Al Piantadosi wrote: “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier”. This song bluntly portrays the reality of war, going into vivid descriptions of what being drafted is like for the soldiers and for their mother’s.

I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier,

I brought him up to be my pride and joy,

Who dares to put a musket on his shoulder,

To shoot some other mother’s darling boy?

Let nations arbitrate their future troubles,

It’s time to lay the sword and gun away,

There’d be no war today,

If mothers all would say,

I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier.

What still stands today as one of the most powerful and popular protest songs is “Strange Fruit,” written by Abel Meeropol and performed by Billie Holiday in 1939. This song was inspired by a photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Indiana, disturbing Meeropol so much he decided to write about it. Millions of people heard Holiday’s rendition of it and were forced to listen to the horrific actions in relation to racism. Meeropol described the man’s body hanging from the tree as a ‘strange fruit’ making for an obvious and gut-wrenching metaphor.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,

Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

It’s nearly impossible to live in the United States without knowing the lyrics to “This Land is Your Land,” by Woody Guthrie. Despite its popularity, many people do not know it was originally written out of Guthrie’s own anger and frustration with the United States. While the version that you and I know today doesn’t exactly portray this feeling, the original lyrics sung in the 1950’s did exactly that. No one knows for sure why the protest version of the song was not released, though Guthrie’s daughter said she believes it is because “This is the early ‘50s and  [U.S. Sen. Joseph] McCarthy's out there, and it was considered dangerous in many ways to record this kind of material”.

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,

by the relief office I saw my people.

As they stood hungry,

I stood there wondering if God blessed America for me.

Any discussion of the history of protest music would be incomplete without mentioning the 1960s and 1970s. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Phil Ochs are just some of the artists that contributed to protest music at the time, using music to specifically portray their feelings on the Civil Rights Movement, outbreaks of violence, and the disapproval of the United States getting involved in the Vietnam War.

“Mississippi Goddam” was written and performed by Nina Simone in 1964. Inspired by the murder of  Medgar Evers and the bombing of the African-American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Simone recorded her first civil rights song, describing the process as “it erupted out of me quicker than I could write it down”. Simone addresses what it is like to be an African American in the early 1960s, that is, in a place full of violence, hatred, and racism.

Picket lines

School boy cots

They try to say it's a communist plot

All I want is equality

For my sister my brother my people and me

Just a few years later in 1967, Joan Baez released “Saigon Bride,” a song telling the story of a soldier leaving his wife behind for the war. This was one of many songs that directly protested the Vietnam War, as folk musicians of the time began to take on heavier and more controversial topics.     

How many dead men will it take

To build a dike that will not break?

How many children must we kill

Before we make the waves stand still?

Though miracles come high today

We have the wherewithal to pay

On May 4, 1970, four Kent State University students were killed, and nine were injured. These students were killed by the Ohio National Guard when they began firing at a group of protestors of the Vietnam War. Neil Young immediately went to his bandmates and pitched “Ohio” as a way to protest the violent events. One year later, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young released “Ohio,” putting into visual phrases what happened on that day.

Gotta get down to it

Soldiers are gunning us down

Should have been done long ago

What if you knew her and

Found her dead on the ground?

How can you run when you know?

Like “This Land is Your Land”, the 1982 track“Born in the U.S.A.,” written and performed by Bruce Springsteen, is often misunderstood. While at first listen this sounds like a patriotic tune, the lyrics clearly display Springsteen’s true feelings. From describing being constantly beaten down to being drafted in the war, the lyrics portray the America Springsteen was born into.

Born in the U.S.A., I was born in the U.S.A.

I was born in the U.S.A., born in the U.S.A.

Got in a little hometown jam

So they put a rifle in my hand

Sent me off to a foreign land

To go and kill the yellow man

Another medium of protest music that is not always recognized, is music videos. Artists are now releasing multiple music videos for a single album, portraying the message of the song the videos accompany. Music videos have been essential to protest music in the modern era, easily spreading messages to all who have internet access.  

It seems as if the two years since the 2016 Presidential Election has indirectly acted as a push for artists to release protest music. Many protest songs have become more mainstream as America’s political climate shifts with a new president. One of the most popular and politically stirring protest songs of the past few years is Childish Gambino’s “This is America”, released in May of this year. As if the lyrics weren’t clear enough, Gambino released a music video with the song, featuring multiple scenes of gun-related violence. Gambino touches on the 2015 Charleston church shooting, being a black person in America, being a student in a violent society, and the distractions from such violence that entertainment provides. The graphic and abrasive video triggered a great response from the public, Gambino forcing his viewers to see what is really happening in America.

You just a black man in this world

You just a barcode, ayy

You just a black man in this world

Drivin' expensive foreigns, ayy

You just a big dawg, yeah

I kenneled him in the backyard

No, probably ain't life to a dog

For a big dog

 Kendrick Lamar also released a music video with his song “DNA”, which first dropped in April of 2017. Opening with Lamar in an interrogation room, the lyrics portray the struggles people of color are all too familiar with living in America. The interrogator enlightens the audience with the ‘real’ meaning of DNA, that is “Dead N***** Association”. “DNA” is more than just a call to action to change one thing, instead it calls on several problems; the perception of African Americans, violence between individuals, and the difficulty of being a person of color in America.

I got, I got, I got, I got

Loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA

Cocaine quarter piece, got war and peace inside my DNA

I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA

I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA

I was born like this, since one like this

Immaculate conception

I transform like this, perform like this

Was Yeshua's new weapon

I don’t contemplate, I meditate, then off your fucking head

 Protest music has been around for hundreds of years, acting as a channel for protest ideas and beliefs to reach the general public. From fighting slavery, World War I, The Vietnam War, police brutality, or racism in America; protest music is an essential piece of history and the social change that was in part brought about by music.  It is essential to take advantage of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, using art and music to peacefully but resiliently make a change.

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