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A Retrospective Look at Protest Songs

"War! Huh! Good God Y'all…What is it good for? Absolutely Nothin'!"

Though sentiment to war has changed much since Edwin Starr's "War," released during the Vietnam War, protest songs are as old as war itself. And, although you're more likely to find a love song than a war-related song on the airwaves, the "genre" of the protest song is still around, offering up much social commentary and insight into worldviews and the musicians singing about it.

Here is a brief history of the protest song in modern (read: mid20th and 21st century) popular music. It's much more than Bob Dylan on an acoustic guitar. It is a rich tradition with a wide variety of sounds and voices.


American Bandstand and Elvis ruled--this was the time before the boom of protest songs that emerged in the next twenty years.

Yet some examples remain: the Kingston Trio's "Tom Dooley," Harry Belafonte's "Day-O," among others.

Many songs turned romantic, focused on how the war affected people's love lives, such as on The Heartbeats' "Daddy's Home (Thousand Miles Away)" - a look at the semi-ritual of the man coming home from war, and the relief it brought - "Daddy's home to stay/ I'm not a thousand miles away/ Daddy's home to stay" and "I'd like to thank you for waiting patiently." Or on "Mr. Lonely" by Bobby Vinton: "Now I'm a soldier, a lonely soldier/Away from home through no wish of my own/That's why I'm lonely, I'm Mr. Lonely/I wish that I could go back home."

The first post-war (as in World War II) decade was seemingly quiet of protest songs. With a civil rights movement yet to come, and the Vietnam War years on the horizon, the 50s seemed to be direct opposite of the musical landscape in the following decade.


The far-from-perfect world of the 1960s provided much inspiration to musicians seeking to protest. They used Woody Guthrie's example, plus musical styles drawn from folk, gospel, bluegrass, and blues, to create protest songs.

These songs were both political and spiritual. One of the leaders of the 1960s protest song movement was Pete Seeger, who published a magazine called Sing Out!. Some of the most important performers in the movement, as well as the era, were; Phil Ochs, Eric Andersen, the group Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan.

With the start of the Vietnam War, the protest song was in vogue again. While in other decades the genre seemed to (pardon the pun) die out, in the 1960s and 1970s musicians felt that there were a multitude of worthwhile events to protest (unfortunately a sign of the times, but fortunate for the great music and messages created).

Obviously, protest songs are at home during demonstrations and protests. In this era, with civil-rights, female and sexual liberation, and anti-war movements all swirling around, the protest song was creating some anti-national anthems accessible to protesters, who were provided simple melodies to sing and play. Songs such as Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction" blanketed the radio. Shaggy-haired hippies brought battered guitars to demonstrations, where they serenaded the faithful with impassioned renditions of "Blowin' in the Wind" or "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"

During another bed-in in Montréal, Québec, Canada, John Lennon sang a new song he had written, "Give Peace a Chance." It became one of the most popular songs of the anti-war movement. At a November 15, 1969, war protest in Washington, D.C., Pete Seeger led a crowd of about 250,000 people as they sang the song over and over again.


Perhaps the protest song that's endured the longest and "enjoyed" the most popularity is "Imagine" by John Lennon. The song is clearly a classic, creating so much inspiration that the piano it was composed on was a highly sought collector's item in a recent auction.

As part of their plea and perhaps as a reflection of the Vietnam War, protest songs became increasingly less about how great peace is and more about how horrific war and violence are. Through showcasing the horrible statistics of war, the protest song became oral history, such as how Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Ohio" documents the 1970 killings of four anti-war protesters at Kent State.

In 1975, protesting the Vietnam War was no longer an option, but that didn't stop musicians. They turned their sights on the unnecessary violence that still existed in the world. A major component was anti-nuclear weapons.

Much of Bob Marley's catalog was rooted in protest. A good amount of Marley's music emerged in the 1970s, most of which was inspired by his own experience. For example, one such song was about a 1976 assassination attempt, which inspired "Ambush in the Night."


With Bruce Springsteen's backside on the cover, "Born in the USA" became an anthem with a chorus everyone knew. But the verses told a different story: "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" and "I had a brother at Khe Sahn fighting off the Viet Cong/They're still there, he's all gone."

Same with "99 Red (Luft) Balloons" by Nena. A pop hook and catchy new wave music seem to mask audience appreciation of Nena's commentary on nuclear bomb devastation.

Don Henley's "All She Wants To Do Is Dance" provided music that was easy to dance to, and made ironic with lyrics about Molotov cocktails being thrown around the oblivious dancing American. It also mentions how "the boys (presumably the CIA, NSA, etc.) are making a buck or two." The song is actually protesting US involvement in Nicaragua.


The protest song was gobbled up and spit out in the 1990s. It was turned into the decade's lyrics of choice for many an anti-establishment punk band. Completely different from anything Bob Dylan would play, the protest song was now pumped up with layers of guitars, and vocals that were screamed more than sung. Yet, the anger of the protest remained.

Pennywise protested war in "Homeless," citing the folly of spending money on foreign problems while hungry mouths multiply at home. The non-stop activism of Rage Against the Machine debuted in the 1990s. And Oi! music also noted a resurgence - important to the topic of protest songs in such bands' countless lyrics devoted to the mistreatment of veterans.

A wide variety of rap from acts such as NWA, Public Enemy and others picked up the slack, focusing on the ills of government, including the shuffling off of black men to war to die.

U2 and the Cranberries were both beacons of music advocating non-violence, in such tracks as the Cranberries "Zombie," about a child killed in a car bombing. U2 focused on war in Ireland, and its' leader Bono became a well-known peace advocate internationally.

Yet, to many it was clear that inspiration to create a protest song (and in some eyes the reasons to create such music) was lacking, as apathy was as rampant as Saved By the Bell reruns in the 1990s. To quote Liam Gallagher of Oasis, when asked about rival band Blur's involvement with Stop the War: "Nobody's gonna listen to knobhead out of Blur ... no one even listens to Bono."


Now more than thirty years removed from the "heyday" of the protest song, the Top 40 is totally devoid of such fare. The resurgence of the "pop song" as sung by teenybopper bands has created an environment such that when protest songs were attempted, most made as much lyrical sense as the aforementioned pop songs.

With the recent war in Iraq, the Beasties Boys released "In A World Gone Mad": "Now don't get us wrong 'cause we love America/ But that's no reason to get hysterica/ They're layin' on the syrup thick/ We ain't waffles we ain't havin' it." Outside of every other song in the Rage Against the Machine catalog and System of a Down's "Boom," the current era's most popular protest song is a more than 20-person cover of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," complete with rap verses from Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit and rapper Eve. It's in this environment that Sleater-Kinney asks, in the trio's 2002 song "Combat Rock," "Where is the protest song?"

Much of the protesting this decade is a response to the attacks made on September 11, 2001. Attempts to capture the emotions behind such an event ranged widely. Some examples range from Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising," to country singer Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red White and Blue (The Angry American)." Because, with its snarling, "You'll be sorry that you messed with the US of A/Cuz we'll put a boot in your ass," it is the antithesis of the protest song from the mid1960s/'70s.

Since the 90s, radio and video music television have been dominated less by artistry and more by profits, which has affected the distribution of protest songs greatly. According to The Capital Times, the monopolistic effects of corporate radio were seen prominently post-Sept. 11: "Such singular domination of the airwaves was notably demonstrated following the Sept. 11 attacks, when radio giant Clear Channel Communications issued a memo suggesting certain "insensitive" songs -- including AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" and John Lennon's "Imagine" -- not be played. The Texas-based company has denied that any songs were actually banned." The more recent examples of protest songs show the fluidity (or some say the limitations) of the genre. You don't have to have an angelic or scraggily voice and play acoustic guitar to create one. You don't have to be in an anti-establishment punk band. You can be Lenny Kravitz. There's plenty of protest songs that have nothing to do with war, that instead speak out against racism, social injustice, government structures and speak up for equality, freedom and bringing down the man.

Musicians today use their art as a means to a message, whether it be superficial "Oh baby baby how was I supposed to know/ Oh pretty baby I shouldn't have let you go" or something with a more rallying call.

The study of protest songs showcases lyrics, not the instrumentation. It's hard to make an instrumental protest song. To find the lyrics to your favorite protest song, or to discover if that catchy pop song is really dissing the Iran-Contra affair (ala Don Henley) visit one of the many online lyric databases, such as http://channels.netscape.com/ns/music/ch/songs_lyrics.jsp Or www.kissthisguy.com, or www.amiright.com.

Catherine Galioto is Features Editor. Contact her at ms.matilda@rockzone.com.

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