Symphony No. 9 “Choral”
(Deutsche Grammophon; US: 25 Oct 1990; UK: Available as import)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, 4th Movement (1818-1824)
Premiered in Vienna, May 7, 1824
Whether Beethoven’s adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy” was actually intended as any sort of protest remains open to debate—the origins of the theory seem to center on an editor’s footnote in a novel called Das Musikfest by Robert Griepenkerl. Still, that Schiller wrote his ode to freedom and subsequently switched it to joy for fear of retribution from a Prussian government that was hardly welcoming to revolutionary thinkers, remains an attractive theory. That Beethoven would choose to incorporate such a text at the same time Metternich’s Carlsbad Decrees were suppressing artists in the German Confederacy certainly seems a bold statement addressing such oppression. The European Union’s 1971 adoption of the work as the European Anthem would seem to take the wind out of the sails of any revolutionary power it once had, but the late ‘80s would resurrect its power as a protest song. “Ode to Joy” was broadcast in Tiananmen Square during the famous protests of 1989 and its performance conducted by Leonard Bernstein at the fall of the Berlin Wall later that year (with “joy” changed to “freedom”— freude to freiheit) reaffirmed the revolutionary power of Beethoven’s masterpiece. Even if Beethoven’s intent was simply to express the wonder of living, the joy he felt at being able to continue composing even though by then he was completely deaf, he would likely be pleased at the powerful meaning ascribed to his magnum opus.
Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra: “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue”
Single; available on Satch Plays Fats: The Music of Fats Waller (Columbia/Legacy)
Don’t let that huge smile fool you. Behind it was a superb soloist, a great entertainer, and a man who was under no illusion about race. A Fats Waller song from a successful musical, it sounds at first like an ordinary catalog of woes until “I’m white inside / But that don’t help my case / That’s life, can’t hide / What is in my face”, and later, “My only sin… is in my skin.” All of which seems rather mild now but in the Prohibition Era, such a blatant recognition of race was as radical as a Black Panther salute decades later. It’s not “I’m Black and I’m Proud”, but truth be known, James Brown could have never have coined that phrase if Armstrong hadn’t sung “Black and Blue” decades earlier.
American Industrial Ballads
(Smithsonian Folkways; US: 13 Jul 1992; UK: 1 Oct 1993)
“Cotton Mill Blues”
Traditional; available on the Pete Seeger album American Industrial Ballads (Smithsonian Folkways)
“Cotton Mill Blues” (also known as the “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues”) emerged as a protest song in the General Strike of 1934. Striking textile workers sang the song as they marched to neighboring mills to shut them down. The song echoed in the camps they formed outside of the suddenly silent mills. Beginning in the late 19th century, textile production became the major, and largely the only, industry in Southern states such as North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. By the ‘20s, extra hours without extra pay (known as “stretch-outs”) had combined with the high-handed paternalism of mill owners to stoke significant anger among mill workers. The New Deal and a campaign by the United Textile Workers ignited the strike. “Cotton Mill Blues” captures the sense of unrelenting work felt by laborers, many of whom were first-generation industrial workers used to the rhythms of agriculture: “When I die don’t bury me at all / Just hang me up on the spoolroom wall.” Pete Seeger performs a version of the song on the 1991 release Folk Music of the World, and original strike participants sang the song in the controversial 1995 documentary The Uprising of ‘34. The complete text of the most common version of the song can be found here.
—W. Scott Poole
Billie Holiday: “Strange Fruit”
From the album The Commodore Master Takes (GRP)
After a photograph of a lynching in the American South outraged him, Jewish Bronx schoolteacher Abel Meeropol, using the pseudonym Lewis Allan, wrote “Strange Fruit” as a poem. The song was later performed at a New York City teacher’s union meeting, where a Greenwich Village nightclub owner heard it and later introduced it to legendary singer Billie Holiday. (Meeropol and his wife later revealed their social consciousness again by adopting the orphaned children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.) According to the American Anti-Slavery and Civil Rights Timeline, “Between 1882 and 1968, mobs lynched 4,743 persons in the United States, over 70 percent of them African Americans.” Holiday’s dramatic, haunting rendition of the chilling words—” Southern trees bear strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze”—raised much needed awareness of the inherent evil of lynching at a time when much of the public was relatively indifferent. Holiday reportedly expected retaliation for the song, but plowed ahead anyway, partly because she said the poem’s imagery reminder her of her father’s death. Columbia wouldn’t touch it, so she recorded it with Commodore, an alternative jazz label. Holiday’s song would inspire civil rights activists to realize the power of conveying their message through popular culture.
Woody Guthrie: “Do Re Mi”
From the album Dust Bowl Ballads (RCA Victor)
When Woody Guthrie first traveled to California from his native Oklahoma he was one of the thousands of “Okies”, internal American migrants heading to the Golden State to escape the relentless unemployment and dust brought on by the Great Drought. The Okies received a rude welcome, however, by the Los Angeles police that set up illegal blockades on major highways to keep out the indigent. Guthrie turned the experience into “Do Re Mi”, which he performed in 1937 on his radio program on KFVD in Los Angeles and later recorded on the 1940 album Dust Bowl Ballads. The song uses the blockade to protest against class oppression. As the chorus puts it, “If you ain’t got the do re mi, boys, you ain’t got the do re mi.” If you don’t have money, you don’t have anything. The Okies migrated because they had lost their homes and livelihoods and believed that California was “paradise”, but find it was only a place for the rich. Few songs depict inequities of class so starkly, yet the tune is light and the performance upbeat.
—David R. Shumway
This Land Is Your Land: The Asch Recordings, Vol. 1
(Smithsonian Folkways; US: 18 Feb 1997; UK: 26 Jul 2004)
Woody Guthrie: “This Land Is Your Land”
From the album This Land Is Your Land: The Asch Recordings, Vol. 1 (Smithsonian Folkways)
With “This Machine Kills Fascists” scrawled across his acoustic guitar in big black letters, Woody Guthrie brilliantly captured the experience of 20th-century America in his songs. Whether he sang about union organizers, migrant workers, or war, Guthrie was inspired by the plight of the people around him, and his example paved the way for the likes of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Guthrie was inspired to write “This Land Is Your Land” while hitch-hiking his way cross-country to New York City in the winter of 1940. The song was his response to Irving Berlin’s patriotic “God Bless America” and Katie Smith’s popular version of the song that monopolized the radio at the time. Sick of the gross disparity between the message of that song and the reality of the poverty and depression he witnessed on his travels, Guthrie penned this original anti-anthem to directly comment on the hypocrisy of class inequality and private property laws of the time.
Pete Seeger: “We Shall Overcome”
From the album Pete Seeger’s Greatest Hits (Columbia)
The origin of “We Shall Overcome” is rooted in African-American hymns of the late 19th / early 20th century, beginning as a work refrain that men and women in slavery would sing: “I’ll be alright”. It spread and changed with the generations as slaves were sold from one place to another throughout the South, and was first used as a protest song in 1946 when striking tobacco workers in Charleston, South Carolina, sang it in their picket line. One of the women striking that day, Lucille Simmons, began slowly singing, “Deep in my heart I do believe we’ll overcome some day.” Pete Seeger’s version, recorded version in 1949, is the best known today, having been quickly picked up by the young activists of the civil rights movement as their anthem. When the long years of that struggle were reaching their conclusion, and President Lyndon Johnson vowed to fight for voting rights for all Americans, he included a final promise in his speech to the American people: “We shall overcome.” Since then, the song has reached the status of an international anthem for civil rights: Appalachian miners at the Pittston Coal Company strike of 1989 used it as their rallying cry, Chinese students at Tiananmen Square wore T-shirts emblazoned with the words, and the thousands who gathered at Yankee Stadium on September 23, 2001, to pay tribute to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks joined hands as the Harlem Boys’ and Girls’ Choir performed a stirring rendition of the song. The short, simple lyrics of “We Shall Overcome” might be some of the most influential words in the English language, providing a blueprint for decades of protest music that followed.
Charles Mingus: “Haitian Fight Song”
From the album The Clown (Atlantic)
Charles Mingus had many things to say, and he used his mouth, his pen, his fists, and mostly his music to say them. Of the myriad words that describe Mingus, passionate would trump all others. Mingus cared—deeply. Of the many compositions that could be chosen to define him, “Haitian Fight Song” endures as the best articulation of the inequities that consistently inspired his best work. The song is, of course, about everything (as is pretty much all of Mingus’s music), but it is mostly about the tensions and turmoil inherent in the lives of the dispossessed. Not for nothing was his autobiography entitled Beneath the Underdog. The momentum of the song (after a snake-charming sax solo from Shafi Hadi) stops in its tracks when Mingus breaks it down and, as the band slowly drops out, deconstructs the theme with only his bass, then goes on to say some of the things that needed to be said in 1957. And for anyone who understandably does not wish to analyze or sterilize music that can easily account for itself, let’s cut to the chase: “Haitian Fight Song” is one of the most angry yet eloquent, ardent yet erudite and—this is the key—most jaw-droppingly swinging and kickass compositions ever. It is a statement that speaks volumes and not a single word is spoken. Significantly, this was quite a few years before artists’ statements regarding racial strife became commonplace or mainstream. But this is just one of many instances where Mingus was ahead of the crowd. Mingus led several big bands later in his career, but listening half a century later to the sheer force of sound this quintet made remains a revelation. It is a hurricane that blows through your life and changes everything.
John Coltrane: “Alabama”
From the album Live at Birdland (Impulse!)
Inspired by the disgraceful 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, Coltrane said of his elegy: “It represents, musically, something that I saw down there translated into music from inside me.” It is one of Coltrane’s enduring and devastating performances. Recorded with the “classic quartet” (McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, Jimmy Garrison on bass), Coltrane, already considered one of jazz music’s most emotional and sensitive players, managed to articulate the grief and the rage the occasion called for. A deeply spiritual man, Coltrane also conveyed the immutable senselessness of violence instigated by ignorance, but also, miraculously, managed to hint at the redemption of peaceful power through unified awareness. If Mingus’s “Haitian Fight Song” in part predicted the turmoil around the corner, “Alabama” was directly inspired by an actual event that demanded an outraged reaction. As only he could, Coltrane crafted a solo that is angry, somber, and somehow hopeful; a subdued epitaph for the innocent dead, but also a rallying cry for the not-so-innocent bystanders who needed to join the cause. The Alabama bombing was a tipping point in the civil rights movement, and Coltrane captured that moment where confusion and rage inspired an outpouring of solidarity.
Sam Cooke: “A Change Is Gonna Come”
From the album Ain’t That Good News (RCA Victor)
It starts with the descending flourish of heavenly strings like the clouds opening in a Biblical epic, and it’s soon graced by the most heavenly voice recorded: that of Sam Cooke, the inspiration for Al Green, Rod Stewart, and seemingly every great singer since. What makes the song even more powerful is its inherent contradictions and ironies. Cooke’s spiritually uplifting vocals underscore every word and, indeed, make one believe that a change is gonna come. But what does that really mean? The lugubrious horn-and-string arrangement plays like a eulogy. Simply going to the movies or downtown is met by the ominous warning of “don’t hang around”. And when he reaches out to his brother for support, his brother “winds up knocking me back down on my knees”. Therein lies the greatest irony. Simultaneously inspired by “Blowin’ in the Wind”, North Carolina sit-in protests, and Cooke’s arrest for trying to check into a segregated Shreveport hotel, “A Change Is Gonna Come” foreshadowed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (enacted after its recording but before its release), not to mention desegregation, equal voting rights, and a growing assimilation of African-Americans in popular culture. But there were also assassinations (Malcolm X, Martin Luther King), race riots (Watts, Detroit, etc.), reactionary white supremacists, and of course, Cooke’s very tragic death on December 11, 1964. And the greatest irony of all? What Cooke said to Bobby Womack about the song: “It feels like death, don’t it?”
The Times They Are A-Changin’
(Columbia; US: 13 Jan 1964; UK: Available as import)
Bob Dylan: “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”
From the album The Times They Are A-Changin’ (Columbia)
It’s impossible to select one definitive Bob Dylan protest song, but while his compositions with more universal appeal have deservedly attained canonical status (“Blowin’ in the Wind”, “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, and “Masters of War”, to name but a few), it was when he delved into the centuries-old folk tradition of topical songs that he proved to be his most acid-tongued (“Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”), impassioned (“Hurricane”), hilarious (“Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues”), and in the case of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, eloquent. The trial of wealthy Baltimore farmer William Zantzinger for the murder of black barmaid Hattie Carroll had ended two months earlier when Dylan recorded the song on October 23, 1963. For nearly six minutes, Dylan patiently tells the story, presenting both sides, playing up both Zantzinger’s treachery (“Reacted to his deed with a shrug of his shoulders / And swear words and sneering, and his tongue it was snarling”) and Carroll’s lower-class status (“And never sat once at the head of the table / And didn’t even talk to the people at the table”) with brilliant poetic wordplay, but ending each chorus with the foreboding, “Take the rag away from your face / Now ain’t the time for your tears.” It’s not until the very final moments, when Dylan, after a superbly-timed pregnant pause, sings of Zantzinger’s slap-on-the-wrist six-month sentence, and lowers the boom: “Bury the rag deep in your face / For now’s the time for your tears.”
By taking a story that was an afterthought in the eyes of the media (ironically, Zantzinger was sentenced on the same day of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which got pages and pages of coverage) and displaying it as a very real example of America’s deep, disturbing racial divide, Dylan sidestepped poetic ambiguity in favor of something more direct and immediately relatable, brazenly holding a mirror to the face of a country that was feeling awfully proud of itself at the moment.
Barry McGuire: “Eve of Destruction”
From the album Eve of Destruction (Dunhill)
In the early ‘60s, protest music was the child of folk music and the blues. It was not prevalent in rock music—even the Beatles were still singing silly love songs. But Barry McGuire changed that with his recording of P.F. Sloan’s “Eve of Destruction”. Sloan’s apocalyptic vision of chaos didn’t shy away from laying blame for a world reeling out of control, all to a catchy pop beat. Suddenly, after “Eve of Destruction” hit number one, protest music was mainstream and big business. Others were quick to join the cause, and the era of pop-rock protest music for which the late-‘60s became known began. Moreover, “Eve” distinguished itself from traditional protest music (i.e., folk music) in another way. Instead of focusing on a single issue, “Eve” addressed a myriad of problems: war in the Middle East, civil rights protests, nuclear proliferation, do-nothing legislators, and religious hypocrisy. Considering the current political landscape, it’s as relevant today as it was 40 years ago.
Phil Ochs: “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”
From the album I Ain’t Marching Anymore (Elektra)
Phil Ochs once introduced his signature song, “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”, with a wry definition worthy of The Devil’s Dictionary: “A protest song is a song that’s so specific that you cannot mistake it for bullshit.” While this definition might be a jab at Ochs’s rival Bob Dylan, whose lyrics in the mid-‘60s were becoming increasingly abstract and impressionistic, it does indeed describe the title track of Ochs’s second studio release. The sparsely produced song, featuring just Ochs and his guitar, begins with a series of percussively picked notes, recalling both a martial drumbeat and a bugle’s call to charge. And charge Ochs does, reeling off a chronological indictment of American military exploits, a history of atrocities spanning from the Battle of New Orleans to the Bay of Pigs. Singing in a first person voice, Ochs imagines that he “killed my share of Indians” at the Little Big Horn, that he killed his brother in the Civil War, and that he “flew the final mission in the Japanese sky.” But no more. No more will the singer allow himself to be a cog in the machinery of war, the machinery of profit (he mentions the notorious United Fruit Company, known for meddling in Central American politics, by name). Straddling the line between pacifism and treason, Ochs takes a stand, ending each verse with the adamant declaration: “I ain’t marching anymore.” The song served as one of the anthems of the antiwar movement in the late ‘60s, heard across college campuses, protest marches, and rallies. Sadly, the song’s legacy has been overshadowed by Ochs’s suicide in 1976.