Check out the full series, “PopMatters Picks: Say It Loud! 65 Great Protest Songs”.
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, 4th Movement (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.—Mike Schiller
“Strange Fruit” (1939)
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.—Chris Justice
“This Land Is Your Land” (1940)
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.—Dara Kartz
“We Shall Overcome” (1949)
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.—Dara Kartz
“A Change Is Gonna Come” (1964)
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?”—Doug Sheppard
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