Suffragists Protest Woodrow Wilson's Opposition to Woman Suffrage, October 1916 / Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Say It Loud! 100 Great Protest Songs: Part 1 – Beethoven to Janis Ian

PopMatters has scoured the musical spectrum for the best examples of the protest song form, including anthems of great popularity and obscurity alike. Stay tuned all week as we unveil the top 100.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, 4th Movement (1818-1824)

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

Traditional: “Go Down, Moses” (Circa 1850)

While the civil rights activists of the ’60s/’70s movement and rappers today often compare the plight of the African-American to the condition of pre-Civil War slavery, the people who lived during that period of slavery compared their situation with a much older story: the Israelites in captivity in Egypt. The spirituals song by African-Americans in the 1800s paved the way for much of the American music that followed it, especially in its direct influence on gospel and blues music. But often, the songs, which contained religious lyrical allusions to Biblical scenes such as the Jordan River and Egypt, were also used as code by Harriet Tubman and others on the Underground Railroad.

Sarah H. Bradford recorded Tubman, herself known to many as Moses, saying, “If I sing: Moses go down in Egypt / Till ole Pharo’ let me go…den dey don’t come out, for dere’s danger in de way.” [sic] “Go Down, Moses,” preserved for us by the Fisk Jubilee Singers who published it in 1872 and the Tuskegee Institute Singers who recorded it in 1914, thunders through history as a reminder that freedom often must be demanded, as the song roars, “Let my people go.” – Chris Thiessen

Arnold Schoenberg: Variations For Orchestra, Op. 31 (1926-1928)

The avant-garde has long embraced disruption of form—whether in literature, visual art, or music—as a primary means of protest against the refined tastes of bourgeois culture. The dyspeptic doyen of high modernism, Theodor W. Adorno, in particular held that any art worthy of being designated as such must necessarily be difficult to digest in opposition to the pleasantries of “good taste” in order to expose the barbarity of life under capitalism. He largely based his posthumous masterpiece Aesthetic Theory using this interpretation to champion the atonal music of composer Arnold Schoenberg.

Variations for Orchestra is Schoenberg’s first composition for a large ensemble using the 12-tone row, which he developed as a means of escape from the melodic restrictions of Western musical convention. It caused a riot when it was premiered by the Berlin Philharmonic and generally received unfavorable reviews. Of the “Variations,” Schoenberg notes: “Far be it from me to question the rights of the majority. But one thing is certain: somewhere there is a limit to the power of the majority; it occurs, in fact, wherever the essential step is one that cannot be taken by all and sundry.” Schoenberg is now considered one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century. – Vince Carducci

Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra: “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” (1929)

Don’t let that huge smile fool you. Behind it was a superb soloist, a charismatic 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. – Jason Gross

Pete Seeger: “Cotton Mill Blues” (1934)

“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

Robert Johnson: “Hellhound on My Trail” (1937)

Though many have interpreted Delta blues legend Robert Johnson’s haunting track “Hellhound on My Trail” to be an essential piece in the mythology surrounding the alleged selling of his soul to the devil, it’s easy to hear parallels between that mythos and the reality African-Americans faced in the early 1900s. The legend goes that Johnson exchanged his soul in order to pioneer and master the Delta blues that would impact the trajectory of American music.

However, the reality (as pointed out by race relations expert Dr. Karlos K. Hill in his excellent study) is that Johnson probably took inspiration from the story of his stepfather Charles Dodd’s flight from attempted lynching in 1909. Thousands of African-Americans were lynched in the early decades of the 20th century. Thus, once you’ve put Johnson’s classic blues track in that context, it’s hard to unhear the relation to the terror of a lynch mob as Johnson laments, “I got to keep movin’ / Blues fallin’ down like hail / And the days keeps on worryin’ me / There’s a hellhound on my trail.” Though it’s not an outright protest anthem by any means, it’s a song that protests the injustice of the time and yearns for a brighter tomorrow. – Chris Thiessen

Billie Holiday: “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

Woody Guthrie: “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 hitchhiking 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

Traditional: “Bella Ciao” (1943)

“Bella Ciao” is a protest song that has endured beyond the historical moment that birthed it. An anthem of left-wing partisans resisting the Nazi occupation of Italy during World War II, it now is an international hymn of liberation from tyranny. (In 2012, with new lyrics, it became “Do It Now”, a broadside against climate change.) In the decades since the war, “Bella Ciao” has been performed and recorded by a myriad of performers, among them the Italian-born French singer and actor Yves Montand, the Italian folk band Modena City Ramblers, Spanish-French rocker Manu Chao, the Swingle Singers, and Bosnian composer Goran Bregovic.

Additionally, the song’s translations into other languages reaches double digits. The music is based on a northern Italian song popular with women who worked in the Po Valley rice fields, “Alla mattina appena alzata”, which translates to “I just got up in the morning”. The opening lines of “Bella Ciao” echo this with a gender switch from the feminine (“alzata”) to the masculine: “Una mattina mi son svegliato” (one morning I woke up). The lyrics (whose author is unknown) are from the point of view of a Resistance fighter saying goodbye to his love (“bella ciao”); if he dies, he wants her to “Bury me up in the mountain / Under the shadow of a beautiful flower”. – George de Stefano

Pete Seeger: “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

Charles Mingus: “Haitian Fight Song” (1957)

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’s 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. – Sean Murphy

Max Roach: We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite (1960)

Released as both the Civil Rights and African independence movements were gathering force, We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite has lost none of its power and relevance after nearly 60 years. Comprising five tracks written by legendary jazz drummer Max Roach and featuring vocalist Abbey Lincoln (who later married Roach), the album is a protest suite that progresses through eras of African-American history. The music blends traditional African-American forms (the blues, spirituals) and aspects of avant-garde jazz (Lincoln’s one-minute-plus, wordless screaming on “Triptych: Prayer, Protest, Peace”, collective improvisation, and no piano to provide melodic and harmonic support).

The collaboration between Roach and lyricist Oscar Brown was originally intended for the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. But events in the US and Africa (including the March 1960 massacre of black South Africans by the apartheid regime in the Sharpeville township) led to a change in direction and content. Roach, who admired Malcolm X, and Brown, more aligned with Martin Luther King’s nonviolence, had a falling out, and the collaboration was aborted.

As its subtitle makes clear, the album reflects Roach’s vision. In the current era of repression and resistance, with a brazenly racist administration in Washington and movements like Black Lives Matter in the streets, We Insist! not only still sounds fresh; it is a potent reminder of how art and politics can be in dialogue with each other and engaged with history. – George de Stefano

John Coltrane: “Alabama” (1963)

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’s one of Coltrane’s most 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. – Sean Murphy

Bob Dylan: “Masters of War” (1963)

Protest music can be tricky to judge because of its reflection on a particular era and susceptibility to losing relevance and impact as times change. So it’s both a credit to Bob Dylan’s genius and a condemnation of modern society that “Masters of War” could have been written and recorded today about drone strikes in Yemen, or whatever acts of war are to come next. Set against the backdrop of an escalating conflict in Vietnam, “Masters of War” was one of Dylan’s first, and best, protest songs. It’s a direct, simple statement to the warmongering, blood-splattered powers that be, one so clear as to be unmistakable: “I hope that you die / And your death’ll come soon / I will follow your casket / In the pale afternoon.”

The song helped make Dylan an icon, and its perpetual relevance has kept it in the zeitgeist. The American war machine churns ever forward, and “Masters of War” remains a poignant reminder that those with their hands on the levers of power stand to gain from destruction just as assuredly as those sent to fight stand to suffer. – Adam Finley

Sam Cooke: “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 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 irony.

Simultaneously inspired by Dylan’s “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

Nina Simone: “Mississippi Goddam” (1964)

When Nina Simone heard about the church-bombing that killed four black girls in Alabama, her own daughter was a mere toddler. “I suddenly realized what it was to be black in America in 1963,” she declared in her 1993 autobiography. So Simone composed “Mississippi Goddam,” aiming her anger at white supremacy as well as “go slow” liberalism. The song debuted at a Carnegie Hall concert in early 1964, recorded for Phillips Records as In Concert. The single “Mississippi Goddam” was censored for radio play as “Mississippi (bleep),” sleeved with the title “Mississippi #**#!.”

In her 2005 article for Journal of American History, Ruth Feldstein asserts, “Simone undermined a historically potent gendered politics of respectability that persisted in African-American activism.” Indeed, “Mississippi Goddam” outright mocks the idea that “talking like a lady” would help Simone attain equal rights. Feldstein reminds us that Simone was a radical pioneer, writing “Mississippi Goddam”–and related protest songs like “Old Jim Crow” and “Go Limp” — at a time “when black male activists were just beginning to articulate meanings of African-American sexuality and civil rights under the rubric of black cultural nationalism”. For more on Nina Simone and her Civil Rights protests, read here. – A. Loudermilk

Bob Dylan: “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”

While Dylan’s more universally appealing compositions like “Masters of War” have deservedly attained canonical status, 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. – Adrien Begrand

Barry McGuire: “Eve of Destruction” (1965)

In the early ’60s, protest music was the child of folk music and the blues. It wasn’t 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. – Michael Abernethy

Phil Ochs: “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” (1965)

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. – Mark Sample

Janis Ian: “Society’s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking)” (1966)

Janis Ian is known today for championing the rights of gays and lesbians. However, if she had taken such a stance in the mid-’60s, she most likely wouldn’t be known today at all. Still, the teenaged Ian didn’t shy away from controversial relationships, with her first single being “Society’s Child”, a realistic first-person look at societal pressures placed on a young couple involved in an interracial relationship. The girl’s infatuation is evident in the first lines of the song, yet she is pressured to drop it by her mother, her classmates, her teachers, and a culture that classifies citizens by race. Ultimately, after lamenting the unfairness of the situation and yearning for a day when she can “raise up my glistening wings and fly”, she succumbs and ends the relationship. That interracial dating could be debated at all in the public sphere was a breakthrough, and Ian captured the injustice of forcing lovers to choose between their feelings and antiquated cultural mores. – Michael Abernethy

Read all parts of ‘100 Great Protest Songs

The story “PopMatters Picks: Say It Loud! 65 Great Protest Songs” was originally published by PopMatters in 2007. Eleven years later, with the truly inspired protest music that has come out in the last decade, we found it imperative to take a look at our original list and update it to this current list of 100 tracks created by artists and activists who used their craft to bring a change to injustices in our world. Surely our list is not exhaustive, but stands as a point of inspiration and a celebration of boldness in adversity. – Chris Thiessen

Protest songs are written for one of two reasons: love or protest. At its fundamental level, self-expression in music is all about raising awareness, the subject of which fluctuates between beauty and outrage — two kinds of passion that rouse people to song in equal measure.

The protest song is not simply an idealist’s sing-along custom-made for populous sit-ins and social demonstrations; human protest is waged at every level of our existence, in private and in public, and transcends the picket line to include battles for gender rights, racial equality, and freedom from the tyranny of self-righteous authority figures. The very best protest songs are those that touch upon universal themes that can be reapplied to a multitude of struggles from decade to decade, whether or not they were originally written in response to a specific event.It makes sense that music — pop music, in particular, the readymade stuff of the masses — is used as a fundamental tool of dissent. Music speaks for us as individuals and groups, in eminently hummable phrases and cathartic dominion; its audience connects with its populist means of chorus and refrain; and its immediacy, its need to relay a message in mere minutes, is a most urgent sympathizer.

Protest music’s tipping point in popular culture came in the 1960s, when songwriters like Bob Dylan redirected pop music’s focus to relevant real-time crises, such as the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. It has continued to be a vital method of expression for years since, lending voice to fights for basic human rights and campaigns of logic against hollow governmental agencies. This isn’t to say that protest songs are surefire ways to make a difference, because honestly, there’s very little a three-minute ditty can do to rid the world of all its evils. In fact, you could even say that putting one’s faith in a protest song is an act of futility or absurdity, and you’d probably be right. Still, we shouldn’t be stopped from dissenting, from stating truths or challenging wrongs, because if you don’t take a stand for something then you’ll be defined by anything.

PopMatters has scoured the musical spectrum for the best examples of the protest song form, including anthems of great popularity and obscurity alike. May they inspire you to stand up and be heard in the midst of whatever dark hour you find yourself in. – Zeth Lundy



Sara Petite Has Fun “Bringin’ Down the Neighborhood”

Liberation Blues: Tinariwen Invoke the Sahel’s Complex History on ‘Amatssou’

No Sex Please, We’re British: Coil’s Subversively Overt Homosexuality

Jeff Buckley’s ‘Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk’ at 25