protest songs
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Say It Loud! 100 Timeless Protest Songs

PopMatters has scoured the musical spectrum for the best examples of protest songs, including anthems of great popularity and obscurity that resonate today.

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 re-applied 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, 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

“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 it stands as a point of inspiration and a celebration of boldness in adversity. – Chris Thiessen

The songs count down from the past to recent times.

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 1980s 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 was 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 were 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 with the powerful meaning ascribed to his magnum opus. – Mike Schiller

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

While the civil rights activists of the 1960s/1970s movement and rappers today often compare the plight of African Americans 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 spiritual songs 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

98. 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 20th century. – Vince Carducci

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

Don’t let Louis Armstrong‘s 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 Louis Armstrong hadn’t sung “Black and Blue” decades earlier. – Jason Gross

96. 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 1920s, 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 performed 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.W. Scott Poole

95. 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

94. 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.”

Billie 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 reminded 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

93. 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

92. 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 reach 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

91. 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 it 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 someday.”

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