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.

90. 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

89. 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. However, 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

88. John Coltrane: “Alabama” (1963)

Inspired by the disgraceful 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, John 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 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

87. 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

86. 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”. 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 Bob 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

85. 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 the 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

84. Bob Dylan: “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (1964)

While Bob 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 23 October 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

83. Barry McGuire: “Eve of Destruction” (1965)

In the early 1960s, 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 1960s 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

82. 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-1960s 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 1960s, heard across college campuses, protest marches, and rallies. Sadly, the song’s legacy has been overshadowed by Ochs’s suicide in 1976. – Mark Sample

81. 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-1960s, 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