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Seven of the Most Popular Protest Songs of the 1960s

Liz has been an online writer for over nine years. Her articles often focus on music & culture of the 20th century. She also writes poetry.

A Vietnam War protest march through San Francisco in 1967. These songs accompanied many of these marches and protests, often at the gathering spot at the end of the march.

A Vietnam War protest march through San Francisco in 1967. These songs accompanied many of these marches and protests, often at the gathering spot at the end of the march.

'60s Protest Songs

In the 1960s, there were countless protests, mostly centering around the Vietnam War. It was the era of the hippies: the time when San Francisco became a magnet and mecca for the protest and free love movement.

It was the time of my teenage years; I was a senior in high school in 1965, yet, having been raised in a very over-protected way, I was blissfully unaware of any of this; I learned about it some years after, when it had passed into history, however recent.

In 1967, it was the “Summer of Love,” and two years later, the time of the famous Woodstock gathering and concert, the Haight-Ashbury, and San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium with its concerts by the likes of Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Joan Baez, and many others.

But I had married my first husband in 1967, still woefully ignorant of the culture clash happening in my own backyard, and a year later, was embarking on the adventure of raising a child. Raised by parents who refused to allow a TV into the house, I really was sheltered from the news of the day. At the time, I also was not interested in reading the newspaper much past the comics and Ann Landers! (Shame on me!)

My awareness of this general social atmosphere came through songs played on the radio. Some were written by the artists; many were revived songs of far earlier times: some coming from the gospel movement, while some were old Negro spirituals from the ugly days of slavery.

Here, then, are my favorites, in no particular order.

My Top 7 Protest Songs of the 1960s

  1. "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore"
  2. "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"
  3. "If I Had a Hammer"
  4. "Blowin' in the Wind"
  5. "We Shall Overcome"
  6. "I Am Woman"
  7. "Turn, Turn, Turn"

1. "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore"

First noted: during the American Civil War, being sung by freed slaves whose owners had abandoned the plantation

First put into musical notation: by Charles Pickard Ware circa 1864

Catalogued as: Roud Folk Song No. 11975

First published: 1867 in "Slave Songs of the United States" by Ware and Allen

First recorded by: Bob Gibson, 1957, it was also performed by Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and The Highwaymen, for whom it became a #1 .

The Peter, Paul, and Mary version is featured below.

This is one of the songs I am aware of that was a revival of an old gospel tune. But, it somehow fit into the mood of the times. I recall this one so well, because I actually won a copy on a radio contest. That was a first for me!

The program was called, “Name It and Claim It.” They would give the phone number, start the song, and the first person to get through with the correct name of the song, and the name of the artist or group, was sent a 45 rpm recording of that tune. (We are talking of the old vinyl records, here, not CDs or any other of our modern music devices!)

I was so excited, but then so disappointed, to find that the record had been cracked in transit. However, the little adapter gizmo that allowed 45rpm records to be played on a standard spindle, held it together well enough to allow playing it, even though that caused a little hiccup on each revolution.

Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah.

Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah.

Sister help to trim the sail, hallelujah.

Sister help to trim the sail, hallelujah.

Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah.

Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah.

— The Highwaymen

2. "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"

Released: March 14, 1965

Composer/Singer: Pete Seeger

Subsequent Covers of the song includes a list of artists far too long to list here. But it was probably most popularly covered in the United States by the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary.

This song has always been one of my favorites; probably because I can actually sing it, without it going outside my vocal range.

But the poetic imagery is also very poignant, and fitting of the times; indeed, it is fitting in any era in which there is a war happening. Sadly, that's pretty much all the time on this planet, if we humans can never learn to get along.

This version is covered by the Kingston Trio, another popular group of that era. It was originally written by Pete Seger.

Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing?

Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago?

Where have all the flowers gone?

Young girls have picked them everyone

Oh, when will they ever learn?

Oh, when will they ever learn?

— Pete Seeger

The Kingston Trio Version

3. "If I Had a Hammer"

Released: First performed publicly by Pete Seeger on June 3, 1949 in New York City

Subsequently released: July 1962 by Peter, Paul, and Mary, for whom it did better commercially speaking

Written by: Pete Seeger and Lee Hays

This was originally written in 1949, and is an example of another revived song of older origins. Written by Pete Seger and Lee Hays, it became better known when performed by Peter, Paul, and Mary.

If I had a hammer I'd hammer in the morning

I'd hammer in the evening all over this land

I'd hammer out danger, I'd hammer out a warning

I'd hammer out love between all of my brothers

All over this land

— Pete Seeger

4. "Blowing in the Wind"

Released: August 1963

Composer: Bob Dylan

This is another song made popular by the Peter, Paul, and Mary group; they are probably the best known artists to cover it, although hundreds of others have included it in their repertoires.

It is an emotional song (at least, that's my take), about the answers and solutions to the world's problems being patently obvious, if only people would just stop, think, and listen to each other.

How many roads must a man walk down

Before you call him a man?

How many seas must a white dove sail

Before she sleeps in the sand?

Yes, 'n' how many times must the cannon balls fly

Before they're forever banned?

The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind

The answer is blowin' in the wind

— Bob Dylan

5. "We Shall Overcome"

Originally written: in 1900 as a gospel song, "I'll Overcome Someday," by Charles Albert Tindley, a minister

Revived and revised: in 1945, used in a labor movement protest, and in 1959 it became associated with the Civil Rights Movement

Released: 1963 by Joan Baez, one of the more popular versions

Ah, yes, someday!

Arranged and revised by Pete Seger, from a much earlier gospel song, this was sung both at protests over the unpopular war, (when is war ever popular??), and at civil rights marches.

Covered by Joan Baez, this is one that often, as she has done in this rendition, offered the opportunity for audience participation.

Oh, deep in my heart,

I do believe

We shall overcome, some day.

Joan Baez

6. "I Am Woman"

Released: May 1971

Written by: Helen Reddy

Music by: Ray Burton

Hear me roar!

This Helen Reddy classic was more about the women's movement than any of the other protest songs, but it still fits under a protest: a protest against the inequality between men and women, and the mistreatment of women by society at large.

I am woman, hear me roar

In numbers too big to ignore

And I know too much to go back an' pretend

'Cause I've heard it all before

And I've been down there on the floor

No one's ever gonna keep me down again

— Helen Reddy and Ray Burton

7. "Turn, Turn, Turn"

Released: 1962

Artists: The Limeliters

Original title: "To Everything There is a Season"

Written by: Pete Seeger; adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible

Yet another of Pete Seeger's hits, this one strikes a chord of peace, and patience; everything in its own time. It came from verses in the Christian Bible, which makes it fit in with the revivals of the old gospel songs that were re-purposed for the era.

The first release by the Limeliters preceded Seeger's own release of the song.

The group known as "The Byrds" performed my preferred version of this tune.

To everything (turn, turn, turn)

There is a season (turn, turn, turn)

And a time to every purpose, under heaven

— the Bible

So, How Many Protest Songs?

There were oh, so many, many more; it would take a serious research project to catalog all of them. The ones I've grouped here fall more into the “please, let us have peace” category of mellow ballads.

There is another entire segment of songs that feature a much more aggressive, militant stance of making their complaints and protests, but that style of music never appealed much to me. That music is much harsher, often dissonant, with the vocals more yelled than sung, and not altogether pleasing to my ears.

This concludes my presentation of the protest songs I liked, and still do. Most of them are now in my personal collection, so I can listen to them whenever I like.

And yes, there is still war happening, and these songs are as relevant as ever.

© 2018 Liz Elias


Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on April 12, 2018:

Hi Audrey!

I'm glad you liked these selections. I know there are a scad more, but these are the ones with which I am most familiar.

I like to sing some of them, but I am still singing pretty much only when I am alone. ... LOL

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on April 12, 2018:

I can relate to each of these songs. If I wasn't performing these pieces, I was teaching them to vocal and piano students. Glad you included "I am woman". Great idea for a hub. Thanks Liz!

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on March 20, 2018:

@ Jennifer; I agree, the solution is simplistic, but then again, the best ideas are often the simplest. You have to work very hard at it to make things as complicated as they have become. Thanks for your lovely comment, and I'm glad you enjoyed these offerings.

@ Shauna, Well hello, there! LTNS! It was a pretty good era, but yeah, in retrospect for some of us. Even living right then and there, I was too sheltered to have experienced it, so I might as well have been born later! LOL Thanks so much for your comment.

@ Linda, Indeed, the Helen Reddy song was just a tad later on in the era, but I do think it is a very powerful song, so I stuck it in here with the others. I'm glad you liked the info and the songs.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on March 19, 2018:

I know all of the songs that you've included, except for the Helen Reddy one. I enjoyed them as a child (and I still do), although I didn't think of them as protest songs. Thanks for sharing the interesting information as well as the music.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on March 19, 2018:

Liz, I love all these songs. I especially like Joan Baez. She has such a unique, recognizable voice.

I too, was alive in the hippie era. My mind was there, but my age was a bit of a hindrance, having been born in 1957. To this day, I still consider myself a hippie. They weren't afraid to speak their piece about peace and everything else. With the exception of the Vietnam War, it was a good era. I'm glad I was able to experience it. And, like you, I still have those songs, many of which are on vinyl.

Jennifer Mugrage from Columbus, Ohio on March 19, 2018:

Oh, man. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. Some of these are favorites of mine.

I was born in 1976, so of the songs on this list that I know, I learned them by listening to my Dad's Peter, Paul & Mary album (by that time on cassette tape). The sentimentality just gets to me.

I still sing "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" to my kids. I do love it as a poetic expression of the human cost of war. Though I think the implied solution it offers is a little simplistic, namely that if we just decided to stop going to war, there would be no war anymore.

I love Bob Dylan too. "Mr Tambourine Man" is terrific. Might be a description of a drug trip or something, but as a writer, let's just call it a description of inspiration.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on March 18, 2018:

@ Eric; goose bumps, eh? That's quite the reaction, but I know what you mean. I cannot sing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," without choking up. Very pleased you so enjoyed this article.

@ Mary; yes, a retrospective look always seems to clarify things we didn't understand as youngsters. Thanks so much for stopping by and offering your viewpoint.

@ RedElf; Yes, there are plenty of others, but there is simply not enough space in one article; I had to exercise restraint. ;-) Many songs seem to come and go in cycles. Artists also "borrow" tunes from older works, and put in new words. (Elvis Presley's "Love Me Tender" is one such example.)

Thanks for your input, and I'm glad you enjoyed this article.

(BTW--Love your avatar!) ;-)

RedElf from Canada on March 18, 2018:

Awesome hub. Awesome songs. I, too, suffered from 'sheltered up-bringing,' LOL. Some of those date back to the dirty-thirties, and earlier. One of my favorites has always been the New Christie Minstrels' version of Go Tell it on the Mountain/Let My People Go. And, of course, the iconic 'Imagine.'

Mary Wickison from USA on March 18, 2018:

I remember these, however, I was only still in grade school so although I know them I didn't associate them with protest songs.

Looking back now, I see their significance for the time and as you say, they are as relevant in today's troubled times as they have always been.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on March 18, 2018:

Goose bumps. I will just leave this tab open until I have the pleasure of listening to all the songs.

I was a little too young but I remember my mom explaining some of these and her sadness at the war. My one sister would play the guitar and the three of them would sing these.

Thank you