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The 10 Best Protest Songs of the Civil Rights Movement

Updated on August 31, 2016
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CJ Baker is a published writer who is currently writing a book on the historical developments of protest music.

Music: A Voice for Social Change

Music has long been a powerful medium to protest the social injustices faced by the common man. For example, many of the anthems of the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s found their roots in the "negro spirituals" of the 1800s and early 1900s.

Right now we will consider a list of the top 10 protest songs of the civil right movement. It is an eclectic list which features everything from traditional folk and blues standards, to soul and hip hop tunes. Feel free to protest the list, and mention in the comments if you feel any songs were unjustly omitted.

Top 10 Civil Rights Movement Protest Songs

10. Oh Freedom — Odetta
9. Sun City — United Artists Against Apartheid
8. The Bourgeois Blues — Lead Belly
7. We Shall Overcome — Pete Seeger
6. People Get Ready — The Impressions
5. Mississippi Goddam — Nina Simone
4. Fight the Power — Public Enemy
3. Blowin' In The Wind — Bob Dylan
2. A Change Is Gonna Come — Sam Cooke
1. Strange Fruit — Billie Holiday

10. Oh Freedom — Odetta

"Oh Freedom" is a traditional African American freedom song (also commonly referred to as a negro spiritual). The song is most widely associated with Odetta and Joan Baez.

Odetta's version initially appeared on her 1956 debut album, Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues as part of the "Spiritual Trilogy". Her debut album has been cited by Bob Dylan has a huge influence on why he wanted to become a folk singer. Odetta was also a key figure in the civil right movement being referred to as "the voice of the civil rights movement". Also Martin Luther King referred to her as "the queen of American folk music".

Spiritual Trilogy: Oh, Freedom, Come And Go With Us; I'm On My Way by Odetta (Video)

9. Sun City — United Artists Against Apartheid

"Sun City" is a 1985 anti-apartheid protest song written by Steve Van Zandt. The main focal point was the South African casino and resort Sun City. The resort featured a number of prominent performers that have played there, despite being located in an area that supported apartheid. In light of this fact the song promoted a cultural boycott of Sun City with the line "I ain't gonna play Sun City".

Just like with USA for Africa's "We Are the World" and Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas", United Artists Against Apartheid was a super group of a number of different musicians. That being said, "Sun City" was more edgier, adventurous and eclectic in comparison to those other efforts. For example, the song incorporated a number of rap artists (which was just starting to gain popularity at the time) such as Run DMC, Kurtis Blow, Afrika Bambaataa and Mellie Mel (from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five). The eclectic group of artists also included Bruce Springsteen (Van Zandt is a member of Springsteen's E Street Band), jazz legend Miles Davis, U2, Peter Gabriel, Joey Ramone, George Clinton, Keith Richards, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan and Hall & Oates, along with many others.

Besides being an important protest song, the song's hybrid of jazz, funk, rap & rock was very innovative for the time. It was one of the earliest examples of rap/rock fusion.

Sun City by Artists United Against Apartheid (Video)

8. The Bourgeois Blues — Lead Belly

"The Bourgeois Blues" was first recorded by Lead Belly on December 26, 1938. Lead Belly wrote the song in response to a specific occurrence of racism. While he was invited to record songs for the Library of Congress by noted music archivist Alan Lomax, they decided to go out with their wives to celebrate. Many restaurants did not permit them to enter due to being an interracial group.

The reference to bourgeois also makes the song a statement about social classes in general, and how the upper class will do what they can to maintain their wealth at all cost even if it means stepping on the lower class. In a modern day context this song is also applicable to social economic protest movements, such as the "occupy movement".

Also as a protest song (along with many of Lead Belly's song) the lyrics are very direct in their intent. Lyrics such as: "Well, them white folks in Washington they know how/ To call a colored man a nigger just to see him bow/ Lord, it's a bourgeois town". Songs such as this one helped make Lead Belly a controversial but important socially conscious singer.

The Bourgeois Blues by Lead Belly (Video)

7. We Shall Overcome — Pete Seeger

"We Shall Overcome" is a traditional song, whose exact origin is somewhat debated. It is widely believed that the song origins are at least partly derived from the gospel song "I'll Overcome Someday" composed in 1901 by Reverend Charles Albert Tindley.

By the time Pete Seeger first learned and performed the song in 1947, the song already evolved from the original. That being said, Seeger further modified it, adding additional lyrics. He was also responsible for changing the song to "We Shall Overcome" and changing the lyrical reference of "I" to "we".

The song ended up just not being one of Seeger's most notable tunes, but it became an important standard of the civil rights movement. One of the most culturally significant moments involved Joan Baez leading a crowd of over 300,000 in a sing along during the March on Washington in August 1963.

Pete Seeger

Peter Seeger playing to an racially integrated audience as the honored guess of Eleanor Roosevelt, February 13th, 1944. Seeger an important figure in the development of socially conscious music passed away on January 27th, 2014 at the age of 94.
Peter Seeger playing to an racially integrated audience as the honored guess of Eleanor Roosevelt, February 13th, 1944. Seeger an important figure in the development of socially conscious music passed away on January 27th, 2014 at the age of 94. | Source

Pete Seeger Talks About the History of We Shall Overcome (Video)

6. People Get Ready — The Impressions

This was a tossup between the Impressions "Keep on Pushing" and "People Get Ready". Recorded for the 1965 album of the same name, I was debating whether to include the Curtis Mayfield written "People Get Ready" because it was more of a gospel song than a direct protest song. But the song was definitely adopted as an important part of the civil rights movement. In many ways the song perfectly embodied the church roots that movement was associated with. It became an anthem for hope of a positive change.

People Get Ready by The Impressions (Video)

5. Mississippi Goddam — Nina Simone

Nina Simone was a key figure in the civil rights movement of the 60s. "Mississippi Goddam" was perhaps her most direct and controversial protest tune. It initially appeared on her 1964 live album, Nina Simone in Concert. It was released as a single, but it was banned in much of the Southern states.

Nina wrote the song in response to the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi and a bombing of a church in Alabama. In the song she also reflects her view of achieving civil rights and the importance of taking decisive action in order to attain equal rights. She pointedly addresses the view of those that say "Go slow". This is also highlighted in the lyrics: "Do things gradually/to slow/But bring more tragedy/to slow/Why don't you see it...You don't have to live next to me/Just give me my equality".

Mississippi Goddam by Nina Simone (Video)

4. Fight the Power — Public Enemy

Public Enemy is arguably the most important socially conscious hip hop group of all time. Their protest rap classic "Fight the Power" is a prime example of their social & cultural importance.

The stirring anthem was based on the chorus of the Isley Brothers 70s protest classic of the same name. It is also noteworthy that while other pro black empowerment artists promoted separation, Public Enemy were promoters of integration. Also, the concept of standing up to oppression is universal. If humanity as whole stood up to the abuse of power then the world would be a better place.

Also as a note the album that it appears on (it was first released in 1989 in connection with the film Do The Right Thing), 1990s Fear of a Black Planet was added to the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry in 2004, as a recording of cultural significance.

Fight the Power by Public Enemy (Video)

3. Blowin' In The Wind — Bob Dylan

It was really hard to select just one Bob Dylan song for this list. He wrote and performed a number of songs which became associated with the civil right movement. For example, his song "Only a Pawn in Their Game" dealt with the murder of civil right activist Medgar Evers and was first performed at the historical March on Washington in 1963.

For this particular list, I opted for "Blowin' In The Wind". In all honesty, it is not one of my favorite Dylan songs, but there is no arguing that it did become an endearing standard. It was one of Dylan's most oft-covered songs and it became widely associated with the civil rights movement. Lines such as "How many roads most a man walk down/Before you call him a man?" and "Yes, how many years can some people exist/Before they're allowed to be free?" are questions that continue to resonate.

Also to help trace the historical development of the civil right protest song, it is good to note that the melody of the song can be linked to the traditional negro spiritual "No More Auction Block For Me".

Blowin' In The Wind - Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez performing at the March on Washington, August 28th, 1963.

Source

2. A Change Is Gonna Come — Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke was inspired by Bob Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind" to write his own statement of social change, with the 1964 soul classic "A Change is Gonna Come". This beautifully moving song found Cooke going back to his gospel roots. This timeless anthem was also heavily based on Cooke's personal experiences of dealing with racism. The song continues to be poignant and it still resonates with the modern day civil rights movement.

A Change Is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke (Video)

Billie Holiday

1947 portrait of Billie Holiday taken for Down Beat magazine.
1947 portrait of Billie Holiday taken for Down Beat magazine. | Source

1. Strange Fruit — Billie Holiday

Initially written as a poem by Abel Meeropol under the pen name Lewis Allan, Meeropol wrote the poem because he was appalled by the news reports of public lynchings that were taking place in the Southern States. He ended up setting the poem to music himself. The song became most widely associated with Billie Holiday who recorded it in 1939. You can sense the very real pain in Holiday's voice as she emotes the lyrics of the song.

Billie Holiday had to fight to get the song recorded because record companies and producers were reluctant to record the song because they feared the controversy that the song would potentially generate (especially in the Southern United States). Because the song resonated with her, she stuck to her guns and the song did end up becoming one of Holiday's biggest hits and most well known tunes. It also became one of the most important songs associated with the civil rights movement.

Since Holiday's version, a number of other versions have been recorded as well. Two of the more notable versions were by key figures in the development of the civil rights movement, Josh White & Nina Simone. Josh White recorded his stripped down version a few years after Holiday in 1942. Nina Simone recorded her version for her 1965 album Pastel Blues.

Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday (Video)

© 2012 CJ Baker

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    • theframjak profile image

      theframjak 4 years ago from East Coast

      Great list. I forgot about Sun City and haven't heard it since the '80's. Thanks for putting this list together.

    • spartucusjones profile image
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      CJ Baker 4 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Sun City is somewhat of a forgotten gem from the 80s. Thanks for the read and the comments.

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 4 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you for enlightening us.

    • spartucusjones profile image
      Author

      CJ Baker 4 years ago from Parts Unknown

      You are welcome!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 4 years ago

      I played People Get Ready -- I love that song. Your words on this are right on and it is a song of hope. Great post and very well done.

    • spartucusjones profile image
      Author

      CJ Baker 4 years ago from Parts Unknown

      People Get Ready is truly an inspiring and beautiful song! Thanks for the kind comments!

    • e-five profile image

      e-five 4 years ago from Chicago, Illinois, USA

      Great job. Very informative and beautiful. I think you did a lot of research, thinking and consideration on this list, and all sorts of musical genres are well represented.

    • spartucusjones profile image
      Author

      CJ Baker 4 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Thanks for the kind comments. I did a decent amount of research, but this was the type of research that I enjoy! I also tried hard to compile a diverse list.

    • leahlefler profile image

      leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York

      I now have "Blowin in the Wind" stuck in my head. Interesting hub, Spartucus!

    • spartucusjones profile image
      Author

      CJ Baker 4 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Sorry for getting the song stuck in your head! OK, I'm not really sorry! Thanks for the read and the comment.

    • Moesky profile image

      Mike Monaghan 3 years ago from Amsterdam

      Great list. I've been delving into the genre of protest songs recently myself - for inspiration for my own album (an homage to the counter-culture of the 60's). Interesting to notice how many of those songs are still relevant in today's society, even after making so many improvements.

    • spartucusjones profile image
      Author

      CJ Baker 3 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Thanks for the read and the comment. Hopefully I helped provide you with some inspiration. I agree that is amazing (and somewhat sad) that these songs continue to be relevant.

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 3 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      I don't know all of these songs but of the ones I know I especially love A Change Is Gonna Come and People Get Ready. People Get Ready is so smooth and sweet you barely realize it was a protest song but man is it a classic.

      I didn't know A Change Is Gonna Come was inspired by Blowin' in the Wind. That's pretty awesome.

    • spartucusjones profile image
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      CJ Baker 3 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Thanks for the read and the comments Alecia. I agree that those two songs are absolute classics!

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