The Protest Movement: The 10 Best Political Protest Songs of the 60s

Updated on April 19, 2018
spartucusjones profile image

CJ Baker is a published writer who is currently writing a book on the historical developments of protest music.

Woody Guthrie: This Machine Kills Fascists. Folk singer Woody Guthrie armed with his weapon of choice.
Woody Guthrie: This Machine Kills Fascists. Folk singer Woody Guthrie armed with his weapon of choice. | Source

In many ways, the 60s are considered the golden age of the protest movement and the heyday of protest songs.

It truly was a decade of social activism with causes that varied from the civil rights to anti-war and all points in between. There were marches and sit-ins. There were hippies who had a sense of idealism and believed that we could live in a utopian world where peace and love rule.

Much of the music of the 60s provided the perfect soundtrack for the different social movements that were developing. Here is a list of the ten best protest songs of the '60s. (It was a nearly impossible feat to narrow it down to ten. Lists are always somewhat subjective, so feel free to add your favorite '60s protest songs in the comments section below.)

The 10 Best Protest Songs of the 1960s

  1. "Only a Pawn in Their Game" by Bob Dylan
  2. "A Change Is Gonna Come" by Sam Cooke
  3. "Eve of Destruction" by Barry McGuire
  4. "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival
  5. "Respect" by Aretha Franklin
  6. "I Ain't Marching Anymore" by Phil Ochs
  7. "Universal Soldier "by Buffy Sainte-Marie
  8. "The Fish Cheer: I feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die" by Country Joe McDonald
  9. "Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came" by The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band
  10. "Say It Loud: I'm Black & I'm Proud" by James Brown

Bob Dylan performing at St. Lawrence University on November 26th, 1963. Dylan was a key figure in the protest movement.
Bob Dylan performing at St. Lawrence University on November 26th, 1963. Dylan was a key figure in the protest movement. | Source

1. "Only a Pawn in Their Game" by Bob Dylan

Album: The Times They Are a-Changin'

Genre: Folk

Label: Columbia

Release Date: January 13, 1964

When I decided to do this list, I told myself that I would only include one Bob Dylan song. Since Dylan wrote so many classic protest songs, and his music was so closely linked with the 1960s protest movement, it was hard to narrow it down to just one.

I ended up opting for "Only a Pawn in Their Game," which was a thought-provoking social commentary concerning the murder of civil right activist Medgar Evers. The song was released on his 1964 album, The Times Are a-Changin', but it is was first performed at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was at this landmark political rally that Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

The song addresses the fact that Evers's killer, Byron De La Beckwith, was not the only one to blame for the murder. Dylan eloquently points out the fact that De La Beckwith was an instrument of the dominant racist ideology of the time, the same racist mindset which lead to two hung juries in 1964 and delayed justice for 30 years until De La Beckwith would finally be convicted for Medgar Evers's murder in 1994.

Sadly, those sentiments are just as poignant today. Dylan was not just protesting an event, but he was taking aim at a poisonous mindset that needs to change.

Within two years of performing this song, Dylan started to distance himself from the protest movement. He would start to take issue with being labeled a protest singer. But none of this changes the fact that he wrote some of the greatest protest anthems ever penned. He was truly one of the most influential artists to ever be linked to the protest movement.

In the video below, taken at the 1964 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (Dylan's performance starts at the 3:30 mark), he sings "Only a Pawn in Their Game," after which he is joined at the mic by Joan Baez and Len Chandler to sing "Hold On (Keep Your Eyes on the Prize)".

Essential Lyrics:

The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid
And the marshals and cops get the same
But the poor white man's used in the hands of them all like a tool
He's taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
'Bout the shape that he's in
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game

2. "A Change Is Gonna Come" by Sam Cooke

Album: Ain't that Good News

Genre: Rhythm and Blues

Label: RCA Victor

Release Date: December 22, 1964

This Sam Cooke soul classic is from his 1964 album Ain't That Good News. The song became closely linked with the civil rights movement of the 60s.

Part of what led Sam Cooke to compose "A Change Is Gonna Come" was Bob Dylan's 1963 classic protest song, "Blowin' In the Wind," which motivated Cooke to compose his own statement for change. The song was also deeply affected by his own personal experiences of having to deal with racism and discrimination. Cooke went back to his gospel roots to record a deeply moving and hopeful song which continues to give me goosebumps every time I hear it.

Essential Lyrics:

It's been too hard living, but I'm afraid to die
'Cause I don't know what's up there, beyond the sky
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

go to the movie and I go downtown
Somebody keep tellin' me don't hang around
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

3. "Eve of Destruction" by Barry McGuire

Album: Eve of Destruction

Genre: Folk Rock

Label: Dunhill

Release Date: August 1965

This protest song, written in 1965 by 19-year-old P. F. Sloan, became a modern-day protest movement standard. The most well-known version is Barry McGuire's 1965 version, which appeared on his album of the same name.

This song, which warns of a pending apocalypse, is not only anti-war but touches upon a number of social issues (including civil rights). One of the key lyrics in the song is: "You're old enough to kill, but not for votin'," which fueled the decision to lower the minimum voting age to 18 (which had been the minimum age for draft eligibility).

The intensity and rawness of McGuire's voice is well suited to the dark subject matter of the song.

Essential Lyrics:

Don't you understand, what I'm trying to say?
And can't you feel the fears I'm feeling today?
If the button is pushed, there's no running away,
There'll be no one to save with the world in a grave,
Take a look around you, boy, it's bound to scare you, boy,
And you tell me over and over and over again my friend,
Ah, you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction.

4. "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival

Album: Willy and the Poor Boys

Genre: Rock 'n' Roll

Label: Fantasy

Release Date: September 1969

CCR's contribution to the protest movement was from their 1969 album, Willy and the Poor Boys. It's one of those protest songs that is opposed to war, but supportive of troops. Songwriter John Forgerty was protesting the fact that certain individuals were receiving preferential treatment by, then-president, Richard Nixon, who allowed them to avoid the draft.

The song was partially inspired by Dwight Eisenhower's grandson, David, who ended up marrying Richard Nixon's daughter Julie. In a 1969 interview for Rolling Stone Magazine, John Fogerty said:

"Julie Nixon was hanging around with David Eisenhower, and you just had the feeling that none of these people were going to be involved with the war. In 1969, the majority of the country thought morale was great among the troops, and like eighty percent of them were in favor of the war. But to some of us who were watching closely, we just knew we were headed for trouble."

Essential Lyrics:

Some folks are born, made to wave the flag
Ooo, their red, white and blue
And when the band plays "Hail to the Chief"
Ooo, they point the cannon at you, Lord

It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no senator's son, son
It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no fortunate one, no

5. "Respect" by Aretha Franklin

Album: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You

Genre: Soul

Label: Atlantic

Release Date: April 29, 1967

Aretha Franklin's trademark hit is from her 1967 breakthrough album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. It was originally written and recorded by Otis Redding in 1965 but with a few modifications. Aretha transformed the song into an anthem of female empowerment.

The song became an important catalyst for the feminist movement of the 70s. It is definitely one of the catchiest and most infectious protest songs ever recorded: R-E-S-P-E-C-T, "All I'm asking for is a little respect when I come home."

Essential Lyrics:

Ooo, your kisses
Sweeter than honey
And guess what?
So is my money
All I want you to do for me
Is give it to me when you get home (re, re, re ,re)
Yeah baby (re, re, re ,re)
Whip it to me (respect, just a little bit)
When you get home, now (just a little bit)

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

6. "I Ain't Marching Anymore" by Phil Ochs

Album: I Ain't Marching Anymore

Genre: Folk

Label: Elektra

Release Date: 1965

This 1965 anti-war protest song is one of Phil Ochs's trademark songs and it originally appeared on his 1965 album of the same name.

Ochs was a key figure in the protest movement, and he performed at many civil rights and anti-Vietnam War rallies. That being said, he did have an issue with the label "protest singer." He preferred being referred to as a topical singer.

Essential Lyrics:

It's always the old to lead us to the war
It's always the young to fall
Now look at all we've won with the saber and the gun
Tell me is it worth it all
For I stole California from the Mexican land
Fought in the bloody Civil War
Yes I even killed my brother
And so many others

And I ain't marchin' anymore

7. "Universal Soldier" by Buffy Sainte-Marie

Album: It's My Way

Genre: Folk Rock

Label: Vanguard

Release Date: 1964

This folk standard was written by, and originally recorded by, Canadian singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie for her 1964 debut album, It's My Way. This protest song is all about individual responsibility.

Like many of the great protest songs, the lyrics sadly remain poignant today.

Essential Lyrics:

But without him,
how would Hitler have condemned him at Dachau?
Without him Caesar would have stood alone
He's the one who gives his body
as a weapon to the war.
And without him all this killing can't go on.

...

He's a Catholic a Hindu an Atheist a Jain
A Buddhist and a Baptist and a Jew
And he knows he shouldn't kill
And he knows he always will
Kill you for me my friend and me for you

8. "The Fish Cheer: I Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die" by Country Joe McDonald

Album: I Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die

Genre: Psych Rock

Label: Vanguard

Release Date: November 1967

The song was originally recorded for the 1967 Country Joe & The Fish album, I Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die, but I much prefer the solo acoustic version recorded live at Woodstock.

The performance at Woodstock was unplanned. It was a stopgap performance, because of unexpected delays in the schedule, but it became one of the highlights of Woodstock. The 1970 documentary of the concert added a sing-along bouncing ball for dramatic effect.

This Vietnam protest song is important in the development of the protest movement and is a sacred relic of the hippie counterculture movement.

Essential Lyrics:
Well come on all of you big strong men, Uncle Sam needs your help again,
he got himself in a terrible jam, way down yonder in Vietnam,
put down your books and pick up a gun, we're gunna have a whole lotta fun.

...

And it's 1, 2, 3 what are we fightin' for?
don't ask me I don't give a damn, the next stop is Vietnam,
and it's 5, 6, 7 open up the pearly gates.
Well there ain't no time to wonder why...
WHOOPEE we're all gonna die.

9. "Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came?" by The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band

Album: Volume 2

Genre: Psych Rock

Label: Reprise

Release Date: 1967

This somewhat obscure psychedelic nugget from 1967 is from The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. "Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came?" may arguably be the most trippy stream-of-consciousness protest song of the movement. It also has an undeniable intensity which is appropriate to the song's subject matter. Its title may have been taken from a line from poet Carl Sandberg's book-length poem, The People, Yes (1936).

The song was also later notably covered by punk band T.S.O.L. (True Sounds of Liberty).

Essential Lyrics:

I hate war, I have seen war, I have seen war on the land and the sea
I have seen blood running in the street, I have seen small children, starving
I have seen the agony of fellows and wives, I HATE WAR

Hear the marching, hear the drums, suppose they give a war and no one comes

10. "Say It Loud: I'm Black & I'm Proud" by James Brown

Album: A Soulful Christmas

Genre: Funk

Label: King

Release Date: August 1968

This black empowerment funk classic was recorded in 1968, and it was an important musical document in the development of the civil rights movement.

The song may not be one of the most complicated protest songs of the '60s civil rights movement, but it is one of the most direct and exuberant. The call and response of the chorus (which was comprised of multiracial children) is extremely infectious. Listen and you can't help but say it loud.

Essential Lyrics:

Some people say we got a lot of malice, some say it's a lotta nerve
But I say we won't quit movin' until we get what we deserve
We've been buked and we've been scourned
We've been treated bad, talked about as sure as you're born
But just as sure as it take two eyes to make a pair, huh!
Brother we can't quit until we get our share

Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud
Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud
One more time, say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud, huh!

The Devolpment of the Protest Song

As long as there has been social injustice in the world, there have been people protesting those injustices. Oftentimes, people chant and sing songs to voice their oppression. Protest movements have always been closely linked with music.

For example, Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" (based on a poem by German poet Friedrich Schiller originally titled "Ode to Freedom"), a song in support of universal brotherhood, was in direct contrast with the oppression and slavery that took place in many parts of the world. In 1795, citizens protesting women's rights sung a feminist protest song entitled "Rights of Woman" to the tune of "God Save The Queen."

During the 20th-century, many folk and blues artists, such as Lead Belly and Josh White, contributed to the development of the protest song. Billie Holiday's 1939 anti-lynching tune, "Strange Fruit" was an important catalyst for the civil rights movement.

Folk artists like The Weavers and Woody Guthrie (armed with a guitar which bore a sticker that declared, "This Machine Kills Fascists") wrote songs that contributed greatly to the protest movement. Guthrie was a huge influence on Bob Dylan and a number of other socially conscious singer-songwriters. The music of Guthrie and Dylan rippled out and inspired more and more artists to write protest songs in the '70s.

Which comes first: the feeling that there's a problem with the world, or the song that voices the pain the problem causes? Sometimes, it takes a powerful song to move people to act.

Sources and Suggested Reading

The '60s were a time of social, scientific, and political revolution. If you're looking to learn more about '60s protest songs, the site and books below are a great place to start.

Questions & Answers

  • How come "For What It's Worth" by Buffalo Springfield isn't on this list?

    It is a classic protest song worthy of consideration. Unfortunately, it is hard to narrow the list down to 10.

© 2012 CJ Baker

Comments

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    • profile image

      Kleo Tarlton 

      18 months ago

      I think that these songs are very meaningful even now. my favorite was " I Ain't Marching Anymore"

    • profile image

      Rich 

      18 months ago

      Ed Ames, Who will answer.

    • spartucusjones profile imageAUTHOR

      CJ Baker 

      23 months ago from Parts Unknown

      Hi Steve, Ohio by Crosby Stills Nash and Young was actually released in 1970 and it made my list of the best protest songs of the 70s.

    • profile image

      Steve Glatfelter 

      23 months ago

      Great list - I, too, am glad Phil Ochs wasn't forgotten - but if you see the '60's decade as 1961 to 1670, then you could include Neil Young's very powerful "Ohio"; 'Tin soldiers and Nixon's coming ;/We're finally on our way. This summer I hea the drummin'; Four dead in O-hi-o. . .'

    • spartucusjones profile imageAUTHOR

      CJ Baker 

      2 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Jean, I agree that it was next to impossible to pick one Dylan song. Masters of War could of easily been on this list. Like many of Dylan's best songs it was a thought provoking and powerful. Thanks for the read and the comment.

    • Jean Bakula profile image

      Jean Bakula 

      2 years ago from New Jersey

      Picking one Dylan song is almost impossible. Masters of War is a great one about fighting the war machine. He says in an interview he doesn't even know where the words came from, it's not like he went around wishing warmongers would die.

    • Ruby H Rose profile image

      Maree Michael Martin 

      3 years ago from Northwest Washington on an Island

      A nice surprise to find a few listed I hadn't heard of before. Very cool.

    • profile image

      Larry Wall 

      3 years ago

      A couple of options

      Where Have All the Flowers Gone

      Peter, Paul and Mary and others

      If I Had a Hammer

      Bob Dylan, Peter,Paul and Mary

    • spartucusjones profile imageAUTHOR

      CJ Baker 

      3 years ago from Parts Unknown

      I will just like to thank everyone for the kind words, the read and the feedback. There were many great song suggestions which could of easily been considered for this list (only if I had room for more than 10). It was truly a pleasant surprise to be selected HOTD.

    • emge profile image

      Madan 

      3 years ago from Abu Dhabi

      Interesting and well presented hub. thank you

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 

      3 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Well--an interesting education for me, here. I'd never heard of most of the songs on your list.

      The ones with which I grew up in the 1960s included:

      "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"

      "Turn, Turn, Turn"

      "If I Had a Hammer"

      "We Shall Overcome"

      "Ballad of the Green Berets"

      "Blowin' in the Wind" and

      "Puff the Magic Dragon."

      While "Puff" was not specifically a protest song, it had some of those elements, of loss of innocence and putting away childhood fantasies to face the real world's ugly truths; it was played a lot in that era, right along with the protest songs.

      Great look back--voted up, interesting and useful.

    • Fox Music profile image

      Fox Music 

      3 years ago

      This is a great collection of protest songs, thanks for sharing and congrats on Hub Of the Day !!

    • Billrrrr profile image

      Bill Russo 

      3 years ago from Cape Cod

      It's hard to focus on the best protest anthems. As one of the members of the Woody Guthrie generation, I feel competent to comment - so I respectfully suggest that you are correct in placing Phil Ochs in the list, but you neglected to include his most outstanding and revered ditty, the outrageous and very funny Anti Viet Nam "Draft Dodger Rag". "Oh, I'm just a typical American boy from a typical American town

      I believe in God and Senator Dodd and a-keepin' old Castro down

      And when it came my time to serve I knew "better dead than red"

      But when I got to my old draft board, buddy, this is what I said:

      CHORUS

      Sarge, I'm only eighteen, I got a ruptured spleen

      And I always carry a purse

      I got eyes like a bat, and my feet are flat, and my asthma's getting worse

      Yes, think of my career, my sweetheart dear, and my poor old invalid aunt

      Besides, I ain't no fool, I'm a-goin' to school

      And I'm working in a DEE-fense plant

      I've got a dislocated disc and a wracked up back

      I'm allergic to flowers and bugs

      And when the bombshell hits, I get epileptic fits

      And I'm addicted to a thousand drugs

      I got the weakness woes, I can't touch my toes

      I can hardly reach my knees

      And if the enemy came close to me

      I'd probably start to sneeze"

    • profile image

      BarbaraCasey 

      3 years ago

      One of the highlights of my "youth" was seeing Phil Ochs perform at a Mariposa Folk Festival in the mid 60s. He pierced through it all. Congrats on HOTD.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 

      3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Congrats on HOTD, Spartacus! Some of these songs I've heard of and some I've haven't. Thanks for sharing this list. Voted up!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      3 years ago from Houston, Texas

      I was a teenager in the 1960s and both of my brothers served in Vietnam. Definitely turbulent times with many different types of protest songs. Nice collection you presented here. Up votes and sharing.

    • purl3agony profile image

      Donna Herron 

      3 years ago from USA

      A great collection of songs, with a wonderful and informative introduction. Congratulations on your well deserved HOTD!

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      3 years ago from sunny Florida

      Quite a collection ....I lived through the 60's; it was a time of change for sure in so many ways.

      Many of these I know well and listened to often The music helped to live through the uncertainty for many of us.

      Well done.

      Voted up++++ Shared Pinned Tweeted G+

      Angels are on the way to you this morning ps

      Congrats on HOTD

    • ladyguitarpicker profile image

      stella vadakin 

      3 years ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

      Hi, Very good choice of songs, and remember them all. My favorite was, "Blowing in the Wind". Good and interesting Hub. Stella

    • DynamicS profile image

      Sandria Green-Stewart 

      3 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      Wow! Very cool how pop culture reflect the social and political contexts of all generations. I would add "Give Peace a Chance" by John Lennon and Peter Seeger's "Turn, Turn, Turn"

      Very interesting post!

    • Hendrika profile image

      Hendrika 

      3 years ago from Pretoria, South Africa

      I found this very interesting. I do not know most of the songs because we had our own stuff going on here in South Africa.

    • profile image

      Lynn 

      4 years ago

      Anybody know of a song about a rich person getting away with a car crime with the theme of respect? It was Bob Dylan or Jim Croce or someone similar?

    • spartucusjones profile imageAUTHOR

      CJ Baker 

      5 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Thanks for the read and the comment, gsurvior. It would be hard to make a list like this and to exclude Dylan. You would have to have expert debating skills to be able to justify it.

    • profile image

      gsurvivor 

      5 years ago

      The minute I read the title, I thought of Dylan. Stoked to see he's No. 1. Great hub, a vote up from here! :)

    • spartucusjones profile imageAUTHOR

      CJ Baker 

      5 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Thanks for the read and comment, lorddraven2000. I agree protest songs are still an important part of the music scene. I wrote a hub on the best protest songs of the 2000s, and there are still socially conscious singers out there. But they tend to be a bit more underground. You definitely don't tend to hear them on top 40 radio.

    • lorddraven2000 profile image

      Sam Little 

      5 years ago from Wheelwright KY

      Very good choices. I think protest songs are still a very active part of the music scene but seem to be less heard in this day and age.

    • spartucusjones profile imageAUTHOR

      CJ Baker 

      6 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Thanks for the kind comments. "For What It's Worth" is a great socially conscious song, and I must admit it was a bit of an oversight on my part (even though I'm not sure what song I would exclude from the list to include it).

    • SidKemp profile image

      Sid Kemp 

      6 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Great list, but I will never forget - and feel I must mention - "For What It's Worth" better known from the first line "Hey, Children, What's that Sound?" For me, one line of that song "Everybody carrying signs / most all say, "Hurray for our side!" catches the spirit of consciousness in the protest movement - to protest injustice, but to be ever wary of just being a part of the problem ourselves. Voted up and interesting, and shared

    • spartucusjones profile imageAUTHOR

      CJ Baker 

      6 years ago from Parts Unknown

      darkprinceofjazz - thanks for the recommendation, I'll make sure I check it out.

      JessMcCray - thanks for the kind words.

      Later on in their career Green Day really did write many solid protest songs. The entire American Idiot Album is an example of that. When I get to my list of the 10 best protest songs of the 2000s, there is a good chance that something by Green Day will make the list. I'm looking forward to reading your Green Day hub!

    • JessMcCray profile image

      JessMcCray 

      6 years ago from NYC

      Nice hub- Im in the process of writing one about my favorite group that became so because of their protest quality- Green Day- well written!

    • profile image

      darkprinceofjazz 

      6 years ago

      Nice List, check out Les McCann and Eddie Harris "Compared to what" from the album Swiss Movement, a great soul drenched tune, with a fantastic Trumpet solo from Bennie Bailey.

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