The Protest Movement: The 10 Best Political Protest Songs of the 60s
Woody Guthrie: This Machine Kills Fascists
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 contributed to the development of the protest song, artists such as Lead Belly and Josh White. 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.
Which comes first: the feeling that there's a problem with the world or the song that voices the pain the problem causes? Maybe sometimes, it takes a song to move people.
The 10 Best Protest Songs of the 1960s
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 movement to anti-war to 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 and lists are always somewhat subjective, so feel free to add your favorite 60s protest songs in the comments section below.)
#10: Say It Loud: I'm Black & I'm Proud--James Brown
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 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.
Say It Loud: I'm Black & I'm Proud by James Brown (Video)
#9: Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came? --The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band
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).
Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came? by The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band (Video)
#8: The Fish Cheer: I Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die--Country Joe McDonald
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 scared relic of the hippie counter culture movement. The song starts something like this:
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.
The Fish Cheer: I Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die by Country Joe McDonald (Woodstock)
#7: Universal Soldier--Buffy Sainte-Marie
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.
"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."
Like many of the great protest songs, the lyrics sadly remain poignant today.
Universal Soldier by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Video)
#6: I Ain't Marching Anymore--Phil Ochs
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 rallies. That being said, he did have an issue with the label "protest singer." He preferred being referred to as a topical singer.
#5: Respect--Aretha Franklin
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."
Respect by Aretha Franklin (Video)
#4: Forunate Son--Creedence Clearwater Revival
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 he felt that certain individuals were receiving preferential treatment by then president Richard Nixon and avoiding the draft.
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
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."
Fortunate Son by Creedence Clearwater Revival (Video)
#3: Eve of Destruction -- Barry McGuire
This protest song, written in 1965 by 19 year old P. F. Sloan, became a modern day protest movement standard, but the most well known version is Barry McGuire's of 1965 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 (indluding 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.
#2: A Change Is Gonna Come--Sam Cooke
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.
A Change Is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke (Video)
#1: Only a Pawn in Their Game--Bob Dylan
When I decided to do this list, I told myself that I would only include one Bob Dylan song. But 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 gave his famous "I Had 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 labelled 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, it starts at the 3:30 mark where 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)".)
Only a Pawn in Their Game by Bob Dylan (Video)
© 2012 CJ Baker