Protest Songs: A Fine American Tradition

This article was originally published in The Sting on November 6, 2020.

Photo: Woody Guthrie

There’s a bad misconception about American music that we only had protest songs after Vietnam. 

Certainly, over the past few years, music has made us more aware of the calamities of the Trump presidency and other hot button social issues, but these don’t even tell the entire story of how this genre is ingrained in our culture.

In fact, protest songs are older than the United States itself.

“Free America” is the one of the originals, dating back to the Revolutionary War. Joseph Warren wrote the song in 1774 as a call to arms for the American militia. The song encourages soldiers to defend America from going the way of the ancient republics of Athens and Rome reminding listeners that Britain had been beaten before by the Romans, “Picts, Danes and Normans.” 

The song “Yankee Doodle,” dates slightly further back to the Seven Years War (1756-1763) when British soldiers mocked Americans for being so disorganized in their military prowess. The Americans began singing the song ironically to taunt the British. At the siege of Yorktown (where the Revolutionary War ended), General Lafayette ordered the French army band to play the song when the British refused to acknowledge the triumphant Americans.

In the early to mid-19th century, protest music was sung mainly by enslaved people, in many cases as code. “Go Down, Moses,” is based on excerpts of the Bible where Moses freed the enslaved Israelites. It was even sung by Harriet Tubman as a way to communicate on the Underground Railroad.

During the Civil War, the song “John Brown’s Body” became synonymous with the Union cause.  Played to the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “John Brown’s Body” recognizes abolitionist John Brown, who was martyred following an unsuccessful slave revolt in Harpers Ferry, VA. The song, besides lyrics relating to Brown, also endorses the hanging of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, James Weldon Johnson wrote another African spiritual that has endured as the Black National Anthem for over 100 years, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Johnson was principal of the Edwin M. Stanton School in Jacksonville, FL when Booker T. Washington visited to commemorate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in February 1900. Originally written as a poem for Washington’s visit, it was put to music in 1905 and was adopted as the Black National Anthem in 1919.

Twenty years later, protest music and pop music collided, with the release of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” The first pop-protest song spoke of people hanging from trees, and how they appeared to be, well, strange fruit. In reality, the people had been lynched, an egregious reality for many African-Americans in the south during that time. With recorded music becoming more widely available, “Strange Fruit” went on to become one of the popular and influential songs of the twentieth century.

Around the same time, Woody Guthrie rose to prominence as a singer-songwriter for his ballads about the Dust Bowl, hard times, and war. Among his most famous songs are “This Land Is Your Land” which was a scathing rebuke of “God Bless America” and “Tom Joad” which chronicles The Grapes of Wrath character Tom Joad during the Dust Bowl. Most often when he played, Guthrie had a label on his guitar that read, “This Machine Kills Fascists.”

Just before Vietnam, protest music exploded. Bob Dylan wrote “The Times They Are A’ Changin’,” chronicling what was perceived as mass public opinion among rising tensions in the United States. That same year, Sam Cooke released “A Change Is Gonna Come” as a jarring look at the state of race relations in the United States. 

Then came Vietnam, when the protest songs we hear to this day took the stage. 

 “For What It’s Worth,” written by Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield (who performed the track) is the iconic anti-war song that has been covered so many times I’ve lost count. It was a rallying cry for the anti-war movement and was even recently performed by Billy Porterfollowing protests after the killing of George Floyd. Country Joe and the Fish expressed a similar sentiment with the “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die-Rag,” which they performed live at Woodstock in 1969. The following year, Neil Young of Buffalo Springfield wrote and released “Ohio,” in response to the horrifying Kent State Massacre in which four college students were killed when the National Guard opened fire on a crowd of Vietnam protestors.

Meanwhile, there are many more songs that come to mind that deserved to be named to this day. You could write an entire book and still not include them all, including some modern ones and my favorites, like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” or Green Day’s “American Idiot,” both of which came out in the last 30 years or so. 

Suffice it to say, as this election drags on and we enter into a newer and more politically-contentious time, don’t let people convince you that music never was political. It’s always been and is just a matter of  whether or not we want to see it.

Tony Sheaffer is managing editor for The Sting. He writes Friday Groove, a weekly music column.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: