10 Great American Protest Songs

In the bizarre couple of days immediately following the US election a predictably large amount of codswallop was spouted on social media, and that was just from people I liked. Okay, some was funny – I enjoyed the global competition for who could post the bleakest image of a scorched, mangled, post-apocalyptic urban landscape – but most were excessively earnest memes and one-liners, ultimately as useful as Sean Spicer is a reliable news source. Amid the maelstrom, one tweet, by one of my more eloquent followees, stood out. It drew attention to a line from the R.E.M. song Finest Worksong, in which Stipe sternly informs us that “what we want and what we need has been confused.”

You can always rely on music to cut the crap. Some believe politics and music shouldn’t mix; I’d say it largely depends who’s doing the mixing, and the USA, conveniently, has a grand tradition – arguably grander than Britain – of bracing protest rock songs. The ideas and names trip lightly off the American English tongue in a way that simultaneously convinces, educates and energises, and I’m of the opinion – and I expect I’m not alone in this – that now would be a good time for more. Braver, louder, (perhaps) angrier. So here’s my non-definitive list of favourites, for which the qualification is “they taught me something”…

Gil Scott-Heron – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

You’ve heard it. But have you actually heard it? Scott-Heron’s witheringly articulate and, at times, hilarious depiction of a hypocritical establishment is unsettling, riveting and infused with a fine rage, giving lines like “the revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon blowing a bugle and leading a charge by John Mitchell, General Abrams and Spiro Agnew to eat hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary” added spunk. It’s also (possibly) the best use of a flute in pop music ever.

Rage Against The Machine – Know Your Enemy

At the risk of sounding as crass as the dear new President: thinking is good. Anyone can leap around the place to Killing In The Name screaming “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me“, but it’s Know Your Enemy, the fractionally deeper cut from RATM’s debut album, that I’ve always found packing the more cerebral punch. There was an undeniable power to Zack de la Rocha screaming “Compromise! Conformity! Assimilation! Submission! Ignorance! Hypocrisy! Brutality! The elite! All of which are American dreams!” in front of a pin-drop silent Reading Festival crowd, Plus, for a grammar fan like me, it’s great to hear a modifying clause being hollered with such venom.

Dead Kennedys – Nazi Punks Fuck Off

Speaking of thinking, Dead Kennedys lyrics always bristled with intelligence, and this invigorating definition of what it means – and doesn’t mean – to be a punk is perhaps the band’s best collision of thought and rage. “You’ll be the first to go unless you think,” spits Biafra at the song’s breakneck climax, a phrase that for me has always suggested mohican-sporting oiks wandering into a public library for the first time.

R.E.M. – Ignoreland

There are several brilliant things about Ignoreland. One of them is perhaps a little functional: namely that I always mentally refer to its lyrics when trying to remember US election years (“The information nation took their clues from all the sound-bite gluttons, 1980, 84, 88, 92 too…“) But you’ve got to hand it to Stipe and team for putting such a bilious blast of political ire on an album (Automatic For The People) that went on to sell a zillion copies. The song’s content is timeless, capable of referring to underhand political machinations in 1973, 1991, 2000 and, indeed, 2017: “Marched into the capital brooding duplicitous, wicked and able / media-ready, heartless and labelled“. Stipe strengthens his game by showing flashes of his own humanity: “I’m just profoundly frustrated by all this,” he admits. “I feel better having screamed. Don’t you?

Sam Cooke – A Change Is Gonna Come

And yet… often, the best way of getting your point across is gracefully, politely. Sam Cooke’s peerless song reminds people such as me of sentiments I find hard to fathom: “I go to the movie and I go downtown / somebody keep telling me don’t hang around“. The delicate nature of the piece perhaps reflects that, although a change did indeed come, it’s a status quo fraught with fragility, as waves of both tolerance and intolerance ebb and flow through the years.

Bruce Springsteen – Born In The USA

Sometimes, protest songs need to be huge. Huge tune, huge voice, huge global sales. And a huge, huge misunderstanding of the words. If you’ve recently been lamenting today’s dumb-ass political teams, well, dumb-assery in politics is certainly nothing new: Ronald Reagan’s mob decided Born In The USA could be an appropriately fist-pumping, optimism-fuelled campaign song, before a brighter spark pointed out that the song was actually an attack on the treatment of the forgotten working class in general, and Vietnam war vets in particular. Still, with lyrics like “I’m ten years burning down the road / Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go“, you can see why the confusion crept in.

Edwin Starr – War

As unfiltered blasts of outrage go, Whitfield and Strong’s War is hard to beat. Gloriously uncomplicated and logical in the face of the various dilemmas (“They say we must fight to keep our freedom / But Lord knows there’s gotta be a better way“), its genius is that the protest itself drives the rhythm of the song, rather than vice versa, with Starr’s unmatchable delivery packing a full-throated punch like none of the versions attempted since. Although Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s reading, complete with spoken word section by “Ronald Reagan” (Spitting Image‘s Chris Barrie), is worth a spin.

Tracy Chapman – Talkin’ ‘Bout A Revolution

Although she was all too quickly parked on the shelf marked “slightly edgy dinner party music”, Tracy Chapman’s initial impact was seismic. No one in 1988 played such deceptively simple songs on the acoustic guitar, sang in her unique style, and certainly not with such perfectly aimed lyrics. To be fair, Chapman’s timing was incredible – Mandela was about to be released and European communism was about to fall, surely contributing to the gratification listeners felt – but Revolution is still a concisely inspiring piece, complete with references to welfare lines and rising up to “take what’s theirs” – but peacefully, “like a whisper“. No wonder Bernie Sanders used it during his recent presidential bid.

Public Enemy – Fight The Power

I was at Glastonbury, I’d had a few shandies and a few drags of what Smash Hitsused to call a “luxury cigarette”, and I was eating a veggie curry somewhere in the Green Fields. The curry chef was blasting Public Enemy’s Fear Of A Black Planet from his battered cassette player, and I choked on my pakora upon hearing the line “Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me“. Did he really say that? I understood! I even sympathised! I’d never loved Elvis either. I know this is one of the most white-boy responses to the song ever, but Chuck D’s approach cut right through the hippy vibes, along with other craftknife-sharp lines like “most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps / sample a look back / you look and find nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check“. Of all these songs, this is the one I most want to “accidentally” play loudly over the sound system at a convention of minted Floridian octogenarians.

Joan Baez – We Shall Overcome

In 1983 there was a British TV show called Seaview about a family who owned a Blackpool guest house. Doesn’t sound promising, I grant you, but remember this was the early 80s when even an episode of Play Chess was considered a treat. One instalment of Seaview found the teenage daughter (played by future Blue Peter presenter Yvette Fielding) getting a bit political and, in the face of indifference from her rather frivolous family, stood at a desolate end of the beach, sea wind battering her face, singing a defiant rendition of We Shall Overcome. This is a long-winded way of telling you that from an early age, We Shall Overcome was planted in my mind as the last word in protest songs. It’s a very old ditty, based on a gospel song from the early 1900s, which was then twisted and turned by the likes of Pete Seeger into the definitive anthem for whatever they were calling “snowflakes” in the 60s. Why? What’s so good about it? Well in this case, simplicity, as da Vinci had it, is the ultimate sophistication. “We shall live in peace, some day” – “We’ll walk hand in hand” – “We are not afraid”: powerful, instantly comprehendible themes, and universally applicable to the uphill struggle du jour. Joan Baez, figurehead of the American 60s counterculture and folk revival, sang – and sings – the version to end all versions, her strong soprano nailing the payoff lines until not a dry eye lingers in the house. I’ve a feeling we’ll be singing this one for quite a while yet.

Thanks to Matt Jones and Guy Whittaker.


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