What Can I Do?
It’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot over the past week-and-change as I see concern and frustration for long unaddressed social injustices spill on to the streets of America and, increasingly, beyond.
Sure, there are little things I can and have done to help. But, as a music journalist and music historian, maybe there is one thing I can do better than most. Below, I’ve put together a playlist of my ten favorite protest songs. I hope you enjoy and, please, feel free to share.
If this list provides inspiration, comfort, or even just a means to while away 45 minutes or so to someone, especially someone taking a more active role, then I’ve been able to put my talents to work for the forces of good.
A Caveat: I make no claims this is a list of the best protest songs, they are the are the ones which most move me…but that reflects my age, my geography, and my background (which is to say, this is protest music through the filter of a middle-aged white guy … albeit one very knowledgeable in music). I am very aware that large sections of protest music are either unrepresented or underrepresented here (especially the contributions of hip-hop and folk). If you find this list does not move you, I encourage you to assemble and share your own list.
#10 Fortunate Son — Credence Clearwater Revival
While largely identified with the Vietnam War (to the extent that there are jokes about the requirement it be played during any helicopter scene in movies about that war), its lyrics are explicitly appropriate to any situation where the privileges of the few are built upon the backs of the many.
#9 “Vietnam” — Jimmy Cliff
While another explicitly Vietnam song, its author, Jamaican Reggae virtuoso Jimmy Cliff, has a lifelong record of musical and personal involvement with issues of social justice and anti-colonialism/anti-neocolonialism. No less a personage that Bob Dylan called Vietnam “the best protest song I’ve ever heard.”
#8 “Which Side Are You On” Dropkick Murphys
A traditional labor movement song, written by Florence Reece, an organizer with United Mine Workers in Kentucky during the troubled 1930s. While versions by Pete Seeger and Billy Bragg are better known, this Dropkick Murphys cover better matches my musical taste and, perhaps, the vibe of the moment.
#7 “Do You Hear the People Sing” – Les Mis
Created for the 1980 musical Les Miserables, set against the backdrop of the 1832 Paris Uprising, the song very rapidly gained genuine protest cred, being used in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War as well as for demonstrations in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the United States, Turkey, Ukraine, and Iraq. But, please, people … why isn’t there a punk cover of this available?
#6 Born in Chicago — Paul Butterfield Blues Band
An early hit for the PBBB, an Chicago-based outfit that were pioneers in taking blues mainstream (or, more accurately, universally mainstream) the song is condemnation of violence and the poverty, deprivation, and lack of opportunity that underpin it.
#5 “God Save the Queen” – The Sex Pistols
Yes, at the end of the day, no matter how punk rock they were, the Sex Pistols were a pre-fab boy band. That never stopped them from delivering blistering, high-octane criticism of Thatcherite Britain’s social policies (and probably works just as well for Johnson’s tenure).
#4 Rockin in the Free World – Neil Young
While Buffalo Springfield alum Neil Young has a lengthy protest pedigree, this masterpiece of scathing social commentary wasn’t released until 1989; a portrayal of Reagan/Bush I-era America (a period which seems almost quaint today). While, in Britain, such social critique was largely associated with punk; in North America, along with homegrown punk musicians, Heartland Rockers such as Young were powerful voices in protest music.
#3 The Revolution Will Not Be Televised – Gil Scott-Heron
A poet and spoken-word artist as much as a musician, Scott-Heron’s classic offers an almost scholarly yet impassioned catalog and analysis of 1970 America’s social ills (most of which remain with us to this day) set to a feverishly hypnotic beat. No disrespect is intended to Scott-Heron for selecting a video which does not feature his image, I was fortunate to find this video montage with scenes from recent events and felt that took precedence.
#2 This Land is Your Land – Woody Guthrie
If you know anything about me, you know I’m not a big folkie. I like noise, energy, and amplification. But I find it impossible not to like to the modest, soulful poet from Oklahoma who took folk music into the mainstream (and who embossed his guitar with a declaration that music had the power the change minds and promote justice). In many ways, that simple refrain expressed in ten words, “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land,” is the Ur-text of American protest music. Every else is commentary and expansion.
#1 The Man in Black — Johnny Cash
I continue to be amazed how many people I run into, from all parts of the political spectrum, who either don’t know or actively deny that “Man in Black” is a protest song. Not only is it a protest song (a simple perusal of its lyrics will put that issue to rest), for me it is perhaps the greatest protest song of all time. To paraphrase some Wikipedia contributor (who, to be honest, did better than anything this music journalist would have come up with) it is a stinging indictment of the exploitation of the poor by the rich, war, mass incarceration and many other issues – delivered by a once-troubled man who grew into an almost Christ-like compassion for the downtrodden and dispossessed.
A little editorializing: So, do I agree with every sentiment expressed in the lyrics of these songs? Or, for that matter, every image in the videos accompanying them? A fair question. No, I don’t. But I agree with enough of them and, most important, the underlying sentiment behind them to include them here.