Protest Songs

November 21, 2011 7:22 PM

OWS will peter out eventually, but I'm thinking and hoping that the Era of American Protest is just starting and will continue until we see solid results.

I've been trying to write for the last couple of weeks and I'm stuck in a place between fact and opinion. Nobody gives a shit about an opinion and the facts and specific problems are so numerous and damning as to boggle the mind. (Conspiracy theory: that's the whole point...cause people to be too dumbfounded to act.)

I don't want to be too dumbfounded. To get over the hump and to get a better feel for what I'm doing, I'm asking for you to suggest the best and your favorite Protest Songs. Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, U2, Rage Against the Machine?

Any discussion on the 60's, Woodstock, and movements in general are also appreciated.

Something has to give. Generations, factions, subcultures and various races and cultures need to be united to make this thing, the U.S., work properly. Song may not be the answer, but it might be a start.

posted by snsranch (17 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

Elvis Costello has written two of my favourite protest songs - both are arguably about the same person, and both take different tacks in getting their point across.

Shipbuilding is lyrically subtle, measured and sad, while Tramp The Dirt Down is incandescent with rage. It's almost as though, having tried to get it all out in an artistically valid way and failed (for some value of failure), he chooses to just attack blindly. I love both songs.
posted by Jofus at 12:55 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Personally, I'm a fan of Rage Against the Machine and The Proclaimers. Yes, those The Proclaimers. Free Scotland, and all that. I couldn't tell you, really, why I like RAtM, but God, I do (actually, I can--it's 99% Tom Morello). I can't not like them, though I have to be in a particularly pissed-off mood to really want to listen to them.

The Proclaimers, though, I could go on for days on why they're a bloody spectacular team, and anyone who thinks they only have 1-2 good songs isn't paying attention.
posted by askmeaboutLOOM at 3:03 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

The best protest songs have an emotional core to them which lifts them above polemic. Shipbuilding is the epitome of that for me -- the Robert Wyatt version will always be the one for me.

Growing up in 80s England, protest songs were everywhere. Several bands did nothing else -- the Redskins, for example. The whole posi-punk/anti-racism thing was essentially about protest in one form or another. Free Nelson Mandela has a joyful tinge which again gives it that emotional whack. There was also Working Weeks' jazzy Venceremos, also featuring Robert Wyatt.

Casting the net wider, Thomas Mapfumo and Fela Kuti recorded some of the great political music of all time.

I've also got a huge soft spot for The Mighty Gabby's fantastic Government Boots.

I hate the phrase 'protest song' though. 'Rebel song' is much more powerful.

I'm even gonna class this as a kind of protest song.... maybe the best kind.
posted by unSane at 5:22 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

99% Tom Morello

ha, exactly
posted by unSane at 5:23 AM on November 22, 2011

Many thanks, this is great food for me. I'm kind of surprised about The Proclaimers and Elvis Costello because I've only heard their pop-radio stuff, so thanks for turning me on.

I just realized that I wrote, "Era of American Protest." Sorry about that, I thought I edited out American because there is much to fight for these days and the American story is just one part.

*I'm off to listen and learn*
posted by snsranch at 6:34 PM on November 22, 2011

Great question, snsranch. I'll add the angle that protest songs can be really powerful without necessarily sounding like the 1960s model of protest song.

Brazilian singer Chico Buarque has a bunch of examples of double entendres that got by military censors during the dictatorship by appearing to be Carnaval sambas or religious music.

This one, called "despite you," sounds like a party if you don't know the words, but the double meaning of emotional "state" and political "state" works in Portuguese as well as English, so it's a breakup song to the general in charge that includes the refrain "despite you, tomorrow will be another day."

This is a pseudo-religious song that starts with the line from the bible "Father, take this chalice from me" but the words for 'chalice' (cálice) and 'shut up!' (cale-se) sound the same, so he's really saying "Authority figure, take this gag order from me." At one point, Buarque sang this song live with Gilberto Gil, mumbling it instead of singing the lines, and the police still turned off his microphone. He moved over to the next microphone, and they turned that one off too. So he moved over to the next one. Here's that scene. The most powerful lines in the song, I think, in the context of a brutal government that 'disappears' people are "When the pig is too fat, it can no longer walk, when the knife is used too much, it can no longer cut."

There is one other song by Buarque that is more 'dissonant noir bossa' than what you might think of as a traditional protest song. It's about the last day in the life of a construction worker, who is building a building that most likely, he will never be able to enter once it's done. He gets drunk and commits suicide by jumping off the scaffolding, and the melody that repeats throughout traces the rhythm of his last steps. Because it's a saturday, and manual workers work six days a week, while white-collar professionals only work five days a week, his body landing in the street upsets people going to the beach--the traffic jam is all they care about. A clanging horn section comes in to sound the car horns.
posted by umbú at 7:33 PM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think it's a shame that the political song became somewhat defined by the 60s folk movement in the US, to the extent that when we hear 'protest song' we think of Baez, Dylan and Buffalo Springfield. Because there are so many other beautiful ways to skin a political cat.

Marvin Gaye - What's Going On

Billie Holliday - Strange Fruit

Gil Scott-Heron - The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Tom Robinson - Glad to be Gay

Peter Gabriel - Biko

OMD - Enola Gay

Edwin Starr - War

Kate Bush - Army Dreamers

The Jam - Going Underground

Malcolm X & Keith LeBlanc - No Sell Out

Last Poets - Niggers are Scared of Revolution

Sam Cooke - A Change is Gonna Come

Steve Earle - Jerusalem

And on and on and on. I think the only lesson is it has to be a great song.
posted by unSane at 10:09 PM on November 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

(Also, I'm not enough of a folkie/celtic junkie to delve into that area, but the whole subculture of Irish rebel songs and English revolutionary anthems is another area entirely. I've started to get a lot more interested in the whole notion of ballads recently, mostly because they tell a story and you don't have to keep going back to a chorus like a dog returning to its own vomit!)
posted by unSane at 10:14 PM on November 22, 2011

Along the lines of the OMD song, I've always thought that Sleeping In by The Postal Service was/wasn't a protest song during the up is down Bush years.

Also, the song and video for Rotten Town by OneChot uses smudges of blood in a powerful protest.
posted by umbú at 8:35 AM on November 23, 2011

The Mekons are in my estimation better at protest songs than anybody in the past three decades at least, and that's really saying something. Four or five of Jon Langford's songs on their excellent 1988 masterwork So Good It Hurts are protest songs – some of my favorite protest songs, in fact.

For instance, there's "Vengeance" –
Don't be depressed, don't be downhearted
There's a mighty crisis comin'
Peals of thunder, pearls of wisdom
Reagan, Thatcher dead and gone
I also really like "Robin Hood" –
Like beautiful maggots inside rotten apples
Spitting out the juices of kings and big-arsed barons
Fat on the Crusades, slaughtered by assassins
Afraid to walk the glades of the land they own

Rise like lions! Shake your chains, babe!
Ye are many, and they are few!
Take from the rich and give to the poor!
Take from the rich and give to the poor!
I like the way the Mekons manage the protest song because their approach so clearly has a history behind it. Invoking the memory of medieval peasants taking back the forests and making those to whom they pledge fealty afraid to walk their own lands as though those peasants have common cause with modern movements may seem strange, but there's an incredible power to looking back on eight centuries as a legacy of struggle. And I also like the ornamental quality of these songs; there's always a lush beauty to the imagery even as there's a revolutionary spirit underpinning them, and Jon Langford has this ability to make even political songs ring with personal details.
posted by koeselitz at 9:04 AM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yeah, another vote for the Mekons. And Gang of Four (To Hell With Poverty - truly epic song and dancing). And New Model Army, who also had a song called Vengeance, with a great sidewinder of a baseline and the unforgettable anthemic refrain:
I believe in justice
I believe in vengeance
I believe in getting the bastard, getting the bastard, getting the bastard

posted by unSane at 11:19 AM on November 23, 2011

Wondering if anyone here (MeFiMusicians) has any of their own protest songs they can point to. As for me, I've got this, this, this and this here at the site.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:30 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I asked a question about counterculture on the green a while ago. Last answer was about Utah Philips. There were loads of references that could be of interest.
Thanks for this question, the answers so far have been really interesting.
posted by nicolin at 2:48 AM on November 25, 2011

...we hear 'protest song' we think of Baez, Dylan and Buffalo Springfield.

Yea, absolutely. In all honesty I've been practicing guitar and harmonica on neck-mount for a couple of weeks, but I'm realizing now that the '60's stuff, while not only old, has been re-packaged and re-sold so many times it seems to not even mean anything's kinda lost it's bite.

So I'm very happy to have been turned on to stuff that is from across the pond, from Africa and Central/South America.

Apparently there can be joy and exuberance in a little protest!
posted by snsranch at 4:18 PM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Not only joy and exuberance, sns, but power!

One of the things that was great about late 70s/80/90s political music was that it was generally NOT performed in tone of passive complaint ie powerlessness but power. The music really helps with that. A joyful song makes you feel you will triumph. A powerful song makes you feel powerful. A moving song inspires you to get up off your ass.

Woody's 'This Land is Our Land' is written as a positive assertion.

I don't think there's anything wrong with guitars and harmonicas: it's all in the song.
posted by unSane at 4:36 PM on November 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Also, one of my absolute favorites.
posted by unSane at 4:39 PM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

This song by John Prine is one that I think of as a kind of protest song. It's ostensibly about a girl who, by the end of the song, is revealed to be an utterly undiscriminating whore who'll sleep with anyone. But the references to American patriotism ("I used to sleep at the foot of old glory and awaken to dawn's early light") position the tune's subject matter as metaphorical, I believe. His love for her, but his discovery that she's really no good, and his refusal "to fight for a thing that ain't right" can be read as his feelings about America. Anyway, that's how I interpret it.

Otherwise, this one from Prine is much more clearly overt in its political message. I love both of these tunes, and, hell, just about anything else from John Prine, for that matter.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:18 AM on November 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

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