For this collection of protest songs, I wanted to think about a range of styles, new and old. The songs that came to mind ended up sharing similar messages. This made me aware of some themes that get my attention in music, poetry and life: beauty and humanity compromised by hate, power, greed & fear, the pointlessness of war, empowering the voices of marginalized people, western trespasses and how do we mend them?, prophetic looking towards the future, and ideas of going back to nature.
Some recurring styles of these songs are: blues, using an image to bring awareness, repetition, a stripped-down, clear voice; rhyme, poignant lyrics, tragic, universal stories; reflecting the times and places the speaker finds themselves in; either somber toned, or catchy and getting you to sing along with dark lyrics. These styles are often poetic, and work to create the awareness of beauty. The listener’s realization through song that beauty and life is being destroyed sparks emotions of sorrow, grief and anger.
Protest songs move us to feel & think honestly, and often remind us of the frailty of life, and the injustice of needlessly endangering it.
The calling out that happens in protest songs allows the truth to be acknowledged, which leads to embarking upon a process of healing and change.
My goal was to ask each of the following songs: how do you work as a protest song, and how do you move me?
PJ Harvey, In the Dark Places , 2011
Harvey’s latest release, Let England Shake, is a concept album – and the entire thing is protest.Here, Harvey confronts guilt inherited from a culture of brutal colonizers, weighed with an enduring love for her homeland, England. Each song has poetic lyrics—“the land returns to how it has always been/the scent of thyme carried on the wind,” threading to tell a story of war’s consequences: blood & destruction, loss of life, friendships, and sacred place.
Some songs on the album have a folk-story feel to them, such as “Colour of the Earth,” which describes a soldier who loses his dearest friend Louis on the battlefield, and Louis is a displaced ghost “up on that hill still,” 20 years later.
Harvey has a gorgeous rock voice & unique sound, and when she uses it to protest war, it is sorrowful & chilling. The first song I heard off this album, “In the Dark Places,” stopped me at work with the chorus, “So our young men / hid with guns / in the dirt / and in the dark places,” these lyrics drive home the reality of sending our youth off to be traumatized murderers, and how pointless it is, “not one man has appeared, not one woman has revealed the secrets of this world.”
Lucinda Williams, Soldier’s Song, 2011
“Soldier’s Song” tells the story of a modern soldier at war, who doesn’t know what he’s fighting for. The lyrics are structured so that every other line refers to thinking about the life of the soldier’s lover and kid back home, in parallel to the heaviness of war that he’s immersed in. The solider is unsure of killing his enemy, and doesn’t know why he’s in a war zone. He thinks of his woman and child as he sees other kids dying around in him on foreign land.
Williams vocals sound like they’re crying here—desperate, cold, alone—the voice of the soldier who’s speaking.
I can’t look my enemy in the eye
Baby tells the little one, daddy’s gone bye-bye
Today I took a bullet through the heart
Baby’s gonna have to make a brand new start.
The sensitive soldier being killed in battle while thinking of his family drives home what a horrible waste war is.
Lucinda William’s latest album, blessed, is a living project – she interviewed poor people of diverse backgrounds for it, and asked them how they’re blessed. It’s modern documentation of the beauty and perservearance of humanity.
Billy Bragg & Wilco, Let’s have Christ for President, 1998
This is from the album “Mermaid Avenue,” songs by Woody Guthrie that he never recorded before he died.
“Let’s have Christ for president…cast your vote for the carpenter” is a tongue-in cheek plea: if Christ was president, the religious fanatics would be happy, and it would bring spirituality into politics.
The true message of the song comes in this verse:
every year we waste enough
to feed the ones who starve
we build our civilization up
and we shoot it down with wars
This is ultimately a protest song about the pointlessness of war, and it uses the carpenter—the workingman— as a mascot. I’ve found that using a mascot, or an image to represent a problem, recurs in protest songs.
The lyrics of this song are in meter, with the b/d lines rhymed—showing how poetry can bloom into song.
The Clash, Inoculated City, 1982
Lead singer Joe Strummer wails, “No one mentions the neighboring-war, no one knows what the fighting is for, we are tired of the tune, you must not relent.” By singing they are tired of the tune, the song’s affirming: we do relent to our “enemies,” we don’t want to fight.
“Inoculated City” is from Combat Rock, a protest album in punk-ska form. It features Allen Ginsberg doing spoken word buddhist-esque poetry on the song “Ghetto Defendant.”
The beat is catchy pop that hooks the listener, while the lyrics question war and describe the fearful combat atmosphere of a local British town. The tone has urgency – a cold war feel – like dancing while scared for loss of life at the same time.
Devendra Banhart, Heard Somebody Say, 2005
Avant-garde folksinger poet Devandra Banhart is direct in protesting war here – and he gives voice to my feelings. I wish “Heard Somebody Say” were the anthem of my generation. It starts in a hopeful tone,
I heard somebody say,
that the war ended today,
but everybody knows
it’s going still.
Then sings “here’s what we believe,” and repeats: “it’s simple, we don’t want to kill,” in a climax of emotional triumph. The piano and breathy vocals give the song a gentle march-feel.
for human rights:
Sonic Youth, SmallFlowersCrackConcrete,2000
“Small Flowers Crack Concrete” is about the oppression of protest. It has a spoken word, Beat poetic feel to it, & is also very disjointed—typical of Sonic Youth’s New York City based, experimental style, and the content matches form here. The song’s talking about how the poets, spiritual ones, lovers and youths are suppressed by the ones in power. “The narcs beat the bearded oracles / replacing… love / with complete violence.” It leaves you with the feeling that it’s asinine to replace beauty with violence, and addresses authority, “What did you expect, another mystic wreck?…left me with a tombstone dream.” The song follows an arc of controlled rage—the beginning draws eerie attention to quiet spoken word, rises in momentum with rhythmic guitar and harmonizing vocals, and ends with the epigraph: “Death poems for the living gods of America…cops crashing through doors infuriated by silver charms of suburban smoke / at war with patches of red dirt glitter / and blue jean fucking and protest.” This says to me: you won’t get away with driving the artists to madness for their innocence and killing them, we’re still here, calling you out.
JB Lenoir’s blue is stripped down, folky and rhythmic. I like his high, emotional, uniquely gorgeous voice.
Lenoir sacrificed popularity for honesty. Black blues artists haven’t traditionally been able to confront their oppressors-because the results would be fatal-so they often had to talk in code language, yet JB Lenoir offers a clear voice of dissention. His songs openly confront inequality, racism against blacks, and war.
Alabama Blues tells a chilling story of being killed because of being black. “My brother was taken up for my mother, and a police officer shot him down…And the whole world let them peoples go down there free.” This song is just Lenoir and his guitar—giving it a somber ballad sound. He uses a standard walking blues rhythm, with some complicated solo digressions.
Buffy Sainte-Marie, My Country ‘Tis of thy People You’re Dying, 1966
Here, Buffy Sainte-Marie successfully takes up the monumental task of explaining the facts to the non-native who’s been told lies about history throughout their existence. It’s a summation of true Native American post-Euro-contact: genocide, broken treaties, smallpox blankets, kidnapped and placed in abusive boarding schools, “taught to despise their traditions,” censorship, lies, oppression, impoverishment. I like how she takes the familiar riff, “My country tis of thy,” and turns it with a slap of reality, “my people you’re dying.” Sainte-Marie’s voice is anguished yet incredibly beautiful here, accompanied by bare guitar strumming. “Survivors blood grows redder” –a testament to anger and strength.
This song allows the listener to see clearly how native people have been terrorized by the white world. It stems from hundreds of years of outrage, and it brings outrage to hear it. It ends with “can’t you see how their poverty’s profiting you” – referring to how all non-natives in America benefit from the colonization and exploitation of indigenous peoples.
Tindersticks, Black Smoke, 2010
I went down to the river, but the river’s drowned
I went down to the river, but the river’s choked
In black smoke black smoke
The lyrics make good blues poetry.
The speaker in the story got shot down, and he goes to the river for comfort, but the river’s shot down too. I like this song as an environmental call to action against dirty industry, because I love rivers. The song’s crying out for what the greed system has done to us as people, and what it’s done to the earth.
“Black Smoke” has a signature Tindersticks style: spoken word layering with wild poetic singing, percussion and horns, in a sonic stream.
It ends with reclaiming life: “we make love in the afternoon as though nothing was wrong.”
Joan Baez, What Have They Done to the Rain, 1962
On a live album, Baez prefaced this song by saying, “I’ll sing you the gentlest protest song I know, it doesn’t protest gently, but it sounds gentle.” It was written to stop nuclear testing in the atmosphere. The lyrics are simple poetry, containing only a few lines about the falling rain and a boy disappeared, with Baez solo singing and picking her guitar.
“What have they done to the rain” says: if we kill the earth, we kill ourselves, and if we kill each other, we kill ourselves too. It asks why beauty is being destroyed.
I was thinking of the chorus to this song, “what have they done to the rain,” when I wrote the poem, “enough,” about tribal land and people being poisoned by agent orange, agent purple, and agent white testing.
In “What have they Done to the Rain,” like in “Black Smoke,” the speaker is associating themselves with nature—water specifically —making environmental protection a personal, human plea.
Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues, 2011
Helplessness Blues has chilling lyrics, which accurately reflect the times,
To the men who move only in dimly-lit halls and determine my future for me…
If I know only one thing, it’s that everything that I see
Of the world outside is so inconceivable often I barely can speak…
What good is it to sing helplessness blues, why should I wait for anyone else?
The song’s saying life is a miracle to marvel at—and we’re all born beautiful and unique—but our lives get warped in the hands of creepy, government/business men who have the power to destroy everything for money. It’s in those men’s best interest for the masses to be sheep, not thinking, singing, or breaking free.
This song makes my skin tingle—the singer is so sincere, urgent and emotional— juxtaposing the beauty he feels and sees with being helpless in a world where your life isn’t really your own. We’re brought up to be cogs in a machine.
I like how Fleet Foxes ends this with, “If I had an orchard, I’d work ‘til I’m raw.”
That’s the occupation that me, and many others of my generation are thinking about: the need to be community and land based, self-sustaining workers –outside the system of working for dim-hall men.
Fugazi, the Kill, 2001
“the Kill” articulates my feelings of being trapped in a system of ”—family obligation-occupation-assimilation-annihilation—“ that’s geared for profit of the few in power. We’re born into categories of “race and nation,” with a brutal history of racist oppressors and colonizers on our backs.
The chorus, “I’m not a citizen,” feels like the singer’s cry for freedom to be outside society—and in fact, being removed from the mainstream seems to be a precursor to protest. The singer describes the ills of a poison culture in a spoken word, drone style, and then he repeats, “I’m not a citizen.” This is such a cool, smooth song, which asks the listener to wake up to the world around them.
Joy Harjo, Reality Show, 2004
The singing in Indian is a beautiful intro/outro, and it seems to hold the song in both roots and future—reclaiming life, while making the listener recognize the people and sacred lands that have been put at stake by the predominant version of reality. The music is a blend of native-blues-jazz. It calls out the craziness of materialistic, industrial society, and commands us to wake up and pay attention. The song asks why? Children are killing children. Where are the most important things – kindness and love?
I think the title is effective as irony—the “reality” of mainstream society is a fabrication: like a tv show. The speaker is looking at the world from outside the reality show—and has a clearer perspective then those who believe in the hoax.
“Reality Show” poses similar questions as Fugazi’s “the Kill”, “why are we caught up in the false prophets of prosperity, and forgetting what’s real?” “How do we get out of here?” feels akin to singing, “I’m not a citizen” of the reality show.
I like the line, “ruled by…baby girls in stiletto heels;” it reminds me of the kind of feminist, satirical social commentary Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth often makes.
Neil Young, When god made me, 2005
Neil young has long spoken out against the war machine and racism, such as in the classic, “Alabama,” but this song from 2005 offers a subtler version of protest. Its tone is introspective questioning, but the questioning is rhetorical: “When god made me,
Was he thinking about my country,
or the color of my skin?
Was he thinking about my religion,
and the way I worshipped him?
Did he create just me in his image,
or every living thing?
…did he envision all the wars who were fought in his name?
The song affirms that it would be sick to worship a creator who made people privileged based on race, class, and country, and envisioned his creations killing each other. The song is structured to sound like a church hymn, and Young plays piano in it.
Miriam Makeba, A Piece of Ground, 1972
“A piece of Ground” tells a history of colonization in Africa: whites discovering Africa and wanting it as their own land, discovering resources, then exploiting black labor to get them, enslaving and killing blacks.
The song warns whites that the blacks are now demanding their own piece of ground—there will be uprising and Africans will get their land back.
Miriam Makeba’s voice is beautiful, smooth and powerful, backed by Spanish style guitar and cool rattle percussion here, creating a momentum of uprising.
Radiohead, Bloom, 2011
I think of this as transcendental protest song.
The speaker is so spread thin, he has given up on any socio-economic system, and so, is throwing himself out into the universe of poetic dreaming: “across a great divide. a giant turtle’s eyes. jellyfish float by. your rules do not apply.” March-like drums, fast piano, dramatic, bird violins, and space noises accompany the disconnected lyrics.
Radiohead has a reputation of subverting authority in innovative ways – and it’s encouraging that they’re a widely popular band. Over the past few years, they’ve done things like let people purchase their albums for however much they think they’re worth, and have put out newspapers filled with poetry and art for free around the world, calling it the “universal sigh.”