“In a Certain Moment, the Right Song Can Start a Fire”
We live in a political world
The one we can see and feel
But there’s no one to check
It’s all a stacked deck.
— Bob Dylan, “Political World”
The protest song is nearly as old as songs themselves. While generally considered to have originated in the United States around the time of the Revolutionary War, tunes mocking the aristocracies, kings, queens, and the power elite of their day have been around ever since kingdoms themselves existed.
In the 19th century, protest songs centered on abolition, slavery, and the Civil War. In the early part of the 20th century, the focus shifted to the labor movement, class struggle, the Depression, racial discrimination, and the first world war. The African-American spiritual “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a prime example of how protest and the instrument of racial equality and the civil rights movement was born in churches in black communities around the country, for the simple reason that the church, along with segregated schools, was the only place where African-Americans could congregate in large numbers.
Can there be any doubt that the underpinnings of blues as a genre were discrimination, second-class citizenship, and the deprivation of life and liberty? It gave rise to the saying, “The blues ain’t the way you feel, it’s the way you live each day.” Living in poverty, denied the right to participate in “democracy” with the simple act of voting, and fearful of even looking a white person in the eye cannot help but be reflected in your art. Can anyone deny the horror of racial terrorism when listening to Billie Holiday sing “Strange Fruit”?
The labor struggles were also fertile ground for protest songs. In organizing workers, the International Workers of the World activist Joe Hill wrote and sang political songs, the most well-known being “The Preacher and the Slave,” which called for “Workingmen of all countries, unite / Side by side we for freedom will fight / When the world and its wealth we have gained / To the grafters we’ll sing this refrain.” He also coined the phase “pie in the sky,” which is still used today. Women were also integral to the labor movement. In addition to Mother Jones, Aunt Molly Jackson was singing songs with striking coal miners in Harlan, Kentucky, in the ’30s with songs such as “Hungry Ragged Blues” and “Poor Miner’s Farewell.”
Woody Guthrie famously had the words “This machine kills fascists” written on his guitar. Pete Seeger was originally sentenced to prison for refusing to tell the McCarthy hearings about where and for what audiences he performed his songs. He said he’d sing his songs for the, but they declined and found him in contempt instead.
Then came the prospect of nuclear annihilation and the civil rights and anti-war movements. Those movements are still with us. While Dylan and Phil Ochs wrote most of the famous protest songs of that era, also infiltrating the pop charts were Barry McQuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and, the decade before, Nat King Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” Dylan still does “Blowing in the Wind” in his sets, and performed “The Times They Are A-Changin'” at the White House. Lest I fail to mention it, “We Shall Overcome” and several others performed by Peter, Paul and Mary made it to the pop charts.
Perhaps writers of anti-war and peace songs have been the most prolific, from “I Didn’t Raise My Son to Be a Soldier” to Ochs’ “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” and Dylan’s “Masters of War.” And then there are the laments, like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “When the Roses Bloom Again.”
As with “Strange Fruit,” can anyone likewise deny the rage aginst the war on Vietnam after hearing Hazel Dickens’ “Will Jesus Wash the Bloodstains From Your Hands?”
It must also be remembered that the protest and social movements never really went away: see Jon Langford’s pro-life, anti-death penalty shows and albums, Si Kahn’s fight against the for-profit prison system, Nanci Griffith and Emmylou Harris’ world free of landmines concerts, Jackson Browne’s environmental involvement, Ani DiFranco’s feminism, John Trudell’s Native American activism, Steve Earle, and Patti Smith’s anthem, “People Have the Power.”
There’s also another way to look at it all. In 1985 interviewer John Vernile asked Bruce Cockburn about music and social change. “(B)ecoming a Christian and having explored internally what that meant, (I) found myself trying to understand what it meant to love my neighbor and to care about what happens to the people around me. The concern started to reflect itself more in the songs and resulted in a tendency to take social and political issues much more seriously than I did before. I don’t think music can bring about social change by itself. I think it can be a crystalizing agent for waves of feeling that move through all of us.”
"Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable." — Banksy
This is not meant to be a brief, however inadequate, history lesson, but rather to say that songs of protest, peace, social progress, and equality and the folks who write and sing those songs have been a significant part of the American fabric for as along as we have been America. So, we should all be set for what may be the most artistic upheaval and active protest by musical artists of every genre that we have ever seen in the coming four years. Many musicians have openly protested the incoming president and his policies ever since he announced his candidacy. Can we not expect to see that only increase? Not just in music, but in all the arts? Most notably in comedy. From Will Rogers to Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl to Jon Stewart and Seth Meyers, who would have thought that some of our most insightful social commentary would come from comedians?
Same with songwriters and musicians. Perhaps we will hear Florence Reese’s labor anthem “Which Side are You On,” which Natalie Merchant so eloquently covered on her The House Carpenter’s Daughter album, more often as the country perhaps grows even more divided.
Last Wednesday, as reported in Billboard magazine, when Bruce Springsteen was asked about his political activism by Bob Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum, he did not refer to Donald Trump. Rather, he spoke about “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” as songs “directly aimed at socially, politically conscious people and are important in the same way hymns are important in church. It makes us stronger in our beliefs. And in a certain moment, the right song can start a fire.”
This week’s slideshow of photographs includes some of those who have lent their talents and voices to more than themselves, and in the process have disturbed the comfortable.