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Ten Protest Songs That Matter

Non-chauvinistic list

It’s interesting to see where and how myopia can affect what we think and write.

The songs listed below are wonderful. But they paint a picture of the world that’s eight out of ten parts American, one part Jamaican and one part British (modern left edition). Oh, and did you know that 80 percent of all protesters are men? I didn’t either. But 80 percent of these songs are covered by men.

If the message is that protest is a universal, global act, this is not a good picture. In fact, it’s exactly the solipsistic picture that most of the world protests against.

So, if someone knows Peter Rothberg, it would be good if they could let him know it would be worthwhile to consider learning more about the protest songs of the following genres and regions and then reformulating this list. It’s possible that the list may have to be limited to post-1900 American music for practical purposes. But in terms of impact, the following eras and regions must be considered:

a) South African music under the apartheid era. The documentary Amandla makes the argument (probably the most harmonious argument in history) that music was the revolution in South Africa. Anybody who has ever been to South Africa knows the intense power that songs generate there—much more so than in the United States. Singing the ANC anthem “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” kept the movement alive. But there are so many others in the protest songbook of South Africa that it would burst any binder. Americans might be familiar with “Biko,” by Peter Gabriel, “Free Nelson Mandela” and “I Ain’t Going to Play Sun City,” by Little Steven van Zandt. A few might know of the great Johnny Clegg and Savuka—the anthropologist-turned-musician who (illegally at the time) joined with his gardner to form the first interracial group in South Africa and sang in both English and Zulu. But most Americans won’t know of the songs in Xhosa!, Zulu and the other eight South African languages that changed a nation.

b) Irish music from the period beginning with, well, music in Ireland. It’s probably more appropriate to ask if there is a popular Irish song that wasn’t a great protest song. “Danny Boy,” “Roddy McCorley”... where does one even begin? Now, these songs are known in America. The Pogues and Black 47 and U2 have written new songs, but they also continually cover the old ones. Shouldn’t “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” by U2, which became a top-5 hit, be on any protest list?

c) If popularity matters (I dunno, but I figure since you want protest songs to be sung by lots of people, mebbe) Bruce Hornsby and the Range’s anti-racism song “That’s Just the Way it Is” was a number one hit in the USA. Modern English’s anti-racism song “I’ll Stop the World and Melt with You” was a number one hit in England. Cheesy. You bet. Do they matter? You’re call.

d) Songs of the French Revolution. “Ca Ira”? “La Marseillaise”? C’mon, people; how can you forget the source!? (Well, with apologies to every Irish song written since Cromwell’s invasion.)

e) Songs from the Abolition movement and the American Civil War. “John Brown’s Body”? “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”? And about fifty songs immediately before the war that I’ve forgotten at the moment but would have caused an entire tavern in New England to grab firearms at the first note. (I guess this is now reserved for New England Patriot cheers.) Conversely, though we don’t like to think about it this way, “Dixie” might have as powerful a protest song as “Nkosi Sikel! iAfrika.” Other songs that have to be in any protest list: “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again,” “Go Down Moses,” “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”

f) Songs from Australia and New Zealand. A country (Australia) formed in part by wrongly convicted Irish people, founded on the destruction of the oldest continuous culture on earth, and made national by an act of suicide (the disastrous attempted Anzac invasion of Turkey in World War I) might be expected to generate a few slightly savage protest songs. (“I Wish I Was Back Home in Derry” is sung to the same tune as “The Wreak of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” But is even more agonizing.) “Waltzing Matilda,” the national song, is a protest song. But “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” covered by June Tabor and many others, is protest song against that protest song. I’ve never played it without having someone break into tears. The Aboriginal protest songs are largely unknown in the US. But the great band Midnight Oil’s proxy songs “Wakura,” “Beds Are Burning,” “Dreamworld” and “The Dead Heart” are electrifying. The leader of the band, Peter Garrett, is unarguably the best 6-foot-8-inch, shave-headed protest singer with a law degree who later served as his country’s environmental minister ever. That he is the only one is a trivial point. What’s not is that Midnight Oil, despite not satisfying all Aboriginal groups, gave about half its profits to the Aboriginal movement, raised awareness about the Aboriginal genocide to the point where it became standard to teach it in Australian schools, and actually spearheaded changes in Australian land-use laws.

In New Zealand, the Hakka, an amalgamation of Maori war chants, also changed the nation. This is visible to any American who watches a New Zealand national team dance and sing it before competing in any international fora.

g) Songs from the 1989 freedom movements in Eastern Europe. What’s interesting here is that because of the effectiveness of Soviet bloc censorship, the protest songs that helped break the back of Stalinism came from elsewhere. Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground were touchstones for Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution. West German songs were central to East Germany’s protests. And, (pace Nena, 99 Luftballoons; the German contributions to the anti-nuclear movement).

h) Ummmm. Women?!?! See above. Yeah, I know, no one paid attention to women, so we don’t have all the songs written by them. But, actually, that’s not true. Songs are the repository for women’s protests against patriarchy in all places. I’m tempted to go into all the nursery rhymes (“Mary, Mary,” “Rock-a-Bye Baby” ) that are actually vicious protest songs. And that’s just in England. But, alas, I’m too ignorant about women’s protest songs internationally to say anything trenchant here. Help, people! I guess what John Lennon sang is still true, “Woman is the Nigger of the World.”

i) Christy Moore and Bruce Cockburn. Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan remain America’s touchstone protest singers. But Christy Moore has been blistering away for thirty years—and not just in Ireland, anymore. His “Hattie Carroll”… sorry, Mr. Zimmerman, you’ll have to take the back seat on this one. As for Bruce Cockburn, I can only speak personally and say that “If a Tree Falls” changed the way I looked at rainforest destruction; “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” brought the Guatemalan genocide to the forefront of my consciousness; and “And They Call It Democracy” makes the crimes of the World Trade Organization and the G-9 clear on a gut level without reducing them to generic “greed.”

j) Joe Hill—’nuff Said. Except that Joe Hill reaches back into a tradition of sung protest that stretches back 400 years to seventeenth-century England. The Diggers, the Levelers, the Quakers, the Shakers. The promise of equality was born before the Enlightenment. In the Anglo-Saxon world, it was born out of the dust of God. Adam—literally dust and earth in Hebrew/Semitic languages. We are all dust. We are all equal.

k) Finally, Cuba and other singers from Latin America. Yeesh; it’s embarrassing not to have anything by Sandino or Marti in here. At the very, very least, let’s put in “Guantanamera.” I know that, today, the song is used as a potent weapon by Mariachi Bands who bombard you with it until you pay them to go away. But Jose Marti’s lyrics (they’re not the original ones) are soooo beautiful.

With the poor people of the earth
I want to cast my lot
The brook of the mountains
Gives me more pleasure than the sea

Is it not fair to say that these words about fighting on the right side of the class war are sung more often in the United States than others?
So much irony that it might be toxic to small children.


Neal Shultz

Fordham University, NY

Apr 28 2011 - 12:59pm