The photo of Woody Guthrie’s guitar above shows how confident the dustbowl balladeer was that songs can have a massive impact on society.
It’s fair to assume that, from the very first moment that humans started to sing, they were aware that song had the emotive power to call people to action. How better to get your message across, and make it memorable (especially in times when literacy was much more of a rarity) than to write it into a memorable lyric set to a catchy tune?
WEA tutor Judith Murphy explores the power of protest songs.
If the Establishment has its national anthems and its military marches, if football crowds use chants to motivate their teams, if film-makers choose soundtracks with great care, then they must also be aware of the power of music to generate a sense of belonging. These melodic campaigns may not actually change policies but they’re vital in winning hearts and minds. So, what better way to challenge what’s wrong in society than to write your own protest songs?
And, incidentally, if you don’t have a catchy tune in mind, there’s a long and honourable historic precedent of great protest songwriters ‘borrowing’ other people’s melodies.
This playlist is a very quick and selective tour of some very interesting protest songs throughout history and their impact on society.
- The Rigs of the Time
This song dates from the early 1800s, and bemoans the various “rigs” (rip-off practices) used by different tradespeople. It’s a commentary on a perceived shift in a society at war with Napoleonic France.
No wonder that butter be a shilling a pound,
Seeing the rich farmers' daughters how they ride up and down
If you ask them the reason they'll say, “Oh alas!
There's a French war, and the cows have no grass.”
Singing, honesty's all out of fashion
These are the rigs of the time
- Sooth Medomsley Strike
Tommy Armstrong (1848-1920) was known as the Tanfield Pitman Poet. A County Durham coalminer, he wrote dialect songs lampooning the people and events around the mining communities where he lived, but he also wrote very important songs (eg Trimdon Grange Explosion) that raised funds for widows and orphans after disasters, and powerful strike ballads.
This song tells the story of an 1885 strike (and the eviction of the families of strikers) over an enforced pay cut.
The miners of South Medomsley they 're gannin te mek some stew
They 're gannin' te boil fat Postick [the Bailliff] and his dorty candy crew, [blackleg miners and hired hands in the evictions – some recruited from itinerant candy sellers]
The maistors should have nowt but soup as long as their alive
In memory of their dorty tricks in eighteen eighty five.
- Strange Fruit - Billie Holiday
A powerful and iconic image, the strange fruit of this song (originally published in 1937 as a poem by Abel Meerpool, aka Lewis Allen, 1937) are, of course, the bodies of lynching victims in the American South.
It’s arguable that Billie Holiday’s rendition was so powerful that its currency among other singers has been reduced, but the recording was in any case a touchstone for the Civil Rights movement.
Southern trees bearing a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
- This Land is Your Land - Woody Guthrie
The balladeer of the Dustbowl, Woody Guthrie’s words resonate today with all those who struggle with the myth of the Great American (or any similar) Dream,
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
- The Times they Are a Changing – Bob Dylan and We Shall Overcome - Joan Baez
These two songs together were focal points of one of protest song’s key moments. The early 1960s brought together radicals campaigning against the war in Vietnam, the nuclear arms race, and for civil rights. Dylan and Baez are rather synonymous with this type of song, but of course, Dylan has since distanced himself from any conception of being a really ideological singer.
• Get Up, Stand Up - Bob Marley
It was once said during the 1980s that more people on the planet felt a connection with the music of Bob Marley than even the Beatles. This is a clear call to arms and against the opiate of the people:
Preacher man, don't tell me heaven is under the earth
I know you don't know what life is really worth
It's not all that glitters is gold, 'Alf the story has never been told
So now you see the light, eh, Stand up for your rights
- Sound of Da Police - KRS One
This is now almost a quarter of a century old, but in the context of Black Lives Matter it remains very current. The imagery, comparing the police to the slave overseer is incredibly emotive:
The overseer rode around the plantation
The officer is off patrolling all the nation
The overseer could stop you what you're doing
The officer will pull you over just when he's pursuing
- Where is the Love? - Black Eyed Peas
In the days before will.i.am was The Voice’s court jester, he created a very serious lyric:
If love and peace is so strong
Why are there pieces of love that don't belong
Nations droppin' bombs
Chemical gasses fillin' lungs of little ones
The sheer chart popularity of this particular song raises similar questions to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”. Does its reach and radio-friendly quality mean that sometimes the meaning gets lost and mangled?
- Europe is Lost - Kae Tempest
London wordsmith Kae Tempest is known for torrents of powerful and fierce poetry and this is no exception. Protesting the ways in which the real is buried in the busy-ness of everyday life and the search for Saturday night, it also touches on climate crisis and imperialistic interventions.
We have ambitions and friendships and our courtships to think of
Divorces to drink off the thought of
The money, the money, the oil
The planet is shaking and spoiled
And life is a plaything
A garment to soil
The toil, the toil
I can't see an ending at all
Only the end
How is this something to cherish?
When the tribesmen are dead in their deserts
To make room for alien structures
And kill what you find if it threatens you
So, what do these lyrics tell us about the ability of a song to change the world? Yes they have made an impact, but some issues are bigger than just one song can resolve.
If protest songs have not yet changed society does that mean we should stop making them? Perhaps that answer is that they do have their value, but it might take many to chip away at all that we feel is wrong - one lyric at a time.