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Music as a Tool of Social Protest

Updated on January 2, 2011

The Power of Music to Effect Social Change

As soon as music soothed the "savage beast," it became an effective tool to bring about social change. After all, society wouldn't function very well if it were filled with beasts, right?

Songwriters have a way of reaching into our conscience, heart, and soul like only poets can. And when a singer gives voice to the written word, magic happens.

I've been a fan of music with a message and a purpose for a very long time (I'm not giving away how long, so don't even go there!). I hope that you will enjoy sharing some of the best social protest songs with me!

One good song with a message can bring a point more deeply to more people than a thousand rallies.

The quotation above is attributed to Phil Ochs.

"Strange Fruit" by Billie Holiday

The haunting quality of Miss Holiday's voice belies the sarcasm dripping from every line of this song about lynching. In 1999, Time magazine named "Strange Fruit" the "Best Song of the Century"; however, considering the song's true social impact, both during the singer's lifetime and in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, it would have been better labeled "Most Provocative." Ironically, in 1939 when the song was first recorded, the very same magazine called it "a prime piece of musical propaganda" for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)!

I can't think of a better social protest song with which to begin our journey.

"Strange Fruit" Lyrics

Written by Abel Meeropol, 1939

Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood at the leaves, blood at the root

Black body swaying in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scenes of the gallant South

The bulging eyes and twisted mouth

Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh

Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop

Rather than place an image of the type of lynching this song describes, I prefer to include a link to a fantastic resource where you can read more about it: The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum.

The legacy that Billie Holiday left the world is both uplifting and tragic. Affectionately and respectfully known as Lady Day, hers is the quintessential rags to riches tale with a tragic twist.

Miss Holiday's short life, just 44 years, was filled with insecurity, feelings of inferiority, drug and alcohol abuse, and loneliness. But it was also a life of innovation and risk taking that made an indelible mark on the music world and the Civil Rights Movement.

For whatever reason, Billie Holiday's date of birth and real name remained a mystery for a long time. Although she ghost wrote an autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, facts don't seem to have gotten in Miss Holiday's way. Despite the reinvention of herself, we do know a few pieces of factual information about the greatest female jazz singer ever.

  • Her father, Clarence Holiday, was a guitarist who never married her mother. In fact, he abandoned the family when Billie was quite young, and she didn't reconnect with him until she was an adult.

  • She struggled with alcohol and drug abuse for many years and was even arrested on her deathbed for heroin possession!

  • Billie spent time in prison on a narcotics possession charge. As a result, the law at the time prevented her from being issued a cabaret card with the end result being that she could never again perform in a club that served alcohol.

  • She wrote "God Bless the Child" after her mother refused to give Billie some money during a period when she was broke.

My Top 10 Protest Songs

  1. "Eve of Destruction" by Barry McGuire
  2. "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival
  3. "In the Ghetto" by Elvis Presley
  4. "Society's Child" by Janis Ian
  5. "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" by Peter, Paul, and Mary
  6. "Not Ready to Make Nice" by the Dixie Chicks
  7. "The Times They Are a-Changin'" by Bob Dylan
  8. "Galveston" by Glen Campbell
  9. "Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town" by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition
  10. "Abraham, Martin, and John" by Dion

If there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music.

The quotation above is attributed to Jimi Hendrix.

A pamphlet...is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over

The quotation above is attributed to Joe Hill.

"Eve of Destruction" by Barry McGuire - (It's amazing how much of the message in these lyrics still rings true!)

The eastern world, it is exploding

Violence flarin', bullets loadin'

You're old enough to kill, but not for votin'

You don't believe in war, but what's that gun you're totin'?

And even the Jordan River has bodies floatin'

But you tell me

Over and over and over again, my friend

Ah, you don't believe

We're on the eve

of destruction.

Don't you understand what I'm tryin' to say?

Can't you feel the fears I'm feelin' today?

If the button is pushed, there's no runnin' away

There'll be no one to save, with the world in a grave

[Take a look around ya boy, it's bound to scare ya boy]

And you tell me

Over and over and over again, my friend

Ah, you don't believe

We're on the eve

of destruction.

Yeah, my blood's so mad feels like coagulatin'

I'm sitting here just contemplatin'

I can't twist the truth, it knows no regulation.

A handful of senators don't pass legislation

And marches alone can't bring integration

When human respect is disintegratin'

This whole crazy world is just too frustratin'

And you tell me

Over and over and over again, my friend

Ah, you don't believe

We're on the eve

of destruction.

Think of all the hate there is in Red China

Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama

You may leave here for 4 days in space

But when you return, it's the same old place

The poundin' of the drums, the pride and disgrace

You can bury your dead, but don't leave a trace

Hate your next-door neighbor, but don't forget to say grace

And then tell me over and over and over and over again, my friend

You don't believe

We're on the eve

Of destruction

Mm, no no, you don't believe

We're on the eve

of destruction.

Just 19 when he wrote "The Eve of Destruction," Barry McGuire says that he was "looking for answers" and was on a "spiritual, philosophical search at the time." The song expresses so much of the frustration that young people in the Sixties felt. McGuire continues:


We were going through the whole social question, turmoil of the day within ourselves. Why not do this? Why shouldn't we do that? How come we have to do this? Who says we gotta do that? And then we started to get down to, well, what is the basic ultimate truth, and what is life? What is the universe? Where did it come from? Where is it going? What's on the other side of death? What was on the backside of birth? ‘Eve Of Destruction’ was just a continuation down that road. At least I felt I could compile all the problems . . . All the problems, but no answers.

McGuire was not prepared for the media frenzy that his song would create. Rather than encouraging people to consider the questions that the song raised, the media attacked its lyrics as subversive, threatening to the United States, and an expression of everything that was wrong with the youth. In fact, the backlash from the media was so powerful that it effectively ended Barry McGuire's popular music career.

If you'd like to learn more about Barry McGuire and what he's doing now, visit his official website.

If it's natural to kill, why do men have to go into training to learn how to do it?

The quotation above is attributed to Joan Baez.

"Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival - (Another song that resonates today!)

Some folks are born made to wave the flag,

Ooh, they're red, white and blue.

And when the band plays Hail to the Chief,

Ooh, they point the cannon at you, lord,

It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no senator's son, son.

It ain't me, it ain't me; I ain't no fortunate one, no,

Yeah!

Some folks are born silver spoon in hand,

Lord, don't they help themselves, oh.

But when the taxman comes to the door,

Lord, the house looks like a rummage sale, yes,

It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no millionaire's son, no.

It ain't me, it ain't me; I ain't no fortunate one, no.

Some folks inherit star spangled eyes,

Ooh, they send you down to war, lord,

And when you ask them, how much should we give?

Ooh, they only answer more! more! more! yoh,

It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no military son, son.

It ain't me, it ain't me; I ain't no fortunate one, one.

It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no fortunate one, no no no,

It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no fortunate son, no no no,

CCR was not an overtly political group but in 1969, when "Fortunate Son" was released on their album, Willie and the Poor Boys, they eloquently expressed the counterculture's resistance to the Vietnam War and sympathy for those who were fighting in what now stands as an anthem of those turbulent times. I was a kid when my uncle was drafted and sent off to Viet Nam, and "Fortunate Son" was his song.

John Fogerty, the songwriter, has said that David Eisenhower, a truly "fortunate son," served as the inspiration for the song. As the son of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and husband of Julie Nixon (they were married in the White House in 1968), daughter of President Richard M. Nixon, David Eisenhower avoided the draft but later enlisted in the Naval Reserve.

The mother of revolution and crime is poverty.

The quotation above is attributed to Aristotle.

"In the Ghetto" by Elvis Presley - (Tracey Chapman continues this theme in a song she wrote nearly 30 years later.)

As the snow flies

On a cold and gray Chicago mornin'

A poor little baby child is born

In the ghetto

And his mama cries

'cause if there's one thing that she don't need

it's another hungry mouth to feed

In the ghetto

People, don't you understand

the child needs a helping hand

or he'll grow to be an angry young man some day

Take a look at you and me,

are we too blind to see,

do we simply turn our heads

and look the other way

Well the world turns

and a hungry little boy with a runny nose

plays in the street as the cold wind blows

In the ghetto

And his hunger burns

so he starts to roam the streets at night

and he learns how to steal

and he learns how to fight

In the ghetto

Then one night in desperation

a young man breaks away

He buys a gun, steals a car,

tries to run, but he don't get far

And his mama cries

As a crowd gathers 'round an angry young man

face down on the street with a gun in his hand

In the ghetto

As her young man dies,

on a cold and gray Chicago mornin',

another little baby child is born

In the ghetto

The urban riots of the 1960s shed light on an awful truth -- segregation was not just a southern problem; it was everywhere. In the north, segregation created the ghetto, a place where only blacks lived, jobs were scarce, crime was high, and extreme poverty the norm. Chicago's ghetto was the largest, had the worst living conditions, and fostered the greatest resentment among residents.

During World War I, black families, seeking a better life with more opportunities for themselves and their children, looked to the factories opening in and around Chicago where they hoped to find work. When the War was over, the Chicago's South Side had become known as Bronzeville because of the number of black residents there.

Although Bronzeville developed a unique culture and attitude, as well as accorded its residents the opportunity to own businesses, vote for black politicians, save their money in black banks, and shop at black stores, it quickly became overcrowded. But leaving Bronzeville was made impossible when, in 1917, white realtors promised one another that they would not sell homes in white areas to black families. Violence was used to keep blacks "in their place."

By the 1960s, the residents of Chicago's ghetto had reached the boiling point. Trapped in poverty and filthy living conditions, imprisoned by crime and violence, and living without hope of improving their lives, the youth of the ghetto erupted in 1968.

"In the Ghetto" is Elvis' only foray into the social protest songs that were so popular in the 60s and 70s.

The only chain a man can stand is the chain of hand in hand. Keep your eyes on the prize & hold on.

The quotation above is attributed to Pete Seeger.

"Society's Child" by Janis Ian

Come to my door, baby,

Face is clean and shining black as night.

My mother went to answer you know

That you looked so fine.

Now I could understand your tears and your shame,

She called you "boy" instead of your name.

When she wouldn't let you inside,

When she turned and said

"But honey, he's not our kind."

She says

I can't see you any more, baby,

Can't see you anymore.

Walk me down to school, baby,

Everybody's acting deaf and dumb.

Until they turn and say, "Why don't you stick to your own kind?"

My teachers all laugh, the smirking stares,

Cutting deep down in our affairs.

Preachers of equality,

Think they believe it, then why won't they just let us be?

They say I can't see you anymore baby,

Can't see you anymore.

One of these days I'm gonna stop my listening

Gonna raise my head up high.

One of these days I'm gonna raise up my glistening wings and fly.

But that day will have to wait for a while.

Baby I'm only society's child.

When we're older things may change,

But for now this is the way they must remain.

I say I can't see you anymore baby,

Can't see you anymore.

No, I don't want to see you anymore, baby.

Thanks to a couple of teenage cousins, I was lucky enough to hear "Society's Child" when it was released in 1966. I was seven at the time, but I never forgot the song. It wasn't until many, many years later that I learned about the controversy surrounding Janis Ian's song about a teenage interracial relationship.

The Atlantic Records label paid for the recording session of "Society's Child" but when the president of the company at the time heard the lyrics, he ordered that the master be returned to Ian and refused to release it. It took a total of three releases before the song and its taboo content became a national hit and when it did, radio stations all over the country banned it from their play lists and fired disc jockeys who dared to give the song airtime. Ian received hate mail and one Atlanta radio station, brave enough to play the song despite the controversy it stirred, was burned down. Leonard Bernstein showcased the song on his new television show about pop music (that's where the video comes from) and publicly criticized radio stations for not playing it.

Thankfully, the attempts at censoring "Society's Child" and driving it into obscurity failed. The song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001.

War is delightful to those who have not experienced it.

The quotation above is attributed to Erasmus.

Where Have All The Flowers Gone? by Peter, Paul, and Mary

I chose this video because it shows the timeless nature of Pete Seeger's powerful anti-war protest song. As the camera scans the audience, notice that everyone sings along and that the audience is made up of the young and old and everyone between. Now that's a testament to the staying power of a song!

Where have all the flowers gone?

Long time passing

Where have all the flowers gone?

Long time ago

Where have all the flowers gone?

Girls have picked them every one

When will they ever learn?

When will they ever learn?

Where have all the young girls gone?

Long time passing

Where have all the young girls gone?

Long time ago

Where have all the young girls gone?

Taken husbands every one

When will they ever learn?

When will they ever learn?

Where have all the young men gone?

Long time passing

Where have all the young men gone?

Long time ago

Where have all the young men gone?

Gone for soldiers every one

When will they ever learn?

When will they ever learn?

Where have all the soldiers gone?

Long time passing

Where have all the soldiers gone?

Long time ago

Where have all the soldiers gone?

Gone to graveyards every one

When will they ever learn?

When will they ever learn?

Where have all the graveyards gone?

Long time passing

Where have all the graveyards gone?

Long time ago

Where have all the graveyards gone?

Covered with flowers every one

When will we ever learn?

When will we ever learn?

The test of democracy is freedom of criticism.

The quotation above is attributed to David Ben-Gurion.

Not Ready to Make Nice by the Dixie Chicks

Forgive, sounds good

Forget, I'm not sure I could

They say time heals everything

But I'm still waiting

I'm through with doubt

There's nothing left for me to figure out

I've paid a price

And I'll keep paying

I'm not ready to make nice

I'm not ready to back down

I'm still mad as hell and

I don't have time to go round and round and round

It's too late to make it right

I probably wouldn't if I could

'Cause I'm mad as hell

Can't bring myself to do what it is you think I should

I know you said

Can't you just get over it

It turned my whole world around

And I kind of like it

I made my bed and I sleep like a baby

With no regrets and I don't mind sayin'

It's a sad sad story when a mother will teach her

Daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger

And how in the world can the words that I said

Send somebody so over the edge

That they'd write me a letter

Sayin' that I better shut up and sing

Or my life will be over

I'm not ready to make nice

I'm not ready to back down

I'm still mad as hell and

I don't have time to go round and round and round

It's too late to make it right

I probably wouldn't if I could

'Cause I'm mad as hell

Can't bring myself to do what it is you think I should

I'm not ready to make nice

I'm not ready to back down

I'm still mad as hell and

I don't have time to go round and round and round

It's too late to make it right

I probably wouldn't if I could

'Cause I'm mad as hell

Can't bring myself to do what it is you think I should

Forgive, sounds good

Forget, I'm not sure I could

They say time heals everything

But I'm still waiting

"Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. We have seen the future, and the future is ours."

--Cesar Chavez

The Times They Are A-Changin' by Bob Dylan

Come gather round people

Wherever you roam

And admit that the waters

Around you have grown

And accept it that soon

You'll be drenched to the bone.

If your time to you

Is worth savin'

Then you better start swimmin'

Or you'll sink like a stone

For the times they are a-changin'.

Come writers and critics

Who prophesize with your pen

And keep your eyes wide

The chance won't come again

And don't speak too soon

For the wheel's still in spin

And there's no tellin' who

That it's namin'.

For the loser now

Will be later to win

For the times they are a-changin'.

Come senators, congressmen

Please heed the call

Don't stand in the doorway

Don't block up the hall

For he that gets hurt

Will be he who has stalled

There's a battle outside

And it is ragin'.

It'll soon shake your windows

And rattle your walls

For the times they are a-changin'.

Come mothers and fathers

Throughout the land

And don't criticize

What you can't understand

Your sons and your daughters

Are beyond your command

Your old road is

Rapidly agin'.

Please get out of the new one

If you can't lend your hand

For the times they are a-changin'.

The line it is drawn

The curse it is cast

The slow one now

Will later be fast

As the present now

Will later be past

The order is

Rapidly fadin'.

And the first one now

Will later be last

For the times they are a-changin'.

**Sorry, but Sony Music has removed all of Dylan's original videos from YouTube, so the video below is the best cover version that I could find.

We should declare war on North Vietnam. We could pave the whole country...&...be home by Christmas

The quotation above is attributed to Ronald Reagan.

Galveston by Glen Campbell

Galveston, oh Galveston,

I still hear your sea winds blowin'

I still see her dark eyes glowin'

She was 21

When I left Galveston.

Galveston, oh Galveston,

I still hear your sea waves crashing

While I watch the cannons flashing

I clean my gun

and dream of Galveston

I still see her standing by the water

Standing there lookin' out to sea

And is she waiting there for me?

On the beach where we used to run

Galveston, oh Galveston,

I am so afraid of dying

Before I dry the tears she's crying

Before I watch your sea birds flying in the sun

At Galveston, at Galveston


"Galveston" by Glen Campbell has been one of my all-time favorite songs ever since I was a kid. I was only about ten when the song was released, but the haunting melody and the tragic story of a frightened soldier longing for home and the girl he left behind made an indelible mark on me.

Although Jimmy Webb, the composer, said that the song was about a soldier fighting in the Spanish-American War, its timely release during the Viet Nam War made the song an instant protest song whether Webb intended for that to happen or not. Where other songs about war expressed rebellion, anger, and frustration, "Galveston" trumped them all with its simple expressions of fear, longing, and homesickness.

"Galveston" is a universal expression of the realistic way a soldier feels when he's on the front. Which war doesn't really matter -- the speaker in this song is an "everyman" type; substitute any hometown name for Galveston, and the fear of dying, the longing for home, and the worry about whether the girl will be waiting if and when he gets home remain the same. That's what makes "Galveston" so powerful.

War leaves a country with 3 armies: an army of cripples, an army of mourners, and an army of thieves

The quotation above is a German proverb.

Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition

You've painted up your lips

And rolled and curled your tinted hair

Ruby are you contemplating

Going out somewhere

The shadow on the wall

Tells me the sun is going down

Oh Ruby

Don't take your love to town

It wasn't me

That started that old crazy Asian war

But I was proud to go

And do my patriotic chore

And yes, it's true that

I'm not the man I used to be

Oh, Ruby I still need some company

Its hard to love a man

Whose legs are bent and paralyzed

And the wants and the needs of a woman your age

Ruby I realize,

But it won't be long I've heard them say until I not around

Oh Ruby

Don't take your love to town

She's leaving now cause

I just heard the slamming of the door

The way I know I've heard it slam

100 times before

And if I could move I'd get my gun

And put her in the ground

Oh Ruby

Don't take your love to town

Oh Ruby for God's sake turn around

"The probability that we may fall in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just; it shall not deter me."--A. Lincoln

"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."--M.L. King, Jr.

"Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future."--John F. Kennedy

Abraham, Martin, and John by Dion

Has anybody here seen my old friend Abraham?

Can you tell me where he's gone?

He freed a lot of people,

But it seems the good they die young.

You know, I just looked around and he's gone.

Anybody here seen my old friend John?

Can you tell me where he's gone?

He freed a lot of people,

But it seems the good they die young.

I just looked around and he's gone.

Anybody here seen my old friend Martin?

Can you tell me where he's gone?

He freed a lot of people,

But it seems the good they die young.

I just looked 'round and he's gone.

Didn't you love the things that they stood for?

Didn't they try to find some good for you and me?

And we'll be free

Some day soon, and it's a-gonna be one day ...

Anybody here seen my old friend Bobby?

Can you tell me where he's gone?

I thought I saw him walk up over the hill,

With Abraham, Martin and John.

Thanks for visiting my lens! Please take a moment to let me know that you were here.

Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable. - --John F. Kennedy

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    • RhondaSueDavis profile image

      RhondaSueDavis 6 years ago

      Excellent lens, thank you!

    • progressivist lm profile image

      progressivist lm 6 years ago

      Thank you for a wonderful lens! I just researched the "Little Red Songbook" (and wrote a lens about it), and with all the protests and demonstrations going on right now, it's clear that protest music is just as important as ever. As long as injustice exists, we will need protest music, and reviving some of the timely old songs is just as important as writing new songs!

    • profile image

      NYThroughTheLens 6 years ago

      Really excellent lens. Nice JFK quote as well. A+ all around.

    • profile image

      poutine 8 years ago

      Came back to read your lens again and listen to your music.

    • profile image

      tdove 8 years ago

      Thanks for joining G Rated Lense Factory!

    • profile image

      Zion 8 years ago

      Wow! Your lens is fantastic! I really like it so I gave you 5*. Keep up the god work!..

      Please try to stop by my lens. I would really much appreciate if you could rate mine too!

      Thank you so much!

      Zion

      http://www.squidoo.com/legitimatehome-basedbusines...

    • profile image

      poutine 8 years ago

      Just lensrolled this lens to:

      Emily Bear

      My Ten Most Loved Instrumentals

      songs about Cadillac

    • profile image

      poutine 8 years ago

      A beautifully written lens.

      Yes, I agree that music is one of the most powerful tool for

      social change.

    • evelynsaenz1 profile image

      Evelyn Saenz 8 years ago from Royalton

      What a wonder lens! These are songs that I sing with my children in the car in order to start conversations about history, world peace and how to make the world a better place to live in.

      Lensrolled to Pete Seeger.

    • ElizabethJeanAl profile image

      ElizabethJeanAl 8 years ago

      Welcome to The Totally Awesome Lenses Group

      Lizzy