16 Songs from the Past Century of Protest Music
With the political climate hotter than ever, we're looking back at the past century of protest songs
Using music as a tool of protest isn’t anything new. But with the current political climate, we have a sneaking suspicion that music in the U.S. is about to get ever-so-slightly more angry. Here are the most important ones from the genre’s history in America.
“I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier” (1915)
One of the first anti-war pop songs, this song was a hit in 1915, selling 650,000 copies. It also drew scorn from a number of people, including Theodore Roosevelt, who said, “Foolish people who applaud a song entitled ‘I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier’ are just the people who would also in their hearts applaud a song entitled ‘I Didn’t Raise My Girl to Be a Mother.’”
“Strange Fruit” (1939)
Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording of this song — which, if you’ve never parsed the lyrics, is an extended metaphor for lynching in the South — sold a million copies and eventually became her best-selling recording. Time named it “the best song of the century” in 1999.
“This Land Is Your Land” (1940)
Though decades of covers have removed its sting, several of Guthrie’s original verses to this song were rather pointed: “One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple, by the relief office I saw my people. As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if God Blessed America for me.”
Largely unrecognized in the history of protest music is Joshua White, whose songs commented on his life as a black man in America. One of his albums was the first to be forced on white radio stations, and the consequent uproar eventually reached the White House. FDR intervened and White wound up performing at his inauguration.
“No More Auction Block” (1948)
No history of protest music would be complete without mention of Paul Robeson. They simply do not make people like Robeson — valedictorian at Rutgers, All-American football player, world-class singer, to say nothing of his political activism — and this was one of his defining songs. His career essentially ruined by McCarthyism for years, Robeson nonetheless continued performing, in two instances playing to Canadian audiences of thousands while standing just at the border the country shared with America.
“Old Man Atom” (1948)
Originally a talking blues song written by Vern Partlow, “Old Man Atom” became — spurred by fears over the recent detonation of the atomic bomb — one of the biggest novelty hits of the ‘40s. Reportedly, Bing Crosby was even slated to record a version,
“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (1964)
The folk music boom of the ‘60s was intertwined with protest music, and Bob Dylan quickly became one of the movement’s luminaries, even as he was intensely uncomfortable with the label. Though he recorded many “generalized” protest songs like “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” and “The Times They Are A-Changin,’” Dylan singled particular incidents of injustice out for song treatment, as in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game.”
“Mississippi Goddam” (1964)
Though many people know Nina Simone for her slower, more romantic numbers, she was actively involved in the civil rights movement, and advocated for violent revolution as the years wore on. “Mississippi Goddam” was her first civil rights song, written in response to the murder of Medgar Evers in 1963.
“Machine Gun” (1970)
In Jimi Hendrix’s enormous and immensely talented hands, the protest song morphed from primarily vocal to musical. With his command of the full range of the electric guitar’s squalls, screams and percussive attacks, he was able to evoke the hellish landscape of the Vietnam War under the relatively sparse lyrics of the song.
“What’s Going On” (1971)
Perhaps the lushest and most beautiful protest song ever, “What’s Going On” was the centerpiece of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album of the same name. Other topics addressed include drug abuse, poverty and the environment.
“Born in the U.S.A.” (1984)
The Reagan administration brought forth a wide variety of protest music, but no one song from the area has been as consistently misunderstood as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” Constantly being held up as some kind of jingoistic rallying cry, the song is actually a fairly straightforward account of how war primarily affects the lower-class segments of the U.S. Some Republican senator will likely be using it at campaign stops next year, though.
“Fight the Power” (1989)
Public Enemy has been carrying the banner for political rap since the late ‘80s, and they never did so as successfully as with this fiery salvo from 1989.
“Bulls on Parade” (1996)
No band was as defiantly political throughout the ‘90s as Rage Against the Machine, who married rapped leftist screeds to a bruising riff-centric assault that inspired many an alternative kid to pick up a Noam Chomsky book.
“The Day After Tomorrow” (2004)
Many people knew Tom Waits as the gravelly-voiced junkyard troubadour behind jaunty little numbers like “The Piano Has Been Drinking.” But as he aged, Waits grew increasingly political, and while “The Day After Tomorrow” doesn’t explicitly mention the Iraq War, subsequent Waits songs like “The Road to Peace” and “Hell Broke Luce” would leave little to the imagination.
“American Idiot” (2006)
We’ve been ignoring a lot of punk music for this list, solely because punk music is protest music almost by definition, but this song has the distinction of (1.) reviving Green Day’s sagging career and (2.) becoming a Broadway musical. So… pretty good protest song.
“Close Your Eyes (And Count to F—)” (2015)
Run the Jewels’ explosive second album was a brute-force chunk of virtuosic rapping and warp-speed political ideas, most of them courtesy of the more overly political of the group’s two members, Killer Mike. Their video for “Close Your Eyes…” — which features a guest verse from Rage Against the Machine’s Zach de la Rocha — was a political statement in and of itself, reframing racial tensions in America as a kind of brutal ballet.