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Music With a Message: A Brief History of Protest Music in North America

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Scratch Magazine June, 2004

Music has long been used by the poor and oppressed to lift spirits and communicate messages of social change. From the African-American slaves of the deep south singing soulful, subtly rebellious, gospel hymns, to Zach de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine belting out “We gotta take the power back!” over grinding guitars and machine gun bass kicks, politics have always been an undercurrent in Western music.

These days bands from most genres, like punk (Propaghandi, NOFX), metal (Rage Against the Machine, System of a Down), hip-hop (Spearhead, KRS-One), and turntablism (Dj Shadow, Cut Chemist), combine politics with music. But for the first part of the twentieth century political music, music with a message, was pretty much limited to the folk music scene.

Unions and Acoustic Guitars: The Folk-Protest Music Scene
Five artists were key in the development of the folk-protest music scene in North America. As Jerome L. Rodnitzky, author of Minstrels of the Dawn: The Folk-Protest Singer as a Cultural Hero, put it, “Woody Guthrie did it the earliest and most convincingly, Pete Seeger did it the longest, Joan Baez did it most artfully, Phil Ochs tried the hardest, and the young Bob Dylan did it best.”

The first North American compilation of folk-protest music was contained in the “Little Red Songbook” compiled by the Industrial Workers of the World in 1904. The songs of the book were written to inform the working masses about issues of unionism and socialism.

The songs of that Little Red Songbook inspired a thirty year old, political-minded author and newspaper columnist named Woodie Guthrie, to start writing his own songs of change in 1942. American music would never be the same.

Guthrie traveled the country with his signature acoustic guitar boasting a sticker reading “This Machine Kills Fascists” playing heartfelt songs of social change to working-class audiences. By the end of his career Guthrie had written thousands of classic socialist folk-protest songs including the famous This Land is Your Land.

Although Guthrie was a popular artist, and a cultural icon, he wasn’t a star. Subsequently, he never got the opportunity to deliver his message to the masses. He would, though, get to meet the man that would.

In 1962, while Guthrie laid up in a New York hospital with Huntington’s chorea (the disease that would cause of his 1967 death) a young musician and admirer, who was quickly building a following among the coffee house-goers of Greenwich Village, visited Guthrie’s hospital bed. The visitor was a 21-year-old Bob Dylan.

Dylan was influenced enormously by Guthrie. His straightforward, talking style, songs like Song to Woody and Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie, and an enormous collection of covers of the old rebel-rouser’s protest anthems, are tribute to that. But Dylan was something Guthrie wasn’t. Dylan was a poet.

Dylan also had something the Guthrie lacked: topical issues. While Guthrie sang about philosophically broad topics relating to unions and socialism, Dylan had current events to sing about that already had the attention of the American people—events like the unpopular Vietnam War and nuclear bungling of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Dylan’s down-to-earth honesty and straight-talking style quickly gained him critical acclaim and in 1962 (the same year he first visited Guthrie) he signed a deal with Columbia Records. His first, self-titled album wasn’t much to speak of. It boasted only two original songs among the traditional folk and blues cover tunes. But Dylan’s second album, 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, would secure him a place among history’s great poets and musicians. Freewheelin’ was a lyrical protest masterpiece. It contained two of the most enduring protest songs of all time: Blowin’ in the Wind (about Vietnam), and A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall (about the Cuban Missile Crisis).

Peter, Paul, and Mary’s cover of Blowin’ in the Wind went to #2 on the pop charts later that year bringing protest music, and Bob Dylan, to a wider audience that either had ever reached before.

Dylan led the outbreak of crazy-hippy, fight-the-power protest songs of the sixties. It’s often joked that Bob Dylan wrote all the hits of the sixties–and it’s not far from true. Many of Dylan’s songs, performed by other artists, became huge hits; like Bob Marley‘s version of Knockin‘ on Heaven‘s Door (later redone by Guns N‘ Roses) and Jimmy Hendrix’s version of All Along the Watchtower.

Dylan was not the only protest musician around during the 60’s. Many artists, even conventional ones, started writing protest songs. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? criticized the Vietnam War and Nina Simone sang about racism and civil rights while Bob Marley was in Jamaica leading his Rastafarian “movement of Jah people” with music.

The folk-protest genre faded from the limelight when Dylan abandoned it in 1965, but it did not die. More recently Ani DiFranco, a street-wise, feminist, poet/musician, has been igniting social turmoil with her punk-inspired, rough-around-the-edges folk sound, since the late 80’s, and Billy Bragg, a British folk musician described by the London Times as a “national treasure”, has also been involved in political activism through his music for over twenty years and is still going strong.

The Unlikely New Protest Music: Anarchist Punk
The mid-seventies saw the end of the Vietnam War, and the decline of protest music. As the war came to an end, so did opposition to the war (which was the most popular topic for protest songs). Also, during the 70’s, corporations started taking over the music industry and it became harder for protest musicians to get record deals. Not many corporations are willing to sign artists who’ll turn around and criticize them.

So, protest music was forced back underground where it underwent a surprising metamorphosis. The sixties exhausted everybody’s taste for folk, but there was a new political sound emerging in Britain. It was called punk.

Punk, as a genre, is probably more political than any other. These days there are lots of poppy boy-bands, like Blink 182 and Green Day, playing stupid, shallow songs about girls and beer, while claiming to be punk. But the truth is, most classic punk albums are overtly political. The Sex Pistol’s “Anarchy in the UK”, Dead Kennedy’s “Holiday in Cambodia”, and Bad Religion’s “Recipe for Hate” are just a few of the more popular examples.

Punk has always been synonymous with Anarchism. Nearly every punk band that ever existed has used the word anarchy at least once. Black Flag, one of the most popular punk bands of the 80’s, even named themselves after the international symbol of the Anarchist movement. Most people think anarchy refers to a state of total chaos and destruction. The same people think punks just want to get wasted and destroy everything. This is not so. Anarchism is a serious (but little known) political philosophy based on individualism and equality, and many punks seriously believe in it.

The New Millennium: Everybody’s Doing It (About Everything You Can Think Of)

Nowadays everybody’s got a different cause: gay rights, animal rights, women’s rights, human rights, the environment, corporate imperialism, the War in Iraq, the list just gets longer. Just as the issues of protest music have become more diverse, so have the artists engaged in it. U2 wrote songs against apartheid in Africa. Artists from Bjork to the Beastie Boys performed at a concert to raise awareness about China’s oppression of Tibet. Even Lauryn Hill manages to squeeze feminist messages into her pop-infused, r&b stylings.

Though politics no longer dominate the punk scene they’re still important to a lot of the face piercing, leather-boot wearing, misfits. Winnipeg’s own Propaghandi is a leader of political punk, having formed it’s own record label, the G7 Welcoming Committee, to avoid corporate censorship. The now defunct Rage Against the Machine was arguably the most vocal, and active, political act of the Twentieth Century tackling issues from economics, to racism, to corporate domination of the media.

For information concerning political activism the websites of Propaghandi (www.propaghandi.com) and Rage Against the Machine (www.ratm.com) come highly recommended each sporting wealth of information and suggestions for reading and action.

Most recently, Hip-Hop has developed a protest scene. Most of the popular, early hip-hop groups, like Public Enemy and NWA, built their success rapping about issues important to African-Americans. Nowadays, Tribe Called Quest, Outkast, Michael Franti, The Jedi Mind Tricks, The Dead Prez, and other hip-hop artists keep the movement strong.

They’ve also expanded it in scope. Songs like Outkasts “Bombs Over Bagdad” and The Jedi Mind Tricks’ “Raw is War 2003” show strong concern for international affairs.

Protest music is more alive and diverse now than it’s ever been, and we’ll probably be hearing even more in the future. Just like the end of the War in Vietnam ended a strong protest scene, the post 9/11, aggressive military actions and environmental irresponsibility of the US are giving artists more and more issues to get angry about. The worse things get the more artists are going to jump on board–and they’re just going to keep getting louder.

12 Responses to Music With a Message: A Brief History of Protest Music in North America

  1. richard myers August 20, 2008 at 1:57 pm #

    That was *Industrial* Workers of the World

  2. bart August 20, 2008 at 10:01 pm #

    http://www.hohnerusa.com/bobdylan.html

  3. Matt Gibson March 24, 2010 at 5:48 am #

    Wow, this was such an old article; one of my first published in print. But it still draws more hits to my website than almost any other. Music is mad powerful! I’m amazed how many people don’t know of, or don’t like, Ani Difranco. In my opinion her early lyrics are second only to Bob Dylan ( but she plays guitar way better).

  4. David S. Wills March 24, 2010 at 5:34 am #

    One of my favourite classes in university (one of the few I managed to get out of bed for…) was about protest music. It really shaped my views of history AND music… and now it’s hard to believe I was once so ignorant of how important music could be.

  5. David S. Wills March 25, 2010 at 7:31 am #

    It’s a good article, and I’m sure it plays well with Google.

  6. Ferrial Pondrafi April 28, 2011 at 9:53 pm #

    i’m researching about today’s generation folk music as protest music for my thesis. and thank you, this article is helping me..

  7. Matt Gibson April 28, 2011 at 11:30 pm #

    Hi Ferrial. I’m glad I could help. I like your blog.

  8. Ben April 29, 2011 at 4:06 pm #

    a nice segue to this would be the newish folk-punk political music coming out. Against Me!, This Bike is a Pipe Bomb, Andrew Jackson Jihad, Mischief Brew, and Holy! Holy! Holy! are all putting out amazing stuff.

    And thanks for reminding me to get some Guthrie

  9. Tommie August 12, 2011 at 11:04 am #

    Usually I do not learn article on blogs, however I would like to say that this write-up very compelled me to check out and do so! Your writing style has been surprised me. Thanks, quite nice post.

  10. hello December 19, 2011 at 10:02 pm #

    3 cheese

  11. Julia June 13, 2012 at 8:52 pm #

    Are you sure the IWW song book was first published in 1904? I found other sources saying it was 1909. I’m writing a paper on American protest music, so I want to be sure. Otherwise, this post should be very helpful.

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