protest music to listen to now

6 Protest Songs From the 1960s We Should Listen to Today

I grew up in Santa Cruz, a then-sleepy beach town in Northern California that had a severe hippie hangover well into the 1970s and ’80s. The soundtrack of the 1960s was omnipresent, as were reminders of Vietnam. I clearly recall the father of my best friend in third grade; he had lost a leg fighting in the war. It was a normalcy to hear and see such things, making the protest music of the decades before a relevant score to the landscape around me.

As an educator, I have often asked my college-age students what songs or artists they think are making the same sort of timely yet timeless songs. I always start off by playing them songs from Rage Against the Machine’s debut album, which, to this day, gives me the chills and brings tears to my eyes as not much has changed since I was 18 years old and working with the band. Arguably, many things have gotten quite worst. So I recently revisited some of the key songs and albums that shaped my own formative years. I found many of them heart-breaking in that the messages within the melodic tracks could be written today. It was uplifting, though, to know or at least hope that such beautiful pieces of art may still, in the words of Sam Cooke, inspire a change to come.

“A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke (1964)

On the album: Ain’t That Good News

A couple years ago, I showed a video of this to my college students. The film footage was entirely from the Obama campaign in the U.S. It was insanely uplifting and hopeful. Yet taking the same song and putting it in 2020 context, one is hard-pressed to see if any real progress had been made, or if we are just re-treading the past in a variety of new ways. Cooke famously wrote the song after he and his crew were turned away at a whites-only motel in Louisiana. One of the amazing things about this classic is how any small triumph can be interpreted as Cooke’s “change” finally arriving, be it in perhaps in more diminutive steps than could be hoped for. However, tragedies such as George Floyd’s murder give Cooke’s ode an even more alarming meaning, as we are still “back down” on our “knees,” still praying, still hoping:

Oh, when I go to my brother
I’d say brother, help me, please
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees.

There been times that I thought I wouldn’t last for long
Now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change’s gonna come, oh, yes, it will.

“Mississippi Goddamn” by Nina Simone (1964)

On the album: Nina Simone in Concert

The raw urgency in this song makes it no surprise that Simone penned it from start to finish in less than an hour. Recorded at the Carnegie Hall in front of a largely white audience, the song is Simone’s enraged reaction to both the assisination of American Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, which killed four Black children in Birmingham, Alabama. The song’s swinging boom-ba, boom-ba structure may be deceivingly upbeat until Simone’s tangible anger crashes down on even the most passive listener. The call and response bridge, reeling off the various horrible stereotypes of Black Americans and the “too slow” correcting of injustices is disturbingly current:

Me and my people just about due
I’ve been there so I know
They keep on saying, “Go slow!

But that’s just the trouble, “Do it slow”
Washing the windows, “Do it slow”
Picking the cotton, “Do it slow”
You’re just plain rotten, “Do it slow”
You’re too damn lazy …

“Maggie’s Farm” by Bob Dylan (1965)

On the album: Bringing It All Back Home

My literary agent recently told me that hearing this song at a key moment in his life — he was waiting tables and praying for a break in the publishing world — gave him the proverbial gumption to follow his dreams. I love this anecdote, as it captures the insane impact that hearing a certain song at a specific time can have. But I also find it extremely sad, as the “Farm” that Dylan rails against could be the framework for any sort of normative culture we find ourselves in:

I got a head full of ideas
That are drivin’ me insane.

At the time of release, Dylan was already being hailed as a key figure in counterculture; this makes the message of “farm” that much more chilling, as the pressing forces of societal hegemony seems to always move what has meaning to make change into a consumerable good with little to none of its original connotations. Seeing an array of Kurt Cobain T-shirts at H&M or a Joy Division hoodie at Primark offers a toothless reminder of the impossibility of successfully walking the line of art and commerce while affecting long term results.

“For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield (1966)

On the records: For What It’s Worth and Buffalo Springfield second pressing

This was one of my favorite songs as a child. I obviously had no idea what it was about. Going back and taking a close listen to it as an adult is terrifying, as the words could have been penned in the last three months. Though often touted as an anti-war song, the track was written by lead songwriter Stephen Stills in response to the Sunset Strip curfew riots which happened in November 1966. Buffalo Springfield had been recently installed at the legendary strip music venue Whisky A Go Go as the house band. However, other local residents and businesses hated the emerging late-night youth culture going to clubs along the strip and lobbied for a strict 10 p.m. curfew on the road. A massive demonstration was arranged for November 12, which began peacefully but ended in unrest with attendee Peter Fonda being handcuffed by police. Some clubs were eventually forced to shut due to the unrest in the area, but, in time, the after-hours nature of the area became not only tolerated, but celebrated.

Looking at lyrics are mind-blowing, as they read perfectly for capturing that moment 50 years ago while still being completely current:

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind.

“Respect” by Aretha Franklin (1967)

On the album: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You

Originally written and performed by Otis Redding, Franklin’s changes to his lyrics and structure transform this into a timeless anthem. Maybe not a “protest” song in the traditional sense and more a declaration of worth, “Respect” earned Franklin two Grammy Awards and provided generations of women with the musical motivation to love themselves. In a time of #MeToo, the erosion of women’s reproductive rights in the U.S., and what the Independent calls a “bulletproof” glass ceiling for women in promotion and pay, we should all be demanding “our propers,” as Franklin belts out, for our hard grind.

I’m about to give you all of my money
And all I’m askin’ in return, honey
Is to give me my propers when you get home

I’m about to give you all of my money
And all I’m askin’ in return, honey
Is to give me my propers when you get home

“Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” by James Brown (1968)

On the records: Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud and A Soulful Christmas

This huge song by the Godfather of Soul will have anyone of any creed singing along and loudly proclaiming the magnificent chorus. Written by Brown with saxophonist and bandleader Alfred Ellis, the anthem is a rallying cry for Black empowerment:

I’ve worked on jobs with my feet and my hands
But all the work I did was for the other man
And now we demands a chance to do things for ourselves
We tired of beatin’ our head against the wall
And workin’ for someone else.

Brown drafted in 30 kids from the Watts and Compton neighborhoods of Los Angeles to add extra punch to the call-and-response portion of the track. As he demands, “Say it loud!” the kids counter, ”I’m Black and I’m proud!”

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