A brief history of protest songs

Music has a long history as an art form used in activism. Protest songs have been sung since the founding of America and continue to be used by artists as a way of sharing their politics.

In this article you will learn:

  • The history of protest songs
  • How protest songs have changed over time
  • Some of the significant protest songs and artists

Revolutionary war

The earliest protest songs and the tradition of using music in this way goes right back to the founding of America. Joseph Warren’s call to action song, Free America, was possibly the first protest song to have been sung out by American soldiers.

Yankee Doodle, now a popular children’s song, also finds its roots in this era – originating as a song sung by British soldiers to mock the Americans but taken up by the ‘Yanks’ ironically to throw it back to the British.

Early 20th century

As the American Civil War ended and America became divided by class and race, protest music evolved with the music of the early 20th century.

Electrical music recording was beginning to develop in the 1930s and more and more people owned record players and radios. With this new technology, music was able to spread outside of the oral tradition – the led to protest songs developing from the simple, easy-to-learn Civil War-era songs to more complex art.

This is perhaps most prevalent in Billie Holiday’s 1939 song, ‘Strange Fruit’, which is credited as being the first protest song to take an art form. As music journalist Dorian Lynskey writes in 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs from Billie Holiday to Green Day, “Up until this point protest songs functioned as propaganda, but ‘Strange Fruit’ proved they could be art.”

Civil rights movement

The 1960s were a significant period for artists, with the civil rights movement defining much of what was happening in the media. Out of this time comes one of the most famous protest songs – Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’. Living as a black man in 1960s America, Cooke was no stranger to racism and after being turned away from a whites-only motel in Louisiana, he felt compelled to write about the struggles of African Americans.

‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ has since become one of the most popular protest songs, played at numerous rallies and protests over the years and covered by many artists, including Beyoncé, Bob Dylan and Arcade Fire.

Folk music

The 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of folk music, and many artists used the predominantly acoustic form to share their political views. No name is as synonymous with folk music in this era than Bob Dylan, who – despite denying being a writer of protest songs – produced many songs (including ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘Times They Are a Changin’’) which were adopted as anthems by civil rights and Vietnam War protestors.

1980s and 1990s

The 1980s and 1990s saw fewer protest songs, perhaps due to the end of the Vietnam War giving way to a relatively calmer political climate. But protest songs didn’t disappear altogether, some notable tracks from these decades include:

  • NWA’s ‘Fuck Tha Police’ – focused on police brutality and the experiences of young black men on the streets of Los Angeles
  • Rage Against The Machine’s ‘Testify’ – featured a music video which harshly criticised George W Bush, Al Gore and American politics as a whole

The 1990s also gave rise to riot grrrls, a movement of young feminists associated with aggressive punk-rock music. While the movement was shortlived, it did deliver Bikini Kill’s ‘Rebel Girl’, which was later used in a viral Hilary Clinton video.

Post-9/11

As the world recovered from the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, it seemed reasonable that the ensuing political upheaval would lead to a serious revival of protest songs. But, with a lack of unifying political movement, the revival never came, despite some notable efforts from Green Day and Neil Young.

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