Tuesday, May 4, 2010

20 Great Protest Songs

“Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming, we’re finally on our own. / This summer, I hear the drumming, four dead in Ohio.”
... It was 40 years ago today.

Penned with celerity by Neil Young and captured in cathartic splendor by his bandmates only a few weeks after the infamous shootings at Kent State, “Ohio” is without a doubt one of the great protest songs of all time. Today’s remembrance of the events in Ohio on May 4, 1970, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s impassioned musical response, got me thinking about other outstanding songs of protest in the rock canon.

Of course, there have been dozens of notable protest songs over the years, dating all the way back to the early 20th century. Heck, Woody Guthrie alone could fill a whole songbook with tunes of objection and dissent. (Speaking of songbooks, as I write this, an old folk guitar book, titled Songs of Work and Protest, sits in a bookcase an arm’s length away … Funny how those two go together, isn’t it?) More recently, Billy Bragg has occupied a similar place on the podium of folky protest productivity.

One of the tricky things when considering the genre of protest songs, particularly modern-day ones, is drawing the line between social commentary and actual objection. To me, true protest music must, at the very least, condemn social injustice, abuse of authority, misguided militancy, greed or corruption. Where songs fall in that spectrum of possibilities is purely personal judgment. And I have no doubt that a sound argument could be waged asserting that many of the selections below are more commentary than protest. Nevertheless, this is where I draw that line.

Protest Playlist

I’m not claiming that these are the 10 “best” protest songs – personal or otherwise – because I honestly haven’t given it all that much thought. But these are some good and noteworthy ones that readily come to mind.

Many of these songs deal with war. Nothing gets people’s ire up like the prospect of getting killed – or having to kill someone else. Not surprisingly, many of these tunes hail from that most fertile period of protest (the 1960s), but the early 1980s (the Reagan years) also seem to have elicited a fair amount of outrage, too – at least for musicians and listeners of my vintage. I’ve found many of the anti-Bush/Cheney protest songs of more recent years to be forced or formulaic, thus not quite cutting it for artistic reasons, even if the dissent had some appeal.

OhioC.S.N.&Y. (1970) – As the impetus for this piece, this tune is number one in my book, not only for its sense of wounded indignation and outrage, but also for its searing guitar riff and soaring vocal harmonies (particularly on the later live versions on which David Crosby’s pain-filled howls of “How many more …” reach the heavens). An extra punch of protest was delivered on the B-side of the original single release of this song with the haunting a capella of “Find the Cost of Freedom” … It’s buried in the ground. Say no more.

For What It’s WorthBuffalo Springfield (1966) – Young’s early dueling partner, Stephen Stills, penned his own successful rapid response record following the Sunset Strip riots that hit L.A. in 1966. The ringing harmonics of the guitar and the strong vocal chorus of this song are nothing short of iconic. “Stop, hey, children, what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down.”

HurricaneBob Dylan (1975) – Dylan had already logged his share of protest songs, but this epic ballad from the Desire/Rolling Thunder Revue-era is one of his best. Bob teamed with playwright Jacques Levy to compose a potent protest of the legal injustice and racism that saw boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter unfairly tried, convicted and imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit: “Rubin Carter was falsely tried … / To see him obviously framed / Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land / Where justice is a game. … / Now all the criminals in their suits and their ties / Are free to drink martinis and watch the sunrise / While Rubin sits like Buddha in a 10-foot cell / An innocent man in a living hell.”

Masters of WarBob Dylan (1962) – This song (along with “God On Our Side” and more general expressions of the Civil Rights era, like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’”) are what got Bobby pigeonholed as a protest singer to begin with. This was something he protested against, of course, eventually drifting away from social causes into another motor-psycho nightmare/daydream all together.

WarBob Marley(1976) – Despite its subsequent association with Sinead O’Connor’s infamous Pope-ripping appearance on SNL, this stark, talking blues with a reggae groove is a simple and direct condemnation of social and political injustice, with explication of the assuredly continuing state of affairs until those injustices are recognized and reconciled. This is protest music above all else!

WarBruce Springsteen (1985) – This live cover of the late 1960s’ soul-tinged tune by Edwin Starr was popularized for a later generation by The Boss. Springsteen’s reflective introductory comments and impassioned delivery make this a mighty protest that is all his own. He explodes into this song, like only Bruce can.

My City Was Gone The Pretenders (1983) – Sticking with the Ohio theme, Chrissie and Co. lament the rape of the urban landscape and vitality of downtown Akron, misguidedly replaced instead by shopping malls and parking lots.

Country at WarX (1983) – John Doe and Exene Cervenka’s L.A. quartet compares actual warfare to the social combat waged upon the down-and-out in Reagan-era America. A forgotten gem.

Sunday Bloody SundayU2 (1983) – From The Edge’s descending guitar riff to Bono’s hummed intro and Irish fiddlemaster Steve Wickham’s wicked embellishments throughout the song, this tune transcends Ireland’s 1921 Sinn Fein/Black-and-Tans conflict and the tragically repetitive events that occurred in Derry in 1972, applying the indignation and disgust over those notorious incidents to all senseless acts of violence. “I’m so sick of it,” indeed.

Give Peace a ChanceJohn & Yoko (1969) – It’s atypical in its lack of vitriol relative to most of the other protest songs on this list, but this early Lennon-Ono gem is as defiant as any of the songs here. It’s utterly connected to the era, yet timeless, too. Proof, once again, that the most poignant protest is often the simplest (think man sitting in front of tank).

Fortunate SonCreedence Clearwater Revival (1969) – One of the quintessential songs of the ’60s counterculture’s disaffected youth, this CCR classic condemns a generation, a whole way of life, class inequity and militarism. Potent stuff.

Common ManThe Blasters (1984) – At the time, this was a specific indictment of President Reagan and his faux populist posturing, but it remains equally applicable to any insincere smile flashed in front of a flag. Dave Alvin’s blistering, bluesy, rockabilly guitar provides perfect punctuation to brother Phil’s condemnation.

I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.The Clash (1977) – Given the pervasive influence of American culture around the world, it makes for a worthy target of protest by those powerlessly subjected to its omnipresence ... especially London punks in 1977.

Wasted LifeStiff Little Fingers (1979) – This is another anti-soldiery ode (re: either literal or metaphorical war) with a more personal perspective; barked out in a Belfast accent with driving guitar and speedy snare drums.

WarriorSteve Earle (2004) – Earle has many songs that could merit a place on this list (perhaps most notably “F the CC” from the same album), but this is an interesting twist on the lefty troubadour’s usual schtick. This urgent spoken-word recitation over a rock tune remonstrates the noble warrior’s fall from grace and esteem ion our culture (think Native American warrior vs. modern-day Army grunt).

Mercury PoisoningGraham Parker (1978) – This is a great protest/kiss-off pop song, even if it’s only protesting record company ineptitude. Self-described by GP as sounding like “cavemen on crack,” he is ably assisted by his protégés in snide: The Rumour. “I got a dinosaur for a representative. It’s got a small brain and refuses to learn.”

Sun GreenNeil Young (2003) – Sure it’s embedded in the context of Neil’s much-underrated audio play/concept album (Greendale), but character details and story aside, this is an artistic and powerful condemnation of corporate greed and governmental corruption – even if the pro-environment message goes a little over the top at points. “Hey, Mr. Clean, you’re dirty now, too.”

Roosevelt RoomConor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band (2009) – The Bright Eyes boy seldom rocks like this, sounding here like Jon Langford (The Mekons et al) meeting Cracker – a kick-ass combo, in my book! Anti-authoritarian with a vengeance. (Bonus points for name-checking HST.)

I Shot the Sheriff Bob Marley (1973) – The height of personal protest: “They say they want to bring me in guilty for the killing of a deputy. But I say, ‘I shot the sheriff, but I didn’t shoot no deputy.’”

BrainwashedGeorge Harrison (2002) – On one of his last recordings, the quiet Beatle remained true-to-form and crafted a poppy, spiritual protest against the consumer and institutional brainwashing inherent in so much of modern life.
I’m sure there should be some Pearl Jam on here somewhere. What would you add, from them or others?


  1. I'm with you on "Ohio," though the people who need to learn never do: thus his ongoing efforts through "Freedom" and the whole album "Living With War". One of Neil's more emphatic protests being the 1991 Crazy Horse tour - which started on the day of the (first) Iraq Invasion. The material and the staging itself were directed at protesting what was going on (with the giant flag, etc.) and questioning how the symbols and mythology of "freedom" were being abused. The most surreal moments of that tour being the show at West Point (taking it to the heart of the beast as it were, though it sailed right over the top of their heads as far as I could tell). It was truly weird experiencing that while surrounded by uniforms...

    As far as Stills goes I always felt "Find The Cost Of Freedom" was another, though more understated.

    Nice blog. Didn't know it was here.

  2. Thanks, John. I thought about "Living with War" (indeed, an entire protest album!), but as well-intentioned as it was (in my view), artistically it never quite resonated with me. It's part of what I had in mind with the comment about some of the anti-Bush/Cheney protest songs seeming a bit forced.

    With regard to the '91 tour from which the CD "Weld" was derived), I remember Neil saying at the time that the band ended up channeling the war through the speakers (all those lengthy codas of feedback etc.). I'm sure the irony of the West Point show would've been something to behold. Reminds me of seeing Big Country (quite the peaceniks, too) perform at NYC's Pier 84 in the shadow of the Intrepid Aircraft Carrier. I think Stuart Adamson's comment was: "Nice boat."

  3. There are always new candidates for old lists popping up as time marches on, but few edge their way in as urgently as Graham Parker's 2012 composition, "Arlington's Busy," does to the canon of great protest songs. Dripping with G.P.'s characteristic vitriol and supported by details that never supersede the groove, the song is a potent condemnation—not just of U.S. military activity in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also of the media's and society's complacency toward it all. Good too see the former "angry young man" still worked up about things that really matter!