Ten Protest Songs That Matter
by Peter Rothberg
The Nation.com Blog
April 21, 2011
Dorian Lynskey's comprehensive new book, 33 Revolutions Per
Minute, details the history of the protest song in
and around the world.
Defining a protest song as one that "addresses a political
issue in a way which aligns itself with the underdog,"
Lynskey starts his story with Billie Holiday's harrowing
1939 anti-lynching ballad, "Strange Fruit," and ably takes
us through the historic tunes that helped sustain and
promote the civil rights, labor and anti-Vietnam war
movements as well as non-American music from The Clash in
It's a bracing and informative survey, even if you're
familiar with the topic, and it sent me thinking and talking
to people about all-time favorite protest songs. A quick
poll of Nation staffers and friends of the magazine produced
an eclectic play list
Nation Publisher Emeritus Victor Navasky offered "Peat Bog
Soldiers," one of
became a Republican anthem during the Spanish Civil War and
a symbol of fascist resistance during World War II.
Executive Editor Richard Kim cited Sinead O'Connor's "Black
Boys on Mopeds." Managing Editor Roane Carey undoubtedly
spoke for many when he insisted on Bob Dylan's classic "
Masters of War." Publicity Director Gennady Kolker
contributed John Lennon's "Gimme Some Truth." Blogger,
author and former Crawdaddy editor Greg Mitchell's tentative
short-list includes Sam Cooke's "Change Is Gonna Come,"
Woody Guthrie's "Vigilante Man," Steve Earle's "
Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello's live version of "Ghost
of Tom Joad," Bob Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom", Louis
Armstrong's "Black and Blue," Leonard Cohen's "Democracy,"
Billy Bragg's version of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy and Neil
Young's "Shock and Awe."
Mother Jones Publisher Steve Katz wrote to say that Steve
Goodman's "My Name is Peggy Evans" is the song that's stuck
with him all these years. Free Speech TV's Don Rojas votes
for Bob Marley's "Redemption Song." Care2's Cindy Samuels
couldn't pick just one among vintage classics "Union Maid,"
"Bread and Roses," and "We Shall Overcome." GritTV's Sarah
Jaffe lauds Patti Smith's "Radio
Murphys' version of "Which Side are You On." Nation
Institute Investigative Editor Esther Kaplan counters with
what she argues is the "ultimate version of the song,"
featured in the film Harlan
Reece, who wrote the ballad during a coal mining strike in
the 1930s. Alternet's Washington, DC editor Adele Stan cites
the Isley Brothers' "Fight the Power" and
Leopold argues for Barry McGuire's version of PF Sloan's
"Eve of Destruction," and FAIR founder and Head of the Park
ignored 1970 song "What About Me?" from the
band Quicksilver Messenger Service. "It has almost
everything -- environment, media criticism, class, youth
rebellion, repression, optimism."
Seriously picking a top-ten is an impossible task, but in
the interests of getting the conversation started, here are
my choices. The criteria includes musical quality as well as
topicality and I tried to stray some from the totally
predictable. Hope you enjoy the videos!
1) Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up"
2) Stiff Little Fingers' "Suspect Device"
3) Steel Pulse's "Ku Klux Klan"
4) Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"
5) Malvina Reynolds' "Little Boxes"
6) Phil Ochs' "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore"
7) Billy Bragg's "Waiting for the Great Leap Forward"
8) Bob Dylan's "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll"
9) Aretha Franklin's "Respect"
10) Boogie Down Production's "Stop the Violence"
We also want to hear from Nation readers! Use this form to
tell us what you consider your all-time favorite protest
song. Please include a link to a video, if you have it, but
just tell us the name and artist if you don't. We'll be
publishing a survey of readers' choices next week.
Peter Rothberg, the Nation's Associate Publisher for
Special Projects, has been writing the Act Now blog covering
the world of activism since 2003. His previous positions
with The Nation include publicity director, web editor,
special projects director and intern. A former contributor
Rothberg is also a former speech-writer for civil rights
leader Julian Bond. A member of the
Council and the board of Living Liberally, Rothberg lives in