Protest Music: 1774-1911

Although protest music is often associated with more recent history, it has been a part of the fabric of American society since the beginning.

Protest music from the 18th and 19th centuries often utilized an already-popular tune with altered lyrics since recording technology was not available and songs needed to be easy to learn and sung by protestors, picketers, activists, and more. 

1. “Free Americay!” by Dr. Joseph Warren (1774)

In the spring of 1774, the British government imposed the “Intolerable Acts” on the American colonies which closed the port of Boston as punishment for the Boston Tea Party. In response, Doctor Joseph Warren, one of the most fervent advocates of American resistance to perceived British tyranny, penned the song “Free Americay” which was set to the tune of the “British Grenadiers.” The song implores Americans to resist the British, and it remained a popular anthem during the American Revolution. Warren died a year after he wrote it, fighting in the rearguard action that covered the American retreat from Bunker Hill.

2. “Get Off the Track!” by the Hutchinson Family Singers (1844)

Considered by many to be the first uniquely American popular music performers, the Hutchinson Family Singers made famous  the abolitionist ballad “Get Off the Track!” Set to the tune of the popular song “Old Dan Tucker,” “Get Off the Track” uses the new technology of the steam locomotive as a metaphor for the cause of emancipation. Full of anecdotes concerning the political landscape of 1840s America, the song references the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, Martin Van Buren, Henry Clay, and the annexation of Texas, and rails against slavery and its supporters. In 1847, after a few concerts in the city to mixed-race audiences, the mayor of Philadelphia demanded two things of the Hutchinson Family: “that no Anti-Slavery lecture shall be delivered” and “that no colored person may form a portion of any audience.” Staying true to their activist roots, the Hutchinson Family refused both of these demands and never played in Philadelphia again.

3. “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd” reported to be by Peg Leg Joe

There is controversy over the veracity of the popular notion that Spirituals were used as tools on the Underground Railroad to help enslaved people self-liberate. Regardless, one song often associated with the Underground Railroad is “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd.” According to folklore, the song was written by a sailor named Peg Leg Joe who led self-liberating enslaved people to freedom. It is claimed that “the Drinkin’ Gourd” refers to the Big Dipper, which points to the North Star. According to the popular myth, all enslaved people had to do was look for the “Drinking Gourd” in the sky and follow the North Star to freedom. Whether this is true or not is debated by scholars. What is undeniable, however, is that enslaved people vocalized their humanity in Spirituals – an act of protest in and of itself. 

4. “I’m a Good Ol’ Rebel” commonly attributed to Major James Innes Randolph (c. 1860s)

To express his disdain for Reconstruction-era federal policies, former Confederate James Innes Randolph penned “I’m a Good Ol’ Rebel,” and no other song better epitomizes the white racial terror that undermined Reconstruction. The song is a diatribe of vitriolic hatred against the United States and everything associated with it – the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, bald eagles, the American flag, and the Freedman’s Bureau. The song cheers the death of “300,000 Yankees” and wishes it was “3,000,000 instead.” In 2015 it regained cultural currency when the lyrics were changed to “I’m a Good Ol’ American” in order to protest the Obama presidency. 

5. “The Lips That Touch Liquor, Shall Never Touch Mine” by George Evans (1874)

This song, dedicated to “the Women’s Crusade Against Liquor Throughout the World” is an infamous Temperance ballad that beseeches both men and women to wage war on “Rum and his legions” until they “shall ruin no more.” The ballad plays upon sexual anxieties by telling men that if they do not quit drinking, they will be shut out romantically by any good Temperance woman. It has been popularly said, with little actual historical evidence, that the phrase “lips that touch liquor, shall never touch mine” became a slogan used by the Anti-Saloon League. Today that phrase, deriving from this protest song, is a humorous reminder of Victorian sensibilities and the failed cause of Prohibition.

6. “The Suffrage Flag” by William P. Adkinson (1884)

By the time “The Suffrage Flag” was written in 1884, the women’s suffrage movement was already nearly forty-years-old. Set to the popular tune of “The Irish Jaunting Car” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” “The Suffrage Flag” proclaims that when women are given the right to vote, “war shall be at an end, bayonets and swords shall rust, we’ll use the brain, the pen.” “The Suffrage Flag” was one of many pro-suffrage tunes penned in 1884. But women had to wait nearly 35 more years before the nineteenth-amendment was finally passed.

7. “The Preacher and the Slave” by Joe Hill (1911)

Everybody has heard the famous idiom “pie in the sky,” but did you know that it came from a popular protest song? “The Preacher and the Slave,” written by labor activist Joe Hill, was written as a condemnation of the Salvation Army and set to the tune of the hymn “In the Sweet By-and-By.” The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a labor organization which Hill was a member of, often clashed with the Salvation Army over the “hearts and minds” of workers. During strikes, factory owners often sent Salvation Army bands to play over protestors, attempting to drown out the IWW chants or songs. In “The Preacher and the Slave,” Hill lampoons the Salvation Army as “the Starvation Army” and characterizes their practice of telling workers to accept their earthly condition because a greater reward is waiting for them in Heaven, as “pie in the sky.”