Protest music: 1947 – 1972

These years encompass the most famous era of American protest music, the era when it became part of the mainstream musical scene.

Bands and artists wove large amounts of protest music into their repertoires. The American music industry itself reached new heights of popularity, influence, and power during the post-WWII era. The simultaneous explosions in wealth, population, mass media, youth culture, and social movements resulted in people, including artists, taking a greater interest in social reform and current events.

These changes fostered an environment conducive to protest music. Some of it focused on individual issues, while others were broad calls for peace and change.

16. “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by Pete Seeger (1959)

Harnessing the powerful prose and poetry found in the Book of Ecclesiastes, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” takes Biblical imagery and reframes it in a secular way to comment on societal conditions. The Biblical text posits there being a time and place for all things. Like all great art, the lines are open to interpretation, but a popular view is that Seeger’s song presents them as a plea for world peace because of the closing line: “a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.” This line and the title phrase “Turn! Turn! Turn!” are the only lyrics in the song that didn’t come from the Bible. 

17. “Freedom Day” by Max Roach (1960)

“Freedom Day” is off of the album We Insist! by Max Roach. We Insist! is an avant-garde jazz album on themes related to the Civil Rights Movement. Begun in 1959, Roach originally intended for it to be finished by 1963, in time for the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. However, as Civil Rights issues exploded in 1960, Roach tackled the project with new urgency and finished it that year. “Freedom Day” is the second track on the album. “Freedom Day” was arranged by Roach as a response to the Emancipation of enslaved black Americans during the Civil War and the continuing fight for civil rights. The track ends abruptly which Roach explains is because “we could never finish it, we don’t really understand what it really is to be free. The last sound we did, ‘Freedom Day,’ ended with a question mark.”

18. “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Peter, Paul, and Mary (1962)

“Blowin’ in the Wind” by Peter, Paul, and Mary is an iconic song from the early 1960s. Originally written by Bob Dylan, the song poses a series of rhetorical questions about peace, war, society, and freedom. The refrain “the answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind” has been described by rock journalist Mick Gold as “impenetrably ambiguous: either the answer is so obvious it is right in your face, or the answer is as intangible as the wind.” Peter, Paul, and Mary famously played the song from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington in 1963. 

19. “The Times They Are a-Changin’” by Bob Dylan (1963)

Bob Dylan’s repertoire of protest songs could warrant a list unto itself. One of his most famous, however, is “The Times They Are a-Changin.” Dylan penned the song in a deliberate attempt to create an anthem for the broad changes altering society during the 1960s. Even with this specific intent in mind, Dylan crafted a song whose lyrics audiences continue to identify with.

20. “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke (1964)

In 1963, en route to Shreveport, Louisiana, Sam Cooke called ahead to a Holiday Inn to make reservations for his wife and himself, but when he and his group arrived, the desk clerk glanced nervously and explained there were no vacancies. Cooke was obviously turned away due to his race. This event inspired him to write A Change is Gonna Come. Unfortunately, Cooke’s first national performance of the song on The Tonight Show was completely overshadowed by the Beatles’ performance on the Ed Sullivan Show two nights later. Cooke never performed “A Change Is Gonna Come” again in his lifetime. However, the song became an iconic civil rights ballad nonetheless.

21. “Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire (1964)

“Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire protests a laundry-list of societal issues facing America in the 1960s. Although already recorded by the band the Byrds, McGuire recorded his version, with his famous vocals, in the summer of 1965. McGuire’s vocal track was recorded as a rough mix and was not intended to be the final version, but a copy of the recording managed to make it to a disc jockey, who began playing it. The song was an instant smash hit, and as a result, the more polished vocal track that was initially planned was never recorded.

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

In 1966, local residents and businesses on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, California, had become annoyed by the crowds of young people going to clubs and music venues late at night. In response, the city passed local ordinances intended to stop loitering and enforce a strict curfew on the Strip after 10 p.m. Incensed, young people began rioting. The riots and protests eventually fizzled out but musician Stephen Stills, of the band Buffalo Springfield, witnessed them firsthand. Inspired by the scenes before him, Stills wrote “For What It’s Worth.”

23. “Ain’t I Right?” by Marty Robbins (1966)

Released at the height of the social changes sweeping America during the 1960s, “Ain’t I Right?” by cowboy singer and lifelong conservative, Marty Robbins, takes aim at “Communists, Socialism” and “two-faced politicians.” The lyrics take pot-shots at anti-war protestors and refer to burning draft cards as “a get acquainted Communistic kiss.” It advocates sending anti-war politicians to do the fighting in Vietnam and ends with a call to fight Communists here at home, as well as overseas. 

24. “An Open Letter to My Teenage Son” by Victor Lundberg (1967)

An unintentionally hilarious song that starts off with the line, “dear son, you ask me my reaction to long hair and beards on young people,” Victor Lundberg’s “An Open Letter to My Teenage Son” is a spoken-word piece that is a timely snapshot of 1960s conservatism. It is a critical response to hippies, rock and roll, teenage “dope addicts and glue sniffers,” free love, and the anti-war movement. Lundberg was an American radio newscaster and personality from Michigan who recorded the piece in 1967, and it reached the Billboard Top 10 that year. Due to its extremely dated references, antiquated morality, and lack of melody, the piece has been largely forgotten. The last line, however, deserves brief mention as it is indicative of the rest of the song: “your mother will love you no matter what you do because she is a woman, and I love you too, son…but if you decide to burn your draft card then burn your birth certificate at the same time!”

25. “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” by Country Joe and the Fish (1967)

One of the most iconic moments of the 1960s is when songwriter Country Joe McDonald sang this song at Woodstock in 1969. According to McDonald, the rag was originally written in 1965 in under a half hour, with the conscious purpose of protesting the escalation of the Vietnam War. In 2001, the heirs of New Orleans jazz musician Kid Ory sued McDonald due to the fact that McDonald had obviously stolen the tune for “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die-Rag” from Ory’s “Muskrat Ramble.” Fortunately for McDonald, the court dismissed the suit, holding that the Ory estate had waited too long to make the claim.

26. “Ballad of Two Brothers” by Autry Inman (1968)

“Ballad of Two Brothers” juxtaposes the stories of two brothers, one a soldier in Vietnam and the other a college hippie. The soldier is backed by reverent instrumentals while the college hippie is backed by groovy rock music, clearly mocking the latter. The dialog compares the brave, noble, and caring soldier with the shallow, naive, weak, and narcissistic hippie in overt disapproval of the anti-war movement.

27. “Okie From Muskogee” by Merle Haggard and the Strangers (1969)

Country singer Merle Haggard grew disheartened as he observed the growing anti-war movement of the late 1960s. In a later interview, Haggard said, “Freedom is everything… During Vietnam, there were all kinds of protests. Here were these [servicemen] going over there and dying for a cause… and here are these young kids, that were free, b&*%$^#g about it… what the hell did these kids have to complain about?” Haggard wrote “Okie from Muskogee” to reflect his pride as an Oklahoman, where people were patriotic, didn’t smoke marijuana, take LSD, wear beads and sandals, burn draft cards, or challenge authority. The song has been parodied relentlessly with titles like “Hippie From Olema” and “A#%^(&e from El Paso.”

28. “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)

Seemingly featured in almost any piece of media about the Vietnam War is rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival’s (CCR) “Fortunate Son.” Describing the origins of the famous anti-war song, writer, CCR band member, and military veteran, John Fogerty said, “Now I was drafted and they’re making me fight, and no one has actually defined why. So this was all boiling inside of me and I sat down on the edge of my bed and out came ‘It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son!’ You know, it took about 20 minutes to write the song.” Fogerty has also stated that the song’s inspiration was David Eisenhower, grandson of Dwight D. Eisenhower (David Eisenhower did actually serve three years in the military, however).

29. “War” by Edwin Starr (1970)

The Temptations released “War” on their album Psychedelic Shack and it resonated well with the anti-war sentiment pervading the nation. Many wanted a single of it but The Temptations, apprehensive of the controversy surrounding the song, refused to do so fearing it would harm their image. Edwin Starr, craving a hit, volunteered to sing the new version. The song was a smash-hit and propelled him to stardom. Interestingly, during the pro-war frenzy of post-9/11 America, the song was listed as “lyrically questionable” by Clear Channel Communications.

30. “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” by Marvin Gaye (1971)

This song, featuring Marvin Gaye on vocals and piano, along with a wide array of other soul and R&B artists, is one of sorrow for the natural environment. Written solely by Gaye, the song laments, “oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas, fish full of mercury” along with “radiation underground and in the sky, animals and birds who live nearby are dying.” The song remains a powerful reminder of the devastation wrought by modern society on the environment as well as a poignant call to arms to protect our planet.

31. “Man in Black” by Johnny Cash (1971)

Playing on the fact that he was known as “the Man in Black” for his usual all-black apparel, Johnny Cash wrote this song to protest the treatment of poor people by wealthy politicians, mass incarceration, and the war in Vietnam. After his first performance of the song, he received a standing ovation. In the lyrics, Cash proclaims he “wear(s) the black for the poor and the beaten down, livin’ in the hopeless hungry side of town.” He “wear(s) it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime but is there because he’s a victim of the times.” Each stanza tackles a different particular issue and  many of the lyrics still resonate in 21st century America.

32. “I Am Woman” by Helen Reddy (1972)

During a National Organization for Women (NWO) gala in 1973, a new song started playing. The room went wild. NWO founder Betty Friedan wrote, “women got out of their seats and started dancing around the hotel ballroom and joining hands in a circle that got larger and larger until maybe a thousand of us were dancing and singing, ‘I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman.’ It was a spontaneous, beautiful expression of the exhilaration we all felt in those years, woman really moving as woman.” The song was “I Am Woman” by Helen Reddy. The song arose from Reddy’s quest to, “find songs that said what I thought being a woman was about.” It became the de facto anthem of the Second-wave feminist movement. 

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