Sunday, August 19, 2012

Music Sunday: The Protest Something Edition

Since summer is almost over and since this is an election year, with the Democratic and Republican nominating conventions coming up soon, and especially with the rhetoric from both sides of the political divide heating up to unprecedented proportions, I thought this would be the perfect time to share a slightly different genre of music - the protest song.

I suppose people of my generation think first of the protest music of the 1960s when the topic of protest songs comes up, but protest songs have been around for a lot longer than that. Just in the United States, protest music has a long history that goes back to the Revolutionary War, while the genre exploded during the Civil War. Since I have limited space here, however, I'll limit myself to songs from the 20th century and forward. And even with that limitation, there won't be room to share more than a few of the many songs protesting many things.

First, from the 1930s, there is "Strange Fruit", made popular by Billie Holiday. The lyrics for the song came from a poem published in 1936 by Abel Meeropol, who also sometimes wrote as Lewis Allen, that protested the lynchings then occurring with disturbing regularity:

In 1940, Woody Guthrie wrote "This Land is Your Land" as an answer to "God Bless America" and in protest of the way the working people of the United States were treated by the capitalist owners of big business in a country and at a time when th captains of industry were revered and worshiped. It was read then as socialist in sentiment, and it was. Later it was reinterpreted (and maybe tamed) by those who chose to take the song as more environmental in nature. But, it is difficult to mistake the meaning of the man who carried a guitar that had the message "This machine kills Fascists" glued to its body. This version does not include all the lyrics to the song, but is the only one I could find that would work:

Even if "This Land is Your Land" isn't one of them, there have been many songs directed at protesting what has happened to the Earth's environment. One of the best of those songs, at least in my opinion, was Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)", recorded in 1971:

In the sixties and seventies, however, most protest songs centered on war, particularly the war in Vietnam. Some of these songs came from unexpected places. For example, the song "Unknown Soldier", by The Doors. This is a live performance of the song, at the Hollywood Bowl:

Other songs protesting Vietnam in particular and war in general, were not so unexpected. John Lennon and Yoko Ono and a few of their friends recorded "Give Peace A Chance in a hotel room in Montreal on June 1, 1969:

Some songs, on the other hand, protest the protest. As Bono has said of U2's song "Sunday Bloody Sunday", about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, "This is not a rebel song". That is reiterated, and reiterated very graphically, specifically and emphatically, in the middle of this performance, a live version of the song from the movie "Rattle and Hum":

And then there is probably the ultimate "protest-the-protest" song, Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee", from 1969 and released just a few months after "Give Peace A Chance". There has been some opinion that the song was a satire, but being half-Okie myself, I see it as a heartfelt statement of the feelings of many people at the time, who were genuinely confused and upset by what they saw going on around them. And there's nothing wrong with that - protest songs can protest whatever the writers of the songs want them to protest:

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