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Timeless Protest Songs

Home > Everywhere > Lists | Music | Performing Arts | Vintage and Retro
by Steven G (subscribe)
Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published September 19th 2021
From the Twentieth Century to Today
It appears to be a weekly occurrence that some new large-scale protest somewhere breaks down into violence or escalates into something potentially tragic. The world feels more divided than I can ever remember it being. But one thing about the current crop of protests is that they have struggled to find new songs that they feel encapsulate their pain.
protest, song, music, timeless
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Having said that, some protest songs do seem to be timeless. Songs that, no matter when they were written, still hold true today. Some of them it is depressing to think that they are still relevant – what they were protesting against should have been sorted out a long time ago; others are issues that have been there since time immemorial.

It is sad to realise that maybe protests don't change anything. For a protest song to go out of the bounds of its own time period and carry down through subsequent generations is indicative that those in power either don't have real power or do not care. I know solutions are not easy – how do you change an entire culture that has problems ingrained into it over centuries? – but the thing about music is that it shows we (or some of us, at least) are aware that these problems exist.

I don't mean to be all heavy, but some of the things I am seeing are depressing me. And so, let's let the music speak for us.

Normal rules of lists apply – one song per artist (yes, I know – Dylan deserved more), I need to like the song, and they have to be relevant now. For this reason, I have avoided songs from the twenty-first century. Having said that, I have a terrible feeling Childish Gambino's song 'This Is America' (2018) is destined to be timeless as well.

'Strange Fruit' by Billie Holiday (1939)

The strange fruit in question is the body of a person hanging from a tree. While people are no longer lynched by hanging (at least, not that often), the fact that people of colour are still killed randomly and without judicial recourse is something that should not be happening over 80 years later. It makes a sad song even more depressing.

'Masters Of War' by Bob Dylan (1963)

Picking a Dylan song was hard, but this one stood out because, where I live, we are building submarines for reasons that I am yet to ascertain. But without this building programme, the state's unemployment rate would be insane. 'Masters Of War' is about the industrial-war complex; it is still a thing and the money involved is still incomprehensible.

'Eve Of Destruction' by Barry McGuire (1965)

Of all the songs on this list, this one should have been "of its time". Yet, the Jordan River area is still a hotbed of violence, the respect we have for one another is still low, China is still a concern, and while Selma, Alabama might not be the centre of racial protest, now it's the entire USA. This song was about the mid-60s. Why is it still about the 2020s?

'Respect' by Aretha Franklin (1967)

The original by Otis Redding was about being shown some respect by a woman who just used him as a supplier of money. With some changes to lyrics and an angrier singing tone, Franklin turned it into a demand for respect for all women. The #MeToo movement showed that this sentiment is still there because things have not changed.

'Fortunate Son' by Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)

While this song was written about the large number of children of the rich and famous who managed to avoid the draft to Vietnam, the unfortunate thing is so many children of the rich and famous still manage to avoid being held accountable for their actions because of money and influence… allegedly. This song should not matter now there is not a draft… but…

'What's Going On?' by Marvin Gaye (1971)

I think the only thing that's changed from when this song was written is being judged by hair length. Apart from that, Marvin Gaye hit the zeitgeist of the turbulent early 70s… which is apparently the same zeitgeist of the early 2020s. Brutality as punishment, transpose protest for picket, the need for understanding… the video was updated in 2019 showing just how little things have changed. Why is this so hard?

'Imagine' by John Lennon (1971)

The Communist manifesto set to music! While Lennon felt this was a protest song, it seems more a wish song. But it does hold a mirror up to the world as it was in 1971 and what needed changing. And when a group of celebrities did a particularly cringe-filled zoom-recorded version in 2020 it showed (apart from the fact some people should not sing) that the sentiments still mean something deep fifty years later.

'The Message' by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five (1982)

My favourite rap song. From the opening of "Broken glass, everywhere…" to the final verse tale of life and death… not a thing has changed. The inner-city life of too many people of colour is still a harrowing experience, and little is being done to change things beyond words being spoken.

'Fight The Power' by Public Enemy (1989)

A song that set out to capture the struggle of youths of colour in the USA – in terms of personal authority, social status and their mental health – in 1989, a year mentioned in the first line. Childish Gambino's 2018 song shows that, unfortunately, nothing seems to have changed. Fighting the power was not going to be easy, and it is still difficult today.

'Killing In the Name' by Rage Against The Machine (1992)
NSFW lyrics.

And we finish with a song about racism and the fact that many in power wear their racism on their sleeve. In the 1990s, 30 years after the 60s had seen the start of the racial equality movement, it was bad enough that a song like this was needed; thirty more years on, the fact it is still relevant is a sad indictment on society at large.

Ten songs that mean as much now as they did last century.

I'm sorry this was such a heavy topic, but sometimes music is all many of us have to cope with the world around us. And sometimes music best expresses the thoughts of many of us.

I hope you still enjoyed it.
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Why? Protest songs can cross generations
Where: Everywhere
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