Sunday, November 4, 2012

14 Passionate Political/Protest Songs

Protest songs, or songs about politics in general, seem hard to come by these days. I find that unfortunate, because a well-made protest song - whether a clarion cry for justice, a lament for a dying country, a personal reflection on current events, or any other form such a song may take - can have a far more profound effect on listeners than any old song exhausting the tired topic of relationships. I've ranked a few of the best examples below:

14. "Post War Dream," Pink Floyd
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher might be blamed for permanently destroying Northern British industry, wrecking mining communities and damaging the power of labor unions, but one positive acknowledgement must be said in her honor: she inspired some of the best music of the latter twentieth century. Pink Floyd's "Post War Dream" is one such Thatcher-era expression of intense political despair (even if we can't forgive the ethnic derogation).

13. "Okie from Muskogee," Merle Haggard
Here's the only right-wing anthem on this list. I read somewhere that this song was popular among the very hippies whom the song ridiculed. A cover appears on Phil Ochs' Greatest Hits album.

12. "Fight the Power," Public Enemy
It would be remiss to call Public Enemy's 1989 hit anything short of a manifesto. After having endured a decade of Reaganism, the voices of those marginalized by such policies had to emerge, tearing-down John Wayne and Elvis Presley - White America's idols - along the way.

11. "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," Bob Dylan
The major tragedy was not that a murder was committed, nor was it that the wealthy murderer was set out on bail, nor was it that the murdered was an innocent, poor woman of color (Hattie Carroll's race is never explicitly stated), but that the justice system, of which we are taught to expect so much, is irretrievably, irreparably broken.

10. "Which Side Are You On?" Florence Reece
Florence Reece's 1931 song about the Harlan County War. Yes, her ragged, Coal Miner's Daughter voice may take some getting used to... Natalie Merchant does a lovely cover.

9. "America," Au Pairs
A blunt, infuriated protest of Reagan's unabashed support of death squads in Central and South America. In fact, during the first 2.5 years of Reagan's presidency, 250,000 people were killed by Reagan-supported right-wing death squads in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatamala alone.

8. "El Derecho de Vivir en Paz," Victor Jara
Literally translating to "The Right to Live in Peace," this enchanting song was released in Chile, during the Marxist, democratically-elected presidency of Salvador Allende. The two were friends, and Jara believed that Allende's reforms would help yield a more just, peaceful world. Personally, the fate of both Jara and Allende, again due to American foreign policy, may have permanently damaged my faith in humanity.

7. "Stand Down Margaret," The (English) Beat
There are at least two studio versions of this song; the familiar "Whine and Grine" version, and this better, albeit lesser-known "Dub" version. As you can tell from the title, this is another anti-Thatcher song, with a sound probably resultant from John Peel's playing of reggae and punk alongside one another on his radio program.

6. "I Ain't Marching Anymore," Phil Ochs
The majority of Phil Ochs songs are eloquently political, albeit none are as well-known as this energizing rallying cry: "call it peace or call it treason, call it love or call it reason..."

5. "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag," Country Joe and the Fish
A powerful anti-Vietnam War statement. The studio version, I think, captures the absurdity of the situation, but the live-at-Woodstock recording, which I prefer, better conveys the urgency of stopping the war: "there's about 300,000 of you fuckers out there!"

4. "Solidarity Forever," Pete Seeger (lyrics by Ralph Hosea Chaplin)
A classic union hymn, to the tune of John Brown's body. Performed here by the legendary Pete Seeger.

And, for good measure, here's a 91 year-old Pete Seeger, helping union members battle Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's plans to strip public workers of their collective bargaining rights:

3. "Waiting for the Great Leap Forward," Billy Bragg

Bragg directs his listeners through the bleak political realities of the day before ecstatically lifting them up to the better world inevitably to follow. Here is the original, admittedly-dated studio recording. Frequently, when performing "his theme song" live, Bragg revises the lyrics to match the contemporary state of affairs.

2. "Mississippi Goddam," Nina Simone

There is a point, somewhere in the song, when Nina's "showtune" erupts into a revolutionary rant; we're not going to wait-out this slow process of desegregation for you to treat us like human beings: "oh but this whole country is full of lies: you're all gonna die and die like flies."

1.  "Strange Fruit," Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday's shocking, frank and haunting anti-lynching song conveys the brutality of southern racism like no other song from the era, hence its position at the top of my list. Prepare to feel a chill run down your spine...


Honorable mentions include the classic communist anthem "The Internationale," Willie Nelson's rather queer "Cowboys are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other," Reagan Youth's "Reagan Youth" and David Rovic's reminder that there will always be "Resistance." Additionally, I have a soft-spot for Jackson C Frank's protest song "Don't Look Back," even though (or, perhaps, because) I find its optimistic chords unconvincing against Frank's tragic voice and lyricism.

A dishonorable mention goes out to the blatantly-racist anti-Obama song "The Great Reneger," with the final word not pronounced correctly: get my drift?

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