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
13. "Okie from Muskogee," Merle Haggard
12. "Fight the Power," Public Enemy
11. "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," Bob Dylan
10. "Which Side Are You On?" Florence Reece
9. "America," Au Pairs
8. "El Derecho de Vivir en Paz," Victor Jara
7. "Stand Down Margaret," The (English) Beat
6. "I Ain't Marching Anymore," Phil Ochs
5. "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag," Country Joe and the Fish
4. "Solidarity Forever," Pete Seeger (lyrics by Ralph Hosea Chaplin)
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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtxKL9BaKZg
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?