Protest Music History


by Jack Hickey

The origins of protest music began with the birth of man in the heart of Africa, where primates evolved into humans and social units developed. Spurred by the need to protect both people and resources in these newly formed communities, music arose as a means to communicate impending danger and increase social cohesion. The powerful combination of voice and rhythm carried itself across the globe, where societies discovered its great power of conveying messages about the pains and struggles of existing in the lower rungs of society.

The protest song became a powerful tool of the masses because it is easily spreads like a virus, giving a voice to people without one.

Some of the first protest songs in European history were sung during the time of Feudalism, where nearly everyone was forced to the work the land at the advantage of a few members of the ruling class. Common topics for early protest songs were war, slavery, civil rights, and women’s suffrage and one of the earliest popular protest songs was written anonymously in 1795 in support of women’s suffrage. During the Civil War in 1861, Julia Ward Howe wrote the famous “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. Occasionally groups of protest musicians would band together in traveling musical acts. One such influential group was the Hutchinson Family Singers who were a group that traveled the country mixing sentimental ballads with protest songs about temperance, abolition and women’s rights. Due to their widespread success and topics of protest, the Hutchinson Family did not encounter much resistance.

Unfortunately many other protesting musicians did, including labor organizer Joe Hill. Hill’s songs urged workers to demand their rights and at the turn of the century, as is true today, the insistence of worker’s rights hurt profits and in response, the government developed a way to kill Joe Hill. It was important that the government seemed innocent so federal officials jury-rigged a flimsy court case to put Joe to death despite the outcry of thousands of Americans and Swedish diplomats. Because Joe hill had such a profound impact on American history, many songs eulogize the legacy he left behind.

During the tumultuous years of WW1 (1914-1918) many soldiers were sent to fight in Europe and families across America worried about the fate of their beloved men. Protest songs of this era dealt with the ugliness and ravages of war and took the point of view of concerned family members. After the war more protest songs shifted focus to issues of racism and violence and many dealt with the practice of lynching. One song, “Strange Fruit”, originated as a poem by Abel Meeropol, but was sung and popularized by Billie Holliday.

As the decades passed the artists who popularized protest songs gained more national recognition, a great example would be the artist Woody Guthrie. Guthrie survived the dust bowl era and traveled across America with itinerant farm workers who influenced him to write songs protesting their treatment, as well as traditional folk and children songs. Guthrie’s son Arlo carried the banner of protest and is most famous for his 18-minute song, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre” which criticizes the draft in the Vietnam War. Woody remained an important figure till the end of his years by serving as a mentor to Bob Dylan.

During the sixties, political protest in the form of folk music hit is peak, as most songs focused on the Vietnam, the draft, and the Nixon administration. Other popular topics of protest included racism and equality. On May 4th, 1970 a platoon of national guardsmen opened fire on students, killing four, which galvanized Vietnam War protest groups around the country and provided inspiration for many songs. Artists like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were pouring their hearts out in an effort to change the country for the better. After the sixties the popularity of folk music began to decline and with it, the influence of protest music because songs weren’t reaching a wide of audience due to the whims of popular taste. During the nineties, protest music resurged with the help of rap acts like Public Enemy and Niggas With Attitude, as well as the rock/rap group Rage Against the Machine. Currently, artist like the Dixie Chicks and Greenday are outspoken critics of the current administration.

Currently protest music needs a big come back to protest the limitless crimes being committed against the people, state, and the world by our current administration.

The youth of America will soon hold the reins of power and much needs to be done to prevent the injustice that occurs in our name and if we don’t use our voice to protest someone else will for us. Personally, I struggle with how I can get more involved, or how to get others to feel more strongly about issues that matter. It’s harder this time around because the nature of this war is different than the Vietnam War because the draft is strictly voluntary. Because of this the effects the war has on the nation are much limited in scope and it is therefore harder to get people to resist. I have attended a few protests but I felt that my efforts weren’t heard. I don’t know what the solution is, but something needs to change.

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