Tuesday, July 31, 2007

14 Best Protest Songs

The genre of music in which the most iconic and embarrassing songs have been written (or, in Elvis's case, performed). Fortunate Son and Eve of Destruction. Blowin' in the Wind and the Dead Prez vegetarian anthem Be Healthy. And any number of other well-meaning but musically horrific songs. It is probably easier nowadays to mock the genre rather than make a credible contribution, despite the fact that the quantity of things to protest is certainly not shrinking. Jeff mentioned Biko already, so I will leave it off the list; and the ones mentioned above can go without saying.

1. Clampdown, the Clash

(My favorite Clash song. Addressed to industrial workers, but strangely biting even in a modern office building. Since I was just in such a building, this song makes it to the top of the list. The men at the factory are old and cunning / you don't owe nothing / boy, get running! / it's the best years of your life they want to steal...)

2. A Change is Gonna Come, Sam Cooke

(An obvious choice, but unavoidable.)

3. We're a Winner, Curtis Mayfield

(A joyous protest song! Pretty much only directed at black people but I love it anyway.)

4. Revolution 1, the Beatles

(Not really suitable for singing at protests -- "Guys, hold on, we need a plan!" -- but probably better than the Lennon songs that are. Although having a plan does indeed seem revolutionary nowadays.)

5. Let Me Die in My Footsteps, by Bob Dylan

(So many to choose from! I'm going with this one because I love it, and also because I am now self-conscious about being obvious. No one has bomb shelters anymore but the song still resonates.)

6. Don't Look Now, CCR

(One of the greatest sets of lyrics in all of music, a good example of how much can be said in a three minute song.)

7. There But for Fortune, Phil Ochs

(I really love this song. Draft Dodger Rag and a few others are still good, but this is probably the only Ochs song that holds up completely. And stabs at the conscience a little, no less.)

8. I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door I'll Get it Myself), by James Brown

(The title is really the only good line in the song. Luckily, it is repeated several dozen times.)

9. Higher Ground, Stevie Wonder

(I actually think the Chili Peppers' cover might be better than the original, but once they start talking about "funky funky sounds" it is hard to take it seriously as a protest.)

10. Bourgeois Blues, Leadbelly

(The title has obviously dated, but still a great song. And D.C. hasn't gotten much more more integrated since he wrote it.)

11. 911 is a Joke, Public Enemy

(One of few songs on this list that might conceivably have produced some change.)

12. Christmas in Washington, Steve Earle

(The most recent song on this list - it's from 1997 - and it expresses nostalgia for a past era of protest instead of any sort of desire for a better future. This is either indicative of the floundering, uncertain state of opposition in this country, or a sign that I am out of touch with what's going on today and have gotten musically as well as politically complacent. In either case, an immensely sad song.)

13. It's Expected I'm Gone, the Minutemen

(I'm not sure how great this song really is, but it is the world's most defiantly pessimistic. The best line: "No hope. See, that's what gives me guts." The next line -- "big fucking shit" -- is not quite so impressive.)

14. Vampire Blues, Neil Young

(The protest is pretty oblique; it's about oil price gouging, but the lyrics drift around the topic. It does contain perhaps my favorite Neil Young verse:

Good times are coming
I hear it everywhere I go
Good times are coming
But they're sure coming slow)


John said...

I must take exception to your casual insulting of "In the Ghetto," which, once you get past the obvious ridiculousness of Elvis singing about the short life of a doomed black youth in the ghettos of Chicago, is actually a pretty good song.

I may have to do a list of the top ten most obnoxiously smug protest songs. But I'm not sure my musical tastes are wide enough for me to compile an adequate list.

Paul Morton said...

There's been almost no work by a non-Indian about the Native American genocide that I can actually give a damn about. The one exception is Johnny Cash's album, Bitter Tears. It includes what I guess I could call my favorite protest song, though I never thought about it as such until I saw this list. Apache Tears:

Hoof prints and foot prints deep ruts the wagons made
The victor and the loser came by here
No head stones but these bones bring Mascalero death moans
See the smooth black nuggets by the thousands laying here
Petrified but justified are these Apache tears
Dead grass dry roots hunger crying in the night
Ghost of broken hearts and laws are here
And who saw the young squaw they judged by their whiskey law
Tortured till she died of pain and fear
Where the soldiers lay her back are the black Apache tears
The young men the old men the guilty and the innocent
Bled red blood and chilled alike with fears
The red men the white men no fight ever took this land
So don't raise the dust when you pass here
They're sleeping and in my keeping are these Apache tears

Drew said...

There's been almost no work by a non-Indian about the Native American genocide that I can actually give a damn about.

What, Cher's "Cherokee Nation" doesn't do it for you? (Or are you honoring her 1/16th Cherokee side?)

Beth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Beth said...

I've got to put in a vote for "Charlie on the MTA," the anthem of an unfortunate gentleman who could not get off the T because of an increase in exit fares. The Kingston Trio brought it to national fame.

The rousing chorus:

Did he ever return,
No he never returned
And his fate is still unlearn'd
He may ride forever
'neath the streets of Boston
He's the man who never returned.