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A History of Protest Songs in America

French writer and politician Victor Hugo once said, “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.” Never has this statement rang more true than with protest songs, many of which occurred during the civil rights movement led largely by Martin Luther King Jr, whom America celebrates every January.

From America’s beginning, protest songs have been at the forefront of various causes. One of the earliest examples is the famous “Yankee Doodle,” used by both sides in the Revolutionary War to satirize the opposing army.

While various other songs of protest or social commentary were brought forth over the following years, many consider this form of music’s real start during the 1800s when it was used to embrace and advance the abolition movement.

The music of the abolition movement has origins in African musical traditions, which were originally used to set pace for work, worship and teaching while enslaved by the southern states.

It was at the wake of the Underground Railroad when these songs became more defined. Some of the most popular protest songs at the time were “Go Down Moses” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.”

These songs only grew bigger near the end of the 19th century as more anti-slavery societies formed. “Get Off the Track” described a roaring train of emancipation, carrying its riders on to freedom.

Despite slavery’s abolition in 1865, the African American community would still suffer from discrimination and hatred for the next century. As a result, more protesting songs emerged and during the civil rights movement they became nationally recognized.

One stark difference between the African American spirituals of the 1800s and the protest songs of the 1960s was the boom in jazz music during the 1920s.

This influence pioneered the modern-day “protest song” as Billie Holiday specifically combined the two in her 1939 song “Strange Fruit.”

Holiday’s song proved revolutionary to the realm of protest music, as it prioritized abstraction rather than explicitness like the songs which came before. The track drew listeners in with a dark melody, but expressed explicit grievances about southern lynching in the lyrics. 

Holiday, along with Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane, pioneered the jazz genre, which ultimately crossed over with the spirituals and resulted in songs like Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free,” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” Both became prominent protest songs for the civil rights movement even after the Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964.

Although segregation was illegal thanks to the landmark 1964 bill, there was still a need for protest songs in America. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 prompted a new wave of protest songs, most notably “If I Can Dream,” a ballad performed by Elvis Presley at the close of his ’68 Comeback Special.

In another act of protest, musicians in the ‘60s and early ‘70s began to rally against the Vietnam War, singing about a longing for peace and a hatred toward the idea of war. The most memorable was the Creedence Clearwater Revival song “Fortunate Son,” while other artists like John Lennon went even further by joining rallies and holding “Bed-Ins” for peace.

Moving into the present day, protest songs are still as popular as ever, highlighting many different grievances and issues. From calling out Presidential Administrations (Green Day’s “American Idiot” and “Holiday”), to pleas for racial equality and justice (Childish Gambino’s “This is America” and “I Can’t Breathe” by H.E.R.), protest music has been one of the greatest ways to propel a movement in the United States.

In a consumerist world of streaming and music, people often take the power of song for granted and see it only as a means for pleasure, when, in fact, it offers so much more. Music is a way to give voice to the voiceless and encourage those in power to make changes which benefit the nation as a whole.

“Music is the best consolation for a despaired man.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

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