All About Protest Music

An Introduction to American Protest Music and Political Song

Tom Paxton On Stage
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The most remarkable thing about protest music is that it helps people realize they're not alone in feeling a spirit of dissent against certain injustices, whether on a personal or more overarching governmental level. Great protest songs by artists like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie are so infectious, you can't help but sing along. This is hugely effective in creating a sense of community, helping groups organize to affect change.

Protest music has a very deeply rooted history in the United States and reaches back as far as American history reaches. Every major movement in American history has been accompanied by its own collection of protest songs, from slave emancipation to women's suffrage, the labor movement, civil rights, the anti-war movement, the feminist movement, the environmental movement, etc.

Where Are the Songs Protesting George Bush and the War on Terror?

A common misconception is that nobody's writing songs that speak out against the current administration, the Iraq War and the War on Terror in general. The truth is that the national music scene is absolutely teeming with these songs, it's just that mainstream radio either hasn't caught on or is so corporatized these days that it bars most protest music from going mainstream.

Is Protest Music a Dead Art?

Absolutely not. Many people feel like protest music is something that came and went with the Vietnam War era and civil rights, but that's just not so. Protest music has accompanied every major (and many minor) periods of progress in America, and the current generation is no exception. These days, even major pop stars like Pink and John Mayer have recorded protest or politically-charged songs. Meanwhile lesser-known folk, bluegrass,, and artists in other roots-related genres are carrying on the tradition of political song.

Who Are Some of the Great Protest Singers?

Probably one of the greatest protest singers ever was Phil Ochs. His short career was absolutely chock full of topical songs ripping at just about every aspect of society, and all sides of the political spectrum. His song, "Love Me, I'm a Liberal," is one of the few liberal folk songs written to satirize the liberal movement.

Other great classic protest singers include:

Anything Else?

Protest music is one of the richest traditions in American folk music. The original folklorists at the turn of the 20th century often disagreed about whether or not to even record the protest and political music they found in their research. Luckily for us, some of them did, and we now have those folk singers' accounts of American history from which to learn and be inspired.

Whether joining in a sing-along of "We Shall Overcome" or sharing a protest song of your own composition at a local song circle or open mic night, protest music is something that can not only affect change around you but can help us all feel like we're a little less alone in our beliefs.