Power to the People

Oldies Protest Songs: 1950 through 1979

Most protest songs from the 1950s, '60s and '70s dealt with racism and war, but poverty and power were also huge issues. The economic inequality America suffered was seen as a byproduct of government inaction, abuse of power, misguided spending and class warfare. Sound familiar? Whatever your idea of economic justice, you can probably find some revolutionary sentiment to hold on to in these ten classic oldies, all of which protested the power government holds on the people.

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"You Haven't Done Nothin'" by Stevie Wonder (1974)

Possibly Stevie Wonder's hardest funk number — a fact that is incredibly impressive all on its — the bitter protest of "You Haven't Done Nothin'" was directed specifically at U.S. President Richard Nixon and his failure, after nearly two terms in office, to address the economic injustice still suffered by Black people.

Despite the best efforts of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, Nixon had still not managed to further their cause. He was removed from office just two weeks after this track's release thanks to the Watergate scandal, but this hard-charging stomp still works as a general attack on economically apathetic government leaders.

Released in 1974, the track rings especially true with the added emotional boost of The Jackson 5, backing Stevie up in the chorus! Dooly wop!

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"(For God's Sake) Give More Power to the People" by The Chi-Lites (1971)

The Chi-Lites are best known to pop audiences for their ballads, sweet pseudo-Philadelphia soul classics like "Oh Girl" and "Have You Seen Her?" yet this vocal group had a funky and political side, too. That's why the smooth, psychedelic soul song "(For God's Sake) Give More Power to the People" rocketed to Number 3 on the R&B charts when it debuted in 1971.

It's mission statement: "There's some people up there hogging everything... if they're gonna throw it away, might as well give some to me." In just a few verses, this anthem manages to show how poverty breeds crime, how the middle class is bought off, and how the system, despite what we're told, may be set up to destroy social mobility. Right on.

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"Power to the People" by John Lennon

Though not generally considered his finest work, this ex-Beatle's 1972-1974 period of intense social activism occasionally produced some stirring music, including "Power to the People," which Lennon intended to be sung my marchers in the street, much as he envisioned with "Give Peace a Chance."

This retro rocker has more form than that earlier singalong, as well as a glossy yet thick Phil Spector production that doesn't intrude on the sentiment. But despite lines like "A million workers working for nothing / You better give 'em what they really own" and a verse that looks at the movement's own treatment of women as second-class citizens, "Give Peace a Chance" still seems to be history's favorite of Lennon's protest songs.

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"Fight the Power (Parts 1 & 2)" by The Isley Brothers (1975)

The phrase "fight the power" is better known to music aficionados these days through a Public Enemy song since the pioneering hip-hop group created a huge hit in 1989 merely by lifting the phrase "we gotta fight the powers that be."

However, the 1975 Isley Brothers track "Fight the Power" works better on the dance floor, with its light, breezy funk. It also looks (well, glances) at the dilemma faced by musicians who become aware of economic inequality but felt straitjacketed by their coporate owners. It vaguely suggests that lifestyle choices may be in their bosses' potential sights as well.

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"Impeach the President" by The Honey Drippers

No matter what President you're trying to remove from office — and the polls suggest many people now see no difference between them — this legendary slice of funk can serve as the anthem. Endlessly sampled in hip-hop and Nineties dance music, the song carries a certain universality of dissent amongst the oppressed.

"Impeach the President" was written, once again, about Nixon and his criminal charges. It announces that the group "just got back from Washington, D.C." and wants the Commander in Chief out of there, regardless of what any jury says. Fortunately for us all, it never got that far. 

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"Get Up, Stand Up" by Bob Marley and the Wailers (1973)

What could arguably be called the Wailers' signature song, "Get Up, Stand Up" was racial, directed squarely at European Christianity and its vision of future heaven versus Rastafari's living leader Haile Selassie and its vision of heaven on earth.

But there is, by necessity, a strong anti-colonialism streak running through the song as subtext; for a rasta, his religion is as inextricable from his people's struggles as is the faith of Jews or Muslims or Christians. In the Wailers' eyes, Western theology and economic slavery are considered one and the same.

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"The Times They Are a-Changin'" by Bob Dylan (1964/1965)

The list of Bob Dylan protest songs in his back catalog stretches out longer than his "endless" road itinerary — it's what made him a household name. But as weighty and poignant as they are, they're mostly tied to a specific time and place. Not this song. 

"The Times They Are a-Changin'" is one of the few Dylan protest songs that can be said to be truly timeless, mostly due to the sheer poetic weight of its message. Its adaptability has lent it to many a cause where the new band of rebels took on the established old guard throughout modern history.

The Biblical clothing of its lyricism ("For him that are first now will later be last") and the gentle Irish lilt of its melody make it especially venerable. It's almost as if it had been discovered rather than written. As Dylan himself has said of the track, "It's not a statement. It's a feeling."

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"Take This Job and Shove It" by Johnny Paycheck (1977)

David Allan Coe, no stranger to the lunchpail-and-hardhat crowd, penned the 1977 smash "Take This Job and Shove It" as a typical country hard-luck tale: the singer only finds the nerve to quit his miserable low-paying job because his wife has left him with no one to provide for — remember this was 1977.

The reason that aspect of the song is often forgotten is because of what comes next: the verses where singer Johnny Paycheck grumbles about his supervisors and watching his coworkers get old and die poor. The lyrics, complete with a singalong hook, struck such a chord with the working class that the hit became a major Hollywood movie of the same name in 1981. 

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"Funky President (People It's Bad)" by James Brown (1974)

"Funky President (People It's Bad)" is anything but another Nixon protest song. Instead, it's a more lighthearted approach to the truths singer James Brown raps about with what sounds like a female appreciation society backing. 

The whole song revolves around how great it would be if Brown got the chance to become the Hardest Working Man in Washington. But listen closer and you can hear Brown rap about some home truths, truths which sound far too much like our present predicament.

The lyrics talk of rising stocks, falling job availability, people getting more land together to "raise our food like the Man," and complaining about "taxes keep going up" and their glasses turning into paper cups. Each verse the track concludes, "It's gettin' bad" and for Brown and his fellow African-Americans, it sure did seem like it was. 

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"Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival (199)

Tax loopholes. Wealthy draft dodgers. Expensive wars. It's pretty depressing that the same problems John Fogerty so expertly grumbled about in 1969 could be affecting the republic some 40 years later. One of rock and roll's most celebrated protest songs, Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" manages, in the middle of a turbulent Americana jam, to tag money as the main corrupter of America.

The lyrics accuse money as the main culprit in keeping the poor locked into an existence that was (and arguably is) dangerous, oppressive, and ridiculous. The best thing about the track, however, is how Fogerty turns "It ain't me," his admission of poverty and lack of station, into a rallying cry. Class warfare? Maybe — but according to Fogerty, the other side fired the first shot. Literally.