Music can be a powerful agent for change – it can wake you up to what’s really going on, and it can make you feel less alone in the struggle.
What with the recent election here in the US, and everything else going on in the world, I’ve been listening to a lot of political music, lately.
I thought I’d share some of it with you; some of my favorite protest songs. I have only chosen protest songs sung in English, as English is the language I speak best, but every culture and people has their own form of protest music, and all are worth seeking out. Another thing to keep in mind as you listen to this mix tape – we all resist in our own ways.
Some of us resist by writing protest songs; some of us resist by turning the volume up and singing along.
“Strange Fruit” began as a poem by a man named Abel Meeropol. He later set it to music. Billie Holiday first sang it at Cafe Society in 1939, and after that first time, she always closed her sets at Cafe Society with it. She feared retaliation, but continued to sing it. It took an incredible amount of bravery – lynching was a topic that ‘polite’ society was not yet talking about, much less singing about. Telling the truth is seldom easy, because many people don’t want to face reality – which is why sometimes the best protest is to let people know what’s really going on. When she first approached her record label, Columbia, about recording it, they refused. They feared the reaction of record retailers in the South. Eventually, they let her record the song for the Commodore label, who were open to more daring/potentially less commercial jazz. Her 1939 recording of the song went on to sell over a million copies.
The thing about this song is that it sounds so beautiful. It sounds sad, yes, because Holiday’s voice always carries the most heartaching sadness, but it also sounds beautiful. And then you listen to the words, and it becomes something completely different; the imagery is that much more horrific with a backdrop of such lovely music, and it will haunt you forever after. The other thing about this song, the thing we should not forget when we listen to it, is that it wasn’t that long ago, in the grand scheme of things. Less than eighty years ago, Billie Holiday sang: For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop, here is a strange and bitter crop.
2. Paul Robeson – Joe Hill
Joe Hill was a labor movement/workers’ rights organizer, and a writer of many protest songs. He was executed by firing squad in 1915. Paul Robeson was an actor, singer, football player, law-school graduate, and activist, part of the Civil Rights movement and many other causes. Because of his political views, he was blacklisted during the McCarthy Era. After you listen to this mix, track down Paul singing “No More Auction Block.”
But before you do that, listen to him sing “Joe Hill,” a ballad about a man who was killed for his views, but whose spirit lives on in everyone who takes up the banner. It’s a simple track, sound-wise – just a piano and Paul Robeson’s voice – but the words, coupled with his deep, rich baritone, are all it will take to reduce you to goosebumps and tears – and to make you feel like Joe Hill and Paul Robeson are both still alive, in all of us. And standing there as big as life, and smiling with his eyes, Joe says, “What they forgot to kill, went on to organize, went on to organize.”
3. Woody Guthrie – All You Fascists Bound to Lose
Woody Guthrie, that scrappy folkster from Oklahoma, was the king of the protest song. He was champion of the working man, and also of the men (and women!) that couldn’t find work, like the hobos roaming the country and the families fleeing the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. He fought fascism in all its guises – hell, he wrote ‘This Machine Kills Fascists’ on his guitar.
This here number, a radio broadcast from 1944, is a short lil’ jamboree, featuring Woody Guthrie and his guitar, as well as a bunch of other voices, and banjo, and harmonica, and a washtub bass sound. There’s even a train blowing through the track; I like to think they recorded it outside, near some train tracks. So – Put ‘er there, boy, we’ll show these fascists what a coupla hillbillies can do.
4. Hazel Dickens – They’ll Never Keep Us Down
I discovered Hazel Dickens in early 2003. At that point, I had only recently begun to explore the world of country and bluegrass music; before I heard some of the real, old country and some of the newer, non-mainstream country, I thought it was all Garth Brooks-type crap. I was very wrong about that, and I’m very glad I started seeking out some real country and bluegrass, because they ended up becoming some of my favorite genres of music. Anyway, early ’03, I was in a radical bookstore in Madison, Wisconsin. I was looking through their CD rack, and I saw this Hazel Dickens album, Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People. I loved the title, and I’d heard her name before, so I picked it up.
Hazel was born the eighth of eleven children in a mining family in Mercer County, West Virginia. She spent her life singing and playing beautiful bluegrass songs, many of which were protest and labor songs – she even did a version of the IWW song “The Rebel Girl,” written by Joe Hill! She didn’t just sing about the struggle, though – she was part of it. She was on the frontlines of the struggle for the rights of non-unionized coal miners. This track is an energizing union song. We’ve been shot, we’ve been jailed, Lord it’s a sin. Women and children stood right by the men. We’ve got a union contract that keeps the worker free. They’ll never shoot that union out of me.
5. Phil Ochs – Links on the Chain
Poor Phil Ochs. He wrote some of the best political (or, as he called them, topical) songs of the ’60s, and was incredibly prolific, but he never saw the commercial success of some of his peers. Perhaps because he was just a little too angry for most people’s taste, and he refused to whitewash that anger to make it palatable to the mainstream. Then, in the ’70s, his mental health declined, and a combination of bipolar disorder and alcoholism caused him to take his own life in 1976. For all that, he left us some great music.
Like this track, recorded with The Broadside Singers. This song is a cautionary tale, and it is still frighteningly relevant today. It is about how the men in power use the divide and conquer technique, pitting working class whites against Black people, hoping that the white folks will blame the Black people for their problems instead of looking at who’s really to blame – the bosses. We’d all do well to remember these words: And the man who tries to tell you that they’ll take your job away, he’s the same man who was scabbin’ hard just the other day. And your union’s not a union till he’s thrown out of the way, and he’s chokin’ on your links of the chain, of the chain, and he’s chokin’ on your links of the chain.
6. Billy Bragg – To Have and to Have Not
I’m not going to say much about Billy Bragg, except that he played folk punk before folkpunk was even a thing. And that I love his music with all my dirty little lefty heart.
This song is a little more personally meaningful to me than any of the others on this mix so far. It resonates with this downwardly-mobile life I’ve led – you know, I grew up middle class, I got a college degree, but with the economy the way it is these days, I’ll be damned if I can find a decent job that pays the bills. Or, to quote Bob Dylan, “twenty years of schoolin’, and they put you on the day shift.” Or, as Billy says in this song: At twenty-one you’re on top of the scrapheap. At sixteen you were top of the class. All they taught you at school was how to be a good worker. The system has failed you, don’t fail yourself. (The Lars Fredriksen and The Bastards cover of this tune is also worth a listen.)
7. Chumbawamba – Bella Ciao
“Bella Ciao” was sung by the left-wing anti-fascist resistance movement in Italy during WWII, a movement comprised of anarchists, communists, socialists and also militant anti-fascist partisans.
This English-language version by Chumbawamba, though not a literal translation, certainly captures the spirit of the song. It will make you want to dance while the world burns around you. I would like to dedicate it to all my friends that are out on the frontlines of the protests and fights for freedom for all people. And I will tell them – we will tell them – bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao – that our sunlight is not for franchise, and wish the bastards drop down dead.
8. Prince Buster – We Shall Overcome
Of course “We Shall Overcome” is in this column. It is an iconic song of the Civil Rights movement, an essential protest song modeled after a gospel song. And so many people have done versions of it. But have you ever heard the Prince Buster version? Prince Buster, maker of some of the finest ska and rocksteady music to ever exist, gives us an amazing take on “We Shall Overcome.”
Much like the Chumbawamba take on “Bella Ciao,” it will make you want to dance while you riot. Other things that make this cut so amazing – Prince Buster adds lyrics from another gospel song, “O Mary Don’t You Weep,” into the mix. (God gave Noah the rainbow sign / no more water / gon’ get some fire next time.) And then at around 1:28, he breaks into a rap about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. Brilliant.
9. The Clash – Clampdown
You knew The Clash were going to make an appearance here. Didn’t you? Here’s something: punk didn’t start out as a political thing. I mean, in a sense, all art is political, but punk, at its onset, was more apolitical than anything else. And then, The Clash came along. Sure, some of that was a posture, something their manager urged them to do to differentiate them from the other bands. But Joe Strummer was a committed leftist, and they wrote some great political songs.
Like this one, which points out the sad things that often happen when people give up their youthful idealism and begin ‘working for the clampdown.’ It starts out with Joe Strummer talking, muttering, you can hardly hear him but it sounds like he’s saying something important, then suddenly – “What are we gonna do now?” The song is blistering, but then there’s Paul Simonon’s danceable bass line, and Topper Headon’s almost disco-like drumbeat (one of the best things about The Clash was the way they blended genres). And, of course, the lyrics: The judge said five to ten, but I say double that again. I’m not working for the clampdown. No man born with a living soul can be working for the clampdown. Kick over the wall, cause governments to fall. How can you refuse it? Let fury have the hour, anger can be power. D’you know that you can use it?
1. Faithless – Mass Destruction
I first heard this song by Faithless – a trance/trip hop band from England – on a radio show, sometime in 2008. It made me cry. And then I tracked down a copy, and listened to it over and over and over, and sometimes I cried, and sometimes I just danced.
In the verses, vocalist Maxi Jazz tells the story of a young boy whose father is going off to fight a war. The chorus and bridge take a stance against fighting any unjust war; a stance against using your religious faith to justify killing. With a long range weapon or suicide bomber, wicked mind is a weapon of mass destruction. Whether you’re soaraway Sun or BBC 1, misinformation is a weapon of mass destruction. You’re called a caucasian or a poor asian, racism is a weapon of mass destruction. Whether inflation or globalization – fear is a weapon of mass destruction. Whether Halliburton, Enron or anyone – greed is a weapon of mass destruction. We need to find courage, overcome. Inaction is a weapon of mass destruction.
2. Le Tigre – Get Off the Internet
Here’s another danceable number. I think a theme is developing, here – songs that make you wanna dance while you revolt. But if I can’t dance…ahem.
This is basically a protest chant set to synthesizers and drum machines, with Kathleen Hanna’s righteous shriek urging you to get off the Internet. It’s great. It feels so ’80s, or early ’90s, to be political. Where are my friends?
3. Digable Planets – La Femme Fetal
This song was released in 1993, and it makes me mad that it’s still so applicable to debates that are occurring now, nearly 20 years later. Shouldn’t we be past this?
On this track, Digable Planets take their jazzy hip hop, and use it to tell the story of a young woman who needs an abortion, but is frightened by the ‘pro-lifers’ who stand outside the clinic and harass those going in. Butterfly comforts her, and lays down the truth: “Hey beautiful bird,” I said, digging her somber mood. “The fascists are some heavy dudes. They don’t really give a damn about life. They just don’t want a woman to control her body or have the right to choose. But baby that ain’t nothin’. They just want a male finger on the button. Because if you say war they will send them to die by the score.”
4. Emcee Lynx – Solidarity Forever
“Solidarity Forever” was written by Ralph Chaplin in 1915 and is, arguably, the most well-known union anthem of all time. Emcee Lynx is a hip hop and Celtic fusion artist from the San Francisco Bay Area. What do you get when you combine a modern anarchist hip hop artist with a nearly hundred-year-old labor song?
You get this – a good beat with great lyrics, that, though updated, blend well with the original song. Because we hold nothin’ in common with the greedy parasite, who would beat us into serfdom and would crush us with his might. At this point, there’s nothin’ left for us but to organize and fight, cos the union makes us strong.
5. World/Inferno Friendship Society – Paul Robeson
World/Inferno has a lot of politically-themed songs I could have used on this mix, many of which are about historical figures. Since Paul Robeson makes an appearance on Side A, I figured there was no better World/Inferno song to use than the one inspired by the life of Paul Robeson.
In this pirate-y circus punk number, we learn that ‘joy beats oppression, but oppression will make you pay.’ But keep dancing, singing, and burning, anyway, and: Take this one thing with you to home and to work and to school, to mom and to dad – there are moments when you can stop the world. Remember that, friends, don’t be sad.
6. The Broadways – Jonathan Kozol Was Right…
I had political views from a fairly young age. Music is one of the things that solidified them, and helped me grow into my own opinions, rather than just parroting what family and friends said. Ani DiFranco and riot grrrl bands such as Bikini Kill started my musical politicization, and The Clash pushed it forward, and then, when I was 15 or 16, I heard The Broadways, and they added to it. When they weren’t singing about taking trains to Olympia or being passed out drunk on the kitchen floor, they were singing about things like the truth behind Thanksgiving (check out “Everything I Ever Wanted to Know About Genocide I Learned in the Third Grade”) and Jonathan Kozol’s books about the mess that is the public school system in the US.
This song, sung with gruff vocals and played in that mid-late ’90s melodic punk rock style, is about the moment when you truly realize that not everyone grows up with the same opportunities you had – and, if you’re a certain type of person, you get pissed off about it. I read a book the other day about public schools in our nation, an indictment of our prevailing caste system. It seems so many things I’ve taken for granted others can’t access at all. I ditched computer class while others had no books. I learned to hate my halls; there’s holes in the walls in schools right in my town. Serving the rich, keeping the lower classes down.
7. Mischief Brew – Love and Rage
As far as I’m concerned, Erik Petersen of Mischief Brew is one of my generation’s finest protest singers and songwriters. He can write any type of political song, it seems – from angry uptempo anarchist anthems, to sweet sad love songs to fellow rebels, to acoustic ragers about his own political awakening (check out “How Did I Get Out Alive?”).
And there’s this one, one of the more traditional-sounding protest songs he’s written. It is about the Civil Rights movement, and how we still have a lot to learn from that movement, and how that fight still isn’t over. It is about a connection to the past, and the power of love and rage to create great change. You might even feel like you are in a church, singing to the heavens – just listen to that organ sound in the background. I’m hearin’ some old singer sing a song that our tale-tellers bring. It has been sung through cracked jaws, swollen tongues, in the land of the freed where they sang ‘freedom rings.’
8. Wingnut Dishwashers Union – Urine Speaks Louder Than Words
This folkpunk tune is somewhat different from anything else on this mix, mainly because it was written by Pat “the bunny” Schneeweis, and he has a brand of cynical, acerbic humor like none other. It’s bratty and funny and also really invigorating. I mean, who hasn’t wanted to piss on their enemies?
I don’t gotta tell ya, crackers are great with amnesia, when you wanna forget something like centuries of racism. They say, ‘look at the man on center stage and pay no attention,’ while millions get locked in a cage, riots break out in Oakland.
9. Frank Turner – Love Ire & Song
Frank Turner is another of my generation’s greatest protest singer/songwriters. (Although his most recent album is less overtly political, but that is neither here nor there.) This song, which starts off acoustic and then builds to a frenzy, is about getting older and growing disappointed and disillusioned with activism. It’s about how easy it would be to just throw in the towel and give up the fight, and why we shouldn’t do that, even though we’re all so tired. Frank sings a lot about protests in this song, but let me reiterate, though protests are vital, they are not the only way to fight. Still –
we’ve been a good few hours drinking, so I’m going to say what everyone’s thinking. If we’re stuck on this ship and it’s sinking, then we might as well have a parade. Cos if it’s still going to hurt in the morning, and a better plan’s set to get forming, then where’s the harm spending an evening in manning the old barricades?