In times of slavery, revolution, war, and economic depression, music has been a medium for communication, hope, and resistance. In the United States, these songs shared messages of change, particularly in regards to the Civil War, the abolition of slavery, and women’s suffrage. In the fight towards liberation during the late 1800s, spirituals like “Go Down, Moses” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” were used to connect protestors, share and express feelings, as well as code messages for those in the Underground Railroad.
Protest Songs in the 20th and 21st Century
In 1939, Billie Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit,” a song that protested the lynching of Black people across the South. The song evoked such strong reactions from listeners that it was banned on the radio due to the lyrics that so graphically described images of the dead. The prominence of “Strange Fruit” elevated and focused attention on the protest song, opening doors for future musicians to explore this form of activism across genres.
A few years after “Strange Fruit” was released, Woody Guthrie wrote a song that encapsulated the experience of the working class in Dust Bowl America. “This Land is Your Land” (1951) included lyrics about how the beauty of the U.S. was owned by no one, a direct challenge to the narrative spun in “God Bless America” at a time when the disparity between the poor and wealthy class was so great. Guthrie’s song advocated for the working class though he did not fully acknowledge the colonization and land theft that had decimated Native populations. That said, this song was significant in being one of the first folk tunes that inspired many in the 60s and 70s. Folk music was a popular genre for these messages as it was widely appreciated by the working class, students, and others.
Civil Changes Required Changes in Tune
Sam Cooke, inspired by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind,” wrote the soulful tune “A Change Is Gonna Come.” The lyrics expressed a hope for the future for Black people who still in 1964 were facing discrimiation across the country. His words were echoed by Barack Obama in 2008 after he was inaugurated as the first Black president of the United States when he said, “It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, change has come to America.”
Protest songs in the 1970’s shifted towards expressions of outrage alongside hope.. In 1970, after watching coverage of the Kent State Shootings, Neil Young wrote the lyrics to “Ohio,” spilling out lyrics that shouted outrage and shock at the injustice. Inspired by the bold and unapologetic lyrics, calling out the then president Nixon, students across the country stood together and marched against the tyrannical event, ultimately closing down some universities.
Music for the Future
In response to current systemic racism, Black artists across the U.S. have released songs to express pain and outrage, bring joy and hope, and lift the veil of ignorance surrounding police brutality. For some of these recent works, artists are bolstering their message’s impact through the use of visual media, such as in Childish Gambino’s music video for “This is America” and Beyoncé’s visual albums “Lemonade” and “Black is King.”
Throughout history, protest songs have unveiled and confronted oppression. They have also been a source of inspiration, solidarity, joy, and healing. Social movements require space for both and as they evolve and form, it is undoubtable that music will remain a rallying cry for justice. For these protest songs and more, check out our curated playlist below!