Top 10 Protest Songs from the 1960s

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People have sung protest songs throughout human history. Wherever people are oppressed or united in a common struggle, someone will voice strong feelings in song. The 1960s came to be known as the decade for protest with the twin causes of the Vietnam War and the lack of civil rights for African Americans. Some of these songs became anthems and still resonate today. They were the inspiration in countless demonstrations and marches. I make no apologies for including three Dylan songs. They were also commercial hits for the artists involved. So, what makes a good protest song? Take a catchy melody, lyrics with a ring of truth, sincerity and passion, and the times will do the rest. It would be wonderful if these songs were no longer needed one day. In the meantime, play on.

10. Turn! Turn! Turn!

From the album, ‘The Bitter and the Sweet’

Pete Seeger wrote this song, adapting the lyrics from passages in the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. He recorded it in 1962, helping to cement his place as one of the greatest exponents of the protest song. The words state that there is a time for everything, including peace. The folk rock band, The Byrds, enjoyed the most commercial success with their cover version in 1965.

9.  Blowin’ in the Wind

From the album, ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’

Bob Dylan’s most famous composition from 1963.  This is a fine example of a song that can be applied to different situations as it is non-specific and not tied in to any particular conflict.  It’s a universal plea for the human race to learn from its mistakes and a call to freedom. This song is a rallying call for anti-war protesters everywhere. It’s been covered numerous times, with versions from Peter, Paul and Mary, Bobby Darin, Elvis Presley and Neil Young.

8. Universal Soldier

From the album, ‘It’s My Way

Buffy Sainte-Marie composed this and featured it on her debut album in 1964. The soldier in question represents every warrior throughout history, at different ages, from different religions, political beliefs and countries. The message is that he should take personal responsibility for his actions, instead of automatically responding to orders. If there were no soldiers, doing the leaders’ bidding, the wars would cease. The buck stops here. British singer-songwriter Donovan had a hit with the song in 1965.

7. A Change Is Gonna Come

From the album, ‘Ain’t That Good News’

This Sam Cooke penned 1964 release was taken up by the Civil Rights Movement and was an optimistic expression of the desire to end segregation and prejudice. Known for his feel good pop hits, it was Cooke’s first record to address a serious issue. It was a minor hit but its success came after his tragic death. The song gained stature over the years and has been covered by several artists. It has also been sampled by rappers.

6.  I Ain’t Marching Any More

This song stirred the blood when Phil Ochs performed it at anti-Vietnam War and Civil Rights rallies. His song is from the point of view of a soldier as he is called on to fight through America’s history, culminating in the atomic bomb attack on Japan.  It became a signature song for Ochs and was at its most powerful at the infamous Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968 when members of the crowd burnt their draft cards during his performance. Ochs also released a folk rock version. Other artists have covered the song, including fellow singer songwriter, Arlo Guthrie, son of the famous Woody.

5. The War Drags On

This 1960s protest song was written by British folk singer, Mick Softley. It tells the story of Dan, a soldier who is sent to Vietnam, and who has a nightmare about a nuclear war that ends the world. The song appears on Softley’s album, ‘Songs for Swinging Survivors’, but it was Donovan who brought the song to prominence when he covered it for his 1965 UK EP, ‘Universal Soldier’. Donovan covered another of Softley’s songs, Goldwatch Blues, a biting song about being a work slave.

4.  I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag

This protest song written by Joe McDonald is another Vietnam War song that people responded strongly to. It was the biggest hit for San Francisco band, Country Joe and the Fish and appears on the album of the same name from 1967. The singalong chorus and stinging attack on the US military industrial empire had its greatest moment when Country Joe performed a solo acoustic version in front of enthusiastic crowds at Woodstock.

3.  With God on our Side

From the album, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’

This 1964 song from Bob Dylan is another protest song that traces the history of America’s conflicts, starting with the Cavalry versus the Indians all the way to the Cold War. The lyrics are a fierce attack on the sentiment that claims a war is justified. The most well-known cover version is by Joan Baez. Oliver Stone chose Dylan’s song to play over the closing credits of his George W. Bush biopic, ‘W’.

2.  Masters of War

From the album, ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’

Dylan put his words to a traditional English folk song called ‘Nottamun Town’ and used an arrangement by American folk singer, Jean Ritchie. Dylan is quoted as saying that the lyrics are primarily about the military / industrial foundation in America. The anger displayed in the words is very powerful. It’s a much covered song and has been performed by Odetta, Leon Russell, The Staple Singers and Cher.

1.  Give Peace a Chance

This song was officially released by John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band in 1969, following John and Yoko’s famous Bed-In to promote peace, during their honeymoon. The couple had set up camp in a Montreal hotel, attended by the world’s media and celebrity visitors. Basic recording equipment was brought into their room for the session and there was a party atmosphere. Lennon was joined on acoustic guitar by comedian, Tommy Smothers. Other well-known faces present, included counter culture spokesman, Timothy Leary, beat poet Allen Ginsberg and DJ, Murray the K. The rousing chorus was echoed around the world and it became the most popular chant of the anti-Vietnam War movement. The sentiment is both clever and simple. How could anyone, logically, argue against it?

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Written by Anne Iredale


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54 Comments

  1. Anne Iredale on

    It's everyone's right to protest (peacefully), but I'm standing with my placard saying 'Please like my list!'.

  2. You should make another list of protest songs

    sense theres a few more good ones, too bad csny's "ohio" misses it by a year

    • You are very welcome Anne. There are several good ones that came along later. Two of my favorites are “War Pigs” bu Black Sabbath and “Civil War” by Guns & Roses. Also, the greatest anti-war song of all time: “One Tin Soldier” by Coven. Originally recorded in 1969 by a Canadian band, the song was re-recorded by Coven in the 1971 film “Billy Jack.” I grew up in that era so I know a lot about this music.

  3. Anne Iredale on

    Thanks John

    For What It's Worth is actually one of my favourite songs. I didn't include it because Stephen Stills has said that it was written about the clash between the police and young protestors over the closing of a club on the Sunset Strip. Of course, it was taken up as a protest song and served that function well. But it wasn't written as a general protest song. Perhaps it was pedantic of me, but I like to be correct!

  4. Y/W, Annie. CCR was my fav. group back when I was a kid and "Fortunate Son" was my theme song. I was a poor boy in a county full of rich rancher's kids, so I knew I'd be drafted before any of them. (I was in the last lottery, my number was 14 but the draft ended my sr. yr. in h.s. Yes, I'm an old coot)

    Both of their "Rain" songs were subtle protest songs, too, IMHO.

    All today I thought of this topic (a good one!) and I thought of others, but another of my fav. songs of the era and genre would be Jimmy Cliff's "Vietnam". There are several vids on YouTube, but the best quality is the one w/ a single photo.

    Peter, Paul and Mary had several songs that *might* be protest songs: "If I Had a Hammer", "The Times They Are a'Changin'" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone".

    How about The Beatle's "Revolution"? John Lennon said "all our songs are anti-war".

    Joan Baez "We Shall Overcome"

    Just about anything from Phil Ochs.

    I was going to add "War" by Edwin Starr, but doing a search earlier, I found out it was released in 1970 (but was written the previous year)

    Again, great list. Had me thinking about it all day!

    • Another old coot checking in. The list is a good one, and there was many good songs from those times. I my self was looking at the draft, my lottery number was #1 when it was stopped in my last year of high school, so I think we were a couple of lucky old COOTS! Thanks for some good memories.

      • “Old coot”? I was vocal against US involvement beginning in 1965, and became eligible for the draft the day I was graduated from high school, and on the streets nonviolently active during 1968, which was years before there was a lottery.

        But it wasn’t only about my draft status, from which terror I freed myself in early 1968, which freeing me up to be even more active against that involvement.

        But I still don’t know the meaning of “old coot,” perhaps because there’s no future in getting older so I’m going in the opposite direction.

    • I agree that song has so much meaning

      The Byrds did a awesome job on the song but will never take the place of the original

    • “Eve of Destruction” was/is heavy-handed commercial crap, written to jump onto and make money from the antiwar bandwagon. It represented the very system that was behind US involvement in Vietnam.

      The leader in writing such songs was bobby d. Period. (Donovan was a Dylan clone.) Credible songs also came from Joan Baez (usually covers of Dylan), Phil Ochs (who becomes tiresome after awhile), and a few others.

      It’s a shame so many swear by Donovan’s cover of “Universal Soldier,” but haven’t gone to the recordings of the writer of it: Buffy Sainte-Marie.

      And note the way the original Byrds dressed: they were so inspired by “The Beatles” that they dressed as if British. They were conformists in that regard.

      The point is that uncritical thinking is a problem regardless on which “side” of an issue it sits.

  5. "Some Mother's Son" off the Kinks' wonderful "Arthur" album, is an achingly beautiful, poignant protest of all wars and the men who die in them.

    "Some mother's son lies in a field/But in his mother's eyes he looks the same/as on the day he went away…"

    • Absolutely. This song was actually banned by the U.S. government they hated it so much. It should be #1 on the list.

      • I doubt very much it was banned by the US gov’t. Especially as I’ve seen no evidence for such a claim, not even from you.

        The military-industrial complex is about corporations controlling gov’t. So why are you blaming the victim?

  6. "Master of war" and "give peace a change" were my favourite songs once upon a times.

    Those were wonderful days with high motivation and emotion.

  7. Who'll Stop the Rain.

    The Answer is Blowing in the Wind

    Skip A Rope

    War (what is it good for?)

    Okie From Oskoge (hey, it's protesting!)

  8. Skip a Rope – haven't heard that for 40 years!

    Okie from Muskogee – apparently it was supposed to be satirical. Guess I was on the other side of te fence – made me smile though.

  9. As a child growing up in the 70s, I listened to my parents 60s folk records over & over. This is a superbly written list. My personal list would be slightly different, but I can't fault you for any of your choices.

    Some great songs not on this list (and not already mentioned above):

    The Doors – The Unknown Soldier (1968)

    The Rascals – People Got To Be Free (1968)

    Janis Ian – Society's Child (1966)

    James Brown – Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud (1968)

    Richie Havens – Freedom (1969 Woodstock performance)

    A bunch of early 70s protest songs are also great, but miss your criteria:

    Joan Baez – All the Weary Mothers of the Earth (1971)

    Bob Marley – War (1976)

    CCR – Run Through The Jungle (1970)

    The Five Man Electrical Band – Signs (1971)

    Marvin Gaye – What's Going On (1971)

    James Brown is actually the song I'm most surprised didn't make this list – one of his signature songs, and one of the most influential black power anthems of the 60s.

    • Thank you for your kind words. I'm not familiar with all the songs you mentioned. I love all the artists mentioned except the Five Man Electrical Band – don't know them. I shall check your list out. I was really annoyed that What's Goin' On was in the '70s!

  10. critics will always be there , ans it is cheap and easy. Of cours there are many songs that could take place in this list, but i LOVED it, So wonderfull tho see and hear country joe again, You just made my day. Thanks

  11. I loved the list, and have no qualms, but do feel that 'Alice's Restaurant Massacre' by Arlo Guthrie must get a mention at least in the comments.

  12. ah i cannot stand "give peace a chance" did john really believe things are that simple? and the song is so long, with those same words over and over again, i'd throw myself from a bridge to get away from it

  13. Why the insipid Donovan rendition of Universal Soldier? The original Buffie Sainte-Marie version is so much more powerful, passionate and expressive. Would you consider updating your list?

    • Thanks for writing Chris. I just listened to the Buffy version and I see why you feel this. Donovan’s is the version I’m used to (being a Brit). What you see as lack of passion, I see as eloquence. It’s all a matter of personal taste. I do like Buffy’s rendition but I still prefer Donovan’s. But hey, why don’t you do your own list? I, for one, would be interested in reading it.

      • Hi Anne
        Nice to hear from you. For me it’s about authenticity and respect for the poet/originator. I heard Buffy sing Universal Soldier live in Bristol in 1964/5. She was a powerfully vulnerable figure on stage and this song moved me to tears. How could Donovan’s ‘popular’ version then compare?
        Protest songs of the 60s pretty much choose themselves. I wouldn’t argue much with any of your choices but I do think that Pete Seeger needs more than a passing mention. He started the ball rolling with Where Have All the Flowers Gone in 1961 and his definite We Shall Overcome from the 1963 Carnegie Hall concert does need to be squeezed into the top five.
        All the best

        • Hi again Chris
          I take your point about Where Have All the Flowers Gone and We Shall Overcome. In fact, I’m punching myself in the face right now. Seeger was a great foot soldier for peace and who could forget Joan Baez’s soaring voice of defiance.

  14. Hello, I am an 8th grader and i have to do a history project that has to do with protesting music in the 60’s and 70’s. I would like to know if you know anybody i can have an interview with that is considered to be an expert in this field. This project is for National History Day.

    • Anne Iredale on

      Glad to hear that Jacob. Do you mean it was good background music for your homework or did it actually relate to the content of your homework?

  15. How I wish I’d discovered your list sooner! Me and the missus sat down and wrote a little ebook last year called ‘Protesting Songs’ and we tried to include all the names we could think of, going back to the ’60s. Yes, we’re old enough to remember Donovan (and I saw Buffy St Marie singing in Britain in 1965!) Our book is on Kindle right now, and if you get a chance, it would be great if you’d take a look at it. All positive comments, suggestions, improvements, welcome.

  16. Kieran OSullivan on

    What are you fighting for by Phil Ochs really should be here. “I an’t marching any more” is certainly a grate song and belongs on this list but “What are you fighting for” is a direct call to action. When Ochs says YOU he means YOU as the last verse of the song clearly states “If you’ll win the wars at home, there’ll be no fighting anymore”. As to the comment that said that Ochs got a bit tiresome after a while I have to disagree with this. Ochs was aware that a message lost its impact and innovated his music and political activity “I declare the war is over” was a song and part of political campaign to re-generate the anti-war message.

    The man even took a pig (pigasus) to a protest in 1968 to show up the farce that was the presidential election process.

    Victor Jara also deserves a place on the list the last song he ever sung was an act of defiance against the coup in Chile.

    Phil Ochs and Victor Jara singing louder than the guns even when they are gone.

  17. This is a fantastic list, bringing back a slew of memories. One addition for a top 25 list: “Four Women” written by Nina Simone and released on her 1966 album WILD IS The WIND.

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