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?