Well it’s official. Donald Trump is a thing. Times may not be ‘a-changin’ as much as we hoped…in fact to many of us it may feel like the world just took ten steps backwards. One of the things I take a bit of solace in however is creativity- a power than cannot be underestimated. In art, whether it’s music, paintings, poetry or something else entirely, the human spirit can prevail and actually make a lot of headway. Below are six of my favourite protest songs…in case you’re searching for some inspiration.
1. Black Day in July- Gordon Lightfoot
Lightfoot wrote the song Black Day in July about the Detroit Riots of 1967. This race riot started with a raid of an unlicensed bar but quickly escalated into an incredibly violent fight between police and black civilians. It was heightened when the governor sent in the National Guard and Lyndon B. Johnson sent in airborne divisions. While the black community had made many significant advances in Detroit including spots on the Board of Education and in congress, they were still coming up against strong discrimination and brutal obstacles. This police raid was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
In his song, Lightfoot describes the situation with poignant clarity and unabashed honesty: “And the soul of Motor City is bared across the land/ As the book of law and order is taken in the hands/ Of the sons of the fathers who were carried to this land”
And again when he sings: “In the mansion of the governor/There’s nothing that is known for sure/The telephone is ringing/ And the pendulum is swinging/ And they wonder how it happened/ And they really know the reason/ And it wasn’t just the temperature/ And it wasn’t just the season.”
2. Ohio- Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
This song was written as a reaction to the Kent State shootings of 1970. Four students were killed (and several were injured) while protesting the United States’ campaign in Cambodia by the Ohio National Guard. Worse yet, the students were not armed.
“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming/ We’re finally on our own/ This summer I hear the drumming/ Four dead in Ohio.”
3. Eve of Destruction- Barry McGuire
Actually written by PF Sloan, Barry McGuire’s rendition of Eve of Destruction is one of the main anthems of the Vietnam War protest movement.
“You’re old enough to kill but not for votin’/ You don’t believe in war but what’s that gun you’re toting?”
4. Blowin’ in the Wind- Bob Dylan
This song is beautiful and painful but the lyrics are much deeper and darker than that. While Dylan asks a number of important questions about when our world will change, he then replies “The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind.” Some have said that this is to evoke images of the lynchings of black men in the Southern United States. Others say it’s to say that we can’t read the answers or find them anywhere but right in front of us. However you interpret the song, there is no doubt that Bob Dylan has been a positive force for change and peace.
“Yes, how many years can a mountain exist/ Before it’s washed to the sea? / How many years can some people exist/ Before they’re allowed to be free?”
5. I’m Not a-Marchin’ Anymore- Phil Ochs
This is probably my favourite protest song of all time because of its ability to translate over time. Phil Ochs pulls upon many historical moments when young boys have marched to war at the hands of older law makers. It goes to show that while we evolve and improve upon culture, until we end war, we haven’t really changed.
“It’s always the old to lead us to the war/ It’s always the young to fall/ Now look at all we’ve won with a sabre and the gun/ Tell me is it worth it all?”
6. Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag- Country Joe and the Fish
If you want a song that will really amp you up this is the one! Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag was sang at Woodstock and the entire crowd was into it. Starting with a “GIMME AN F…GIMME A U…GIMME A C…GIMME A K…What’s that spell?!” And then heading right into this upbeat protest song with ironically dark lyrics, this song is the ultimate anti-establishment anthem. It puts owness not just on the government but also on citizens who signed up for the war, poking fun at the pride Americans were putting in their military despite the atrocities of the Vietnam War.
“Come on mothers throughout the land/ Pack your boys off to Vietnam/ Come on fathers don’t hesitate/ To send your sons off before it’s too late/ And you can be the first one on your block/ To have your boy come home in a box.”