Time was, purveyors of protest songs were branded as communistic (which some were) and anti-American (which almost none were).
Nowadays, though, most people would agree that there’s nothing more quintessentially American than the right to protest and that there are few art forms more rooted in America than the folk or rock protest song.
So for the Fourth of July, the most American of holidays, here’s a look at some of the great protest songs.
“Chimes of Freedom” by Bob Dylan. He’s often considered the flag bearer for the protest song movement, but the fact is that Dylan only wrote a few protest songs, and he had moved on to other kinds of music before protest songs became a popular trend. “Chimes of Freedom,” a celebration of the underdog and the victims of government and society, was one of his most powerful, musically and lyrically, and presaged the more symbolic songwriting that he moved toward in his next phase.
“Outside of a Small Circle of Friends” by Phil Ochs. Sure, Ochs wrote a lot of powerful journalistic protest songs, including “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” but his sardonic attack on apathy in the face of profound injustice was more clever and more effective than any other. It’s lots of fun to listen to, as well.
“Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Even now, it seems odd that a protest song that mentions the sitting U.S. president by name could be a Top 40 hit, heard on the radio every single day. That happened partly because Nixon was so universally despised by the kids of the era who bought records, and partly because “Ohio” is simply a great rock song.
“Okie From Muskogee.” Kind of the flip-side of the typical protest song of the 1960s, a protest against the protestors, this Merle Haggard classic stood up for classic, small-town American values and behaviors that no one else seemed to be celebrating.
“Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine. A furious fusion of rap and rock that attacked racism and police violence.
“This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie. Guthrie was a Communist, so a lot of right-wingers discredit him and this song. But every line of this folk classic speaks of pride in America.
“Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen. It sounded so much like an anthem that conservative politicians used it as a campaign song, but its verses were bitter condemnations of the Vietnam War and the socio-political attack on America’s working class.
“Fight the Power” by Public Enemy. Another one that’s often misinterpreted as a call to revolution. It scared people in 1980, when rap music still seemed inherently threatening to mainstream audiences, but it’s actually an essentially uplifting lyric.
“Revolution” by the Beatles. Not an American song, but John Lennon’s first overtly political piece was in large part a response to the anti-Vietnan War protests in this country. In light of those often-violent protests, his suggestion that we stop throwing rocks at each other and listen to what everbody has to say was a pretty striking message coming from the era’s most towering cultural icon.