Anyone can write a protest song. Maybe your allowance is too small! Maybe “The Man” has got you down. There are all kinds of things to make you mad. Good people go to jail. Bad people get off on a technicality. Life isn’t fair and we complain. But it’s war and politics that always come out on top.
Here are 10 moldy oldies that will forever remain among those that get trotted out whenever we need to get angry in the vaguest kind of way and hope to bring about change without actually doing anything.
10. “I Ain’t a Marchin’ Anymore,” Phil Ochs
Like “Universal Soldier” but different, this protest anthem is for people who are tired of fighting other people’s battles. Steve Earle has certainly done his best to update this sentiment, but I find myself drawn to the old folky classic, nonetheless. It makes everything seem so quaint.
9. “Fight the Power,” Public Enemy
OK, this one probably isn’t going to go down as a stone cold classic in that “We Can Sing This at Any Random Political Rally” kind of way. It begins by dating itself in the summer of 1989, which is now more than 25 years ago. But it is the kind of song that gets people to yell and stamp their feet, meaning it’s sort of like “We Will Rock You” but less likely to be played at sporting events.
8. “Okie From Muskogee,” Merle Haggard
I’ve always been partial to this song where getting wasted on White Lightning is acceptable and pitching woo is okey-dokey but lots of other similar ideas are considered subversive and likely to bring down an entire nation. It’s such a fine line.
7. “If I Had a Hammer,” Pete Seeger
Should I have picked “We Shall Overcome”? I dunno. Anything by Pete Seeger sounds like a history lesson to me, and what I’d do with a hammer probably isn’t what Pete would have done with one. Which is what makes this country so great. We all have freedom of expression and the right to use a hammer as we see fit.
6. “Give Peace a Chance,” John Lennon
This is right up there with “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” in terms of songs that are absolutely no fun to sing. It makes you bored just thinking about it. No one can actually remember the verses. The references are completely dated, but the chorus is one of those keepers that will haunt us all the days of our lives.
5. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Bob Dylan
You’re probably wondering why I didn’t choose “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” or that other show-stopper, “The Death of Emmett Till,” never mind the wonder of “With God on Our Side,” a song that may or may not ever actually end. But I had to go with the obvious, the song that people who don’t know anything about Bob Dylan will know beyond all else because that’s how popular culture works. It’s like gum on your shoe but even older and stickier.
4. “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday
People don’t think of Billie Holiday as a protest singer, and this song about the ugliness of racism just goes to show how backwards things were that even artists who weren’t necessarily looking to shake things up could do so without hardly trying.
3. “What’s Goin’ On,” Marvin Gaye
Gaye managed to record an entire concept album about waking up and smelling the social injustices of the oncoming 1970s, an album that nowadays bears a worthy relisten.
2. “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan has a handful of songs expressing dissatisfaction with the way the world works. This one is just vague enough to work in just about any situation since the only thing we’re sure of is that times are always a-changin’.
1. “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke
An awful lot of people ended up dead in the 1960s. And not just because they partied too much. That came later. Some people were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s what made people so rightfully paranoid. For some reason, many people do not like even the idea of change. But it’s been proven if you make things bad enough, people will opt for just about anything.