Musicians have voiced their protest for governments, wars, inequality for centuries, sometimes camouflaged with pretty words and secret codes that were only recognised by those within an inner circle.
This included innocent sounding nursery rhymes that really depicted dreadful events such as Mary, Mary Quite Contrary (Mary 1st who had Protestants despatched to the hereafter) Ring Around the Rosy (about the black death) and Ladybird, Ladybird (about Catholic persecution).
When I was a teenager in the 1960s there were plenty of examples of protest anthems against racial discrimination and later the Vietnam War.. and they filtered across to the UK charts, but were not necessarily fully appreciated by the English audiences with little grasp of the complexities of American culture at the time.
The 1840s and 1850s
The civil rights protest songs began more than a century before with the fight for the abolition of slavery, and a group of singers The Hutchinson Family took their message to a nationwide audience in the 1840s and 1850s.
“Get Off The Track” was a song written and made famous by the most popular United States singing troupe of the 1840s and 1850s, the Hutchinson Family Singers. Scott Gac wrote a book about the Hutchinson Family called “Singing for Freedom.”
The Hutchinson Family became famous by attaching themselves to the American Anti-slavery Society, a church-based group that fought slavery in the courts. They traveled the country, singing at Society meetings, selling sheet music for their songs and, Gac says, changing the way American reformers expressed themselves.
“The Hutchinson family singers don’t invent protest music, but what the Hutchinsons create, really as American singers they create the idea of a protest singer can make money,” Gac said.
The abolition of slavery did not however bring the freedoms envisaged by the lyrics and 120 years later Sam Cooke released A Change is Gonna Come during the civil rights movement. Although change did come, there are still minority groups who have still not achieved parity with the rest of us.
The Vietnam War resulted in physical and musical protests by prominent stars of film and music and their influence was felt across the Atlantic. As a long time fan of Creedence Clearwater Revival, I must have listened to ‘Fortunate Son‘ many times without realising the significance. It was only later when reading more about their music that I discovered that it was not just about the war but about the disparity of who went and who was rich enough or connected enough to be exempt!
In the 1970s it was the time of the feminist movement and Aretha Franklin took an Otis Redding Song. R.E.S.P.E.C.T and with a few little tweaks it became an anthem that is still as relevant today.
Over on our side of the water.. we had our own conflict in the 1980s – Brothers in Arms was released during The Falklands War by Dire Straits about the folly of war and was banned by the BBC!
We also had a dreadful conflict in Northern Ireland that set brother against brother and blighted the childhood of thousands of Belfast children.. Simple Minds released this in 1989.
Up to the present day.
With global conflicts and discrimination against colour, race and creed, it is not surprising that there is still a need for protest songs to be aired. Sometimes at great risk to those artists in certain regimes.
For most of us Freedom of Speech is a right that we have and should cherish more. And it is interesting that most of the songs that I have mentioned have long outlived either the governments, specific heads of state and events they were protesting. Other unjust systems however do seem to find little resolution.
And now people are taking to the streets again…in particular in the run up to the vote on November 6th in the USA. There are those that say American politics and actions are none of anybody else’s business, but unfortunately everyone in this global economy is interconnected with each other.
It will not only be those who live in America who will be waiting to see the outcome of the vote on November 6th.. the rest of the world is waiting too…and hoping for the best outcome for the country and those of us who depend on the strength and influence of the United States for our own stability.
Thanks for dropping in today and if you have a protest song that means a great deal to you please leave the link in the comments.