History of protest music in the United States

By Hannah Shaffer, F/G Scholar

Protest music has been around in the United States ever since the United States became a country. Songs like “Free America” by Joseph Warren were used as a call to action for colonists to act in the Revolutionary War.

As the colonists were using songs to protest British Rule, the British were using songs to protest the Revolutionary War and to mock the colonists. They sang songs like “Yankee Doodle”, which was written in 1755 by British Army Surgeon Dr. Richard Shuckburgh to mock the colonists for their “disorganization” in the French and Indian War. The British continued to sing “Yankee Doodle” to make fun of the American stereotype of being a simpleton who thought it was fashionable to put a feather in his cap.

By 1781, the song was reclaimed by the Americans and became a song of National Pride. To this day, children all over the country know the song “Yankee Doodle”.

Religious Roots

Many of the widely known protest songs in the United States came from slaves singing about freedom or escape from slavery using hymns as inspiration. One of the most widely known songs sung by the slaves was “Go down, Moses”. This song was based on  Old testament stories of Moses freeing the Israelite from slavery in Egypt which is why slaves sang of Moses in terms of liberating themselves from slavery. This song was reportedly used by Harriet Tubman as a code song during the Underground Railroad.

From Call to Action to Social Commentary

Although many protest songs include a call to action, there are also songs that show protest music can be a social commentary. An example of a commentary is “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday which came out in 1939. it depicts the cases of lynching in the South. Strange Fruit was almost banned on the radio which meant that many people heard it.

Civil Rights Movement

One of the most well-known protest songs from the civil rights movement is “we shall overcome” It was first introduced at the highlander folk school in 1946 under the title “I’ll be alright someday” The school’s director adapted the song to the struggles of the labor movement and named the new version “We will overcome” The school’s director then taught the song to protest singer/songwriter Pete Seeger who changed the wording from will to shall.

Folk Music

Protest music moved further into the mainstream media when contemporary folk music started to be played on the radio. Folk music continued to dominate the protest music scene in the lead up to the 1960s and 1970s. There are two general categories of folk music, ballads which are narrative folk songs which report on events or features, and folk songs which encompass everything else but are generally understood as lyrical expressions of emotion rather than narratives with beginnings, middles, and ends. Folk artists like Pete Seeger, peter, Paul, and Mary, and Joan Baez used their songs to broadcast their ideas about politics to the public. One of the most famous folk protest songs is Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”. This song was written in “critical response” to the song “God Bless America”. It later became an anthem for the working class.

Protesting with Soul Music

Singer-songwriter Nina Simone’s first protest song was “Mississippi Goddam”. This song protested the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the deaths of four black girls killed in the bombing of Alabama’s 16th street Baptist church. The lyrics balk at the then-popular refrain to “go slow” on movements like desegregation and unification.

Artist Sam Cooke wrote a track called “A Change Is Gonna Come” in 1964. This song expressed less anger and more melancholy hopefulness.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

In 1971, poet and singer Gil Scott-heron released the song “The revolution will not be televised” which was a spoken word ode to the black power movement. Heron penned the song on the rocky political climate surrounding the Vietnam war and the Kent state shootings. This spoken word piece was a message that political movements belonged to those who were protesting – not to the media, not to the government, bit to the activists who wanted to make a change.

Rap, Rock, and Social Commentary

In the 1980s and 1990s, as the Vietnam war drew to a close, there was a much calmer political climate. Rap exploded in the 1980s with songs like Public Enemy’s “Fight the power” which had a call to action telling people to fight the powers that be.

Riot Grrrls

The 1990s saw the first concentrated feminist rock movement – the short lived but long remembered Riot Grrrls. Sleater-Kinney’s 1995 song “A real man” comments on women’s unwanted sexual advances from men.

Revival of the Protest Song

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the invasion of Iraq by President Bush, protest music had a major revival. The title track of Green Day’s 2004 album “American Idiot” commented on the war in Iraq. Many artists, from green day to Conor Oberst to Billie Joe Armstrong kept the tradition of protest music alive.

The Dixie Chicks also protested American involvement in the war in Iraq by publicly bashing President Bush in 2003. The Dixie Chicks, who were well known for getting their start in Texas, came out and bashed President Bush for invading Iraq while in London. Lead singer Natalie Maines said she was “ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.” This comment led to the Dixie Chicks’ songs being taken off the radio. Jeff Garrison, the program director for KILT in Houston, told CNN, “People are shocked. They cannot believe Texas’ own have attacked the state and the president.”

Lady Gaga: Celebrating Identity and Protesting Social Issues

Starting at the beginning of the Obama administration in 2008, artists began celebrating the identities of previously marginalized groups. Lady Gaga’s 2011 song “born this way” celebrated people being who they were despite others telling them that they shouldn’t. But Lady Gaga’s protest of social issues did not stop there. Lady Gaga’s 2015 song “Till it happens to you” was written to protest sexual assault but has been used to protest other forms of harassment.

Music’s Response to Trump

With many Americans protesting Donald Trump’s presidency, it is not a surprise that some artists have as well. Adele, Neil Young, and Queen all barred Trump from playing their songs at Campaign rallies and many singers spoke out against him online. Fiona Apple and the Cold war Kids wrote “The tiny hands chant” saying “we don’t want your tiny hands anywhere near our underpants”.

A group of indie-alternative artists put together a pre-election 30 days, 30 songs against Donald trump and Arcade fire and Mavis Staples released the song “I give you power” on the eve of Trump’s inauguration.

2017 Super Bowl

Lady Gaga performed during the halftime show of the 2017 super bowl. She began her performance with a back-to-back rendition of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” and following it up with her song “Born this way”. Lady Gaga’s performance functioned as a protest by spotlighting one of the biggest empowerment anthems of the past decade.


_The nice thing about a protest song is that it takes the complaint, the fussing, the finger-pointing, and gives it an added component of sociable harmony._.jpg






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