With recent events where Fascists are making their presence more known in the United States, I’ve decided to push forward part one of two about protest songs. This will not be a comprehensive history by any means, but will focus on some artists and songs that have made an impact on me. I’ve listened to protest music for my entire life. I grew up with a mother who was active in the civil rights and anti-poverty movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s so protest music was never “protest music” it was just “music”. As I got older and started to determine my own music preferences, I gravitated towards socially aware music (primarily from the UK). As an adult I spend a lot of time listening to this type of music, both new and old.
In the United States, protest music can easily be traced back to the time of the Revolutionary War. Later, it was prominent during the Civil War, in regards to both the military fight, but it also was present in the “spirituals” or songs sung by the African slaves. In the early 20th Century many protest songs were born from the labor movement (e.g. “The Preacher and the Slave” by Joe Hill)
In the 1930’s and 1940’s songs dealt with labor issues, but also addressed the dark past of the United States (“Strange Fruit” as performed by Billie Holiday)
and “Joe Hill” as sung by Paul Robeson (who was also persecuted for his left-leaning political beliefs)
Another prominent singer who addressed both racial injustice and economic inequality was Lead Belly. One of his more well-known songs is the very catchy “Bourgeois Blues”
While there were many protest singers in the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s, there are two who are arguably the most prolific and still currently widely recognized. These two individuals, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, carried the folk protest flag from the 1930’s all the way until the 2000’s with the passing of Seeger. There songs, like those before them, often dealt with labor issues and economic inequality, but also were directly aimed at issues of their time. One such song, “All You Fascists Bound To Lose” was directed at the rise of Fascism in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
Guthrie is most well known for a song that is now (ironically enough) often sung as a very patriotic song, “This Land is Your Land”
Pete Seeger will figure more in the next edition, along with many of the singers from the 1960’s.