Can protest music influence social change?

By Andrew Cousins Gema Records, from insidetime issue September 2007

Andrew Cousins of Gema Records highlights protest music and its significant impact on social issues through the years

Can protest music influence social change?“A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once. But a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over.” Joe Hill, American songwriter

. Those of us who grew up in the Vietnam War era know that Government’s inability to connect with today’s youth is not a new problem.

In fact when young Americans began questioning the wisdom of the nation’s involvement in Vietnam, the foundation of the “generation gap” that characterized the era had already been built by folk singers who challenged their elders and the status quo with songs about justice, civil rights and other social issues.

Years before Vietnam became a topic for national debate, Pete Seeger, who was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, had been singing about topics such as labour unions and the civil rights movement. Peter Paul and Mary had been performing as a trio since 1961, singing traditional folk songs as well as their own versions of compositions with socially conscious messages by new artists such as Bob Dylan. Dylan himself had already released four albums by 1964. Together with singer-songwriters such as Phil Ochs, Joan Baez and Tom Paxton, they were part of an emerging folk music scene in New York’s Greenwich Village.

Their songs touched on a variety of social issues that were developing in the 1960s, including war. However, the references to war generally were not to specific conflicts. Rather, they were characterized by rhetorical questions such as those posed by the title of Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone? (1961)” and the lyrics of Dylan’s “Blown’ in the Wind,” which asked, “How many times must the cannon balls fly before they’re forever banned?” and “How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died? (1963)”.

Seeger also raised the view that America might be in over its head – literally – in a song called “The Big Muddy.” On the surface, the song was the story of a platoon leader relentlessly ordering his troops to cross a raging river, even though they kept falling deeper and deeper into the water. In reality, “The Big Muddy” was a metaphor for America’s involvement in Vietnam (“We’re waist deep in the big muddy…”) and President Johnson was the platoon leader, described in the song as “the big fool (who) said to push on.”

A clear example of how protest singers addressed this issue can found in the lyrics of Country Joe McDonald’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” a dark humoured song about going to Vietnam to die (1967):

“And it's one, two, three, “What are we fighting for? “Don't ask me, I don't give a damn, “Next stop is Vietnam; “And it's five, six, seven, “Open up the pearly gates, “Well there ain't no time to wonder why, “Whoopee! we're all gonna die.”

In “The Rag,” not only did McDonald question why America was in Vietnam, he also suggested that the nation’s motives might be less than the noble, using lyrics such as “Come on generals, let's move fast; your big chance has come at last” and “Come on Wall Street, don't move slow; why man, this is war au-go-go; there's plenty good money to be made supplying the Army with the tools of the trade.”

Despite the gravity of their subject matter, many protest songs shared a common element in humour. “People go out to be entertained; the ‘hit 'em over the head with woes’ type of song turns people off,” explained Phil Ochs’ sister Sonny, “If you make them laugh, they enjoy the entertainment, but then when they go home, they realize that they've been given a strong point of view on a serious subject”.

There was also a musical backlash. “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” a patriotic tribute to American soldiers, was the number one record in the country in 1966. And in his 1969 hit, country music artist Merle Haggard boasted that he was proud to be an “Okie from Muskogee” with a song that featured lines such as “We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street” and “We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy like the hippies out in San Francisco do.”

Nevertheless, protest music continued to connect with American youth; not only through humour but also by capturing the wide range of emotions that American youth were experiencing. There was the despondency of Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” and there was defiance embodied in the title and lyrics of Phil Ochs’ “I Ain’t A Marchin’ Anymore.”

As more Americans, particularly young people, began to question the war at teach-ins on college campuses, at demonstrations in Washington D.C., and at rallies all over the country, protest music by singers such as Arlo Guthrie, Phil Ochs and Country Joe McDonald enjoyed increasing popularity.

Given conditions in the music industry at the time, the increasing interest in protest music underscored the magnitude of the youth culture’s opposition to the war. Unlike today’s superstars, these artists did not routinely sell millions of records or play to huge audiences in stadiums and arenas. They were not promoted by massive publicity campaigns nor could they benefit from the resources and support of the megacorporations that control the music industry today.

Yet protest music became a fixture among American youth, who were exposed to it in coffee houses on college campuses, at protest marches, and on underground radio stations playing music that commercial radio would not dare to touch.

The popularity of protest music in the 1960s also was fuelled by the massive social change that evolved from the Civil Rights movement, the rise of feminism, and more liberal attitudes on sex and drugs.

And in the world of music, what once had been considered the exclusive province of long-haired, foul-mouthed, radical singers was becoming a popular topic for leading entertainers whose repertoire previously had been limited to love songs:

In 1968, the Beatles sang about changing the world in “Revolution” and John Lennon recorded “Give Peace a Chance” the following year.

Creedence Clearwater Revival’s musical catalog moved from blues numbers (“Suzy Q”) and pop classics (“Proud Mary”) tunes to songs that criticized the rich and powerful for the ability to evade the draft (“Fortunate Son”) and described combat in Vietnam “Run Through the Jungle.

African-American groups, known for soul music and the Motown sound, began to focus on social issues that included the war with lyrics such as “Brother, brother, there's far too many of you dying” and “We don't need to escalate... war is not the answer” from Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and “People all over the world are shouting end the war” from the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion.” The songs reached numbers two and three respectively on the Billboard charts.

Even the King turned to social issues. In 1969, Elvis Presley had a hit single with “In the Ghetto,” a song about the cycle of poverty, violence and sorrow in America’s cities.

In the aftermath of the National Guard’s fatal shootings of four Kent State University students in1970, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, who were among Atlantic Records leading artists, wrote and recorded “Ohio” in less than three weeks and released the song with the full support of the record company, even though the lyrics held President Richard Nixon responsible for the students’ deaths.

The impact of the music, like the war itself, is likely to be debated for years to come. Was protest music just a reflection of the times? Or did it play a role in effectuating change, and can it mobilise opinion on current world wars?

There are valid arguments for both positions and there is no clear-cut answer. In fact, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, the answer may just be blowing in the wind.

· Andrew Cousins is Managing Director of Gema Records, the leading supplier of Music, Games and Films to UK prisons. Their extensive Summer 2007 catalogue is available to all prisoners at a cost of £2, which is fully refundable against the first order. To request a copy, send your cheque or P.O. to Gema Records, PO Box 54, Reading RG1 3SD.

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Comments about this article

17/11/2012 chris

I think they are effective because they can get around and get in your head and will persuade people to stop fighting

17/11/2012 Luke

I think protest songs are good because they can be played on the radio so lots of people can hear, songs are easy to remember.

18/11/2012 Chanelle

I think protest music is sometimes effective but it depends on the song, if it is an upbeat song that has catchy words/phrases I think this will be more effective as it will stick in people's heads or they will sing along to it.

19/11/2012 Danielle

I think that protest songs are effective because songs can be played any were, and song Lyrics that are catchy will stick in people's head more, and its a easy way to get a message across to alot of people in a sort amount of time, and persuade people to stop fighting.

19/11/2012 connor

I think they are sometimes effective but all depends on the type of song, to how effective it is.

19/11/2012 Danielle

I Think protest songs are effective because its a quick way of getting a message to a lot of people in a short time , also if the songs are catchy it will stick in people's heads, and persuade people to stop fighting.

Post a comment

This article appears under the following categories...

Summary of headlines for September 2007
High Court Judge orders immediate release
A Government’s shame
Month By Month
Current page: Can protest music influence social change?
Polygraph tests do lie
Crystal ball sentencing
Pet Sounds
As human as our victims
Home detention curfew
The fear factor
Disability discrimination in open prisons
The case of Glyn Razzell
Short changing
Disclosure and PII Procedures

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