Protest Music

Protest music is used by social movements all over the world as a powerful tool to express disagreement or to support for a cause. Historically, music has been prompted by a particular event or used in protests involving various political and social issues. This type of movement includes causes covering a wide variety of issues, ranging from women's suffrage, labor, civil rights, anti-war, feminism, anti-homophobic, racial discrimination, animal rights and the environment.

Protest music in the United States emerged in the 19th century as part of the social outcry for abolition of the slavery and the woman suffrage movement. A good example here is the Abolitionist Hymn, which was often sung in anti-slavery meetings, along with the song O Freedom. Many other protest songs were related to the American Civil War. One of the most famous anti-war songs of that time was When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again.

The American protest music of the 20th century was marked by major events, including the Vietnam War and Peace Revolution. In the first decades of the century, protest music was related to labor movements fighting for fair payment and better hours for the working class. The protests of union and labor movements gained more power after the outbreak of World War I and the Great Depression in the 1930s. American folksinger Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) played a prominent role in the popularization of protest music. He inspired a generation of folk artists, who supported various causes through their art.

In the post-World War II period, as the world faced the threat of nuclear power, protest music became part of anti-nuclear movements worldwide. Songs against nuclear weapons multiplied after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. One of the most popular anti-war songs was I Ain't Marchin' Anymore. Folk artists such as Bob Dylan (b.1941) and Phil Ochs (1940-1976) embraced the nuclear disarmament cause.

In the United Kingdom, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) organized the Aldermaston Marches in the 1950s and 1960s, which were co-ordinated between the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment in Aldermaston and London. The songs of The Beatles, including Give Peace a Chance, became Britain's main voice against war in the late 1960s. In the 1970s, the Punk movement, which was particularly popular in the United Kingdom, took a strong anti-war and anti-capitalism stance.

The protest song We Shall Overcome became a symbol of the African-American Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. It was published in the bulletin of the People's Songs organization of folk singer Pete Seeger (b.1919). Seeger is one of the most prominent protest singers of the 20th century. As part of a band called The Weavers, he was blacklisted during the MacCarthy era because of his involvement with leftist ideas. During this period, marked by strong anti-communist propaganda, most folk artists disappeared from the media and their public performances were cancelled. Seeger is co-author of popular protest songs, including Where Have All the Flowers Gone and If I had a Hammer.

The origins of protest music against the Vietnam war are also traced back to the folklore artists involved in civil rights and peace movements. Probably the most popular anti-Vietnam song was Ohio, performed by Neil Young (b.1945). Young composed the song following the Kent State Massacre which took place on May 4, 1970. Four students died at a university in Ohio when national guardsmen opened fired on the protesters who were against the invasion of Cambodia by American troops.

Protest music has been composed in various genres from folk to rock and rap, reggae and ska. Artists worldwide have composed and sung protest music in a wide variety of locations, including Chinese peace campaigners in Tiananmen Square, protesters in Jamaica, Russia and Ireland. In the 1980s, this kind of music expressed a general disagreement with the Reagan administration, while in the next decade it was mainly used to support feminist and anti-sexist causes.

Protest music in the 21st century had a revival after the September 11 attacks and the decision of President George Bush to start a war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Various protest artists, including Young and Bruce Springsteen, supported the anti-Bush campaign against war. In Britain, the Iraq war also brought criticism against Prime Minister Tony Blair. George Michael recorded the single Shoot the Dog, which referred to the co-operation between Blair and Bush.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

American Folksongs of Protest
John Greenway.
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953
Rhythm and Resistance: Explorations in the Political Uses of Popular Music
Ray Pratt.
Praeger, 1990
Rockin' the Boat: Mass Music and Mass Movements
Reebee Garofalo.
South End Press, 1992
America's Musical Pulse: Popular Music in Twentieth-Century Society
Kenneth J. Bindas.
Praeger, 1992
Rock and Popular Music: Politics, Policies, Institutions
Tony Bennett; Simon Frith; Lawrence Grossberg; John Shepherd; Graeme Turner.
Routledge, 1993
American Popular Music: Readings from the Popular Press
Timothy E. Scheurer.
Bowling Green State University Popular Press, vol.2, 1989
Librarian’s tip: "'If Ya Wanna End War and Stuff, You Gotta Sing Loud' - A Survey of Vietnam-Related Protest Music" begins on p. 179
Acting in Concert: Music, Community, and Political Action
Mark Mattern.
Rutgers University Press, 1998
Lyrics and Borrowed Tunes of the American Temperance Movement
Paul D. Sanders; Paul D. Sanders.
University of Missouri Press, 2006
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