In My Opinion
Where have all the protest songs gone?
Somethin’s blowin’ in the wind, my friend, but it ain’t the answer to why protest songs like those so popular in the 1960s and '70s have virtually disappeared.
Those of us who lived through those turbulent times remember the anthems of folk singers like Bob Dylan; Peter, Paul and Mary; and Pete Seeger – all of whom tugged at our hearts and souls on issues of civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War. Even those who disagreed with their stance and their lyrics couldn’t keep protest songs from dominating the discussion of those days and from marking history.
Dylan sang “The Times are a-Changin’” at the 1963 March on Washington when Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio” forever memorialized that horrific day of May 4, 1970, when National Guard troops shot and killed four Kent State University students who were part of a massive anti-war rally. Folk singer Pete Seeger revised a traditional African-American song and turned “We Shall Overcome” into the anthem of the civil rights movement when he performed it at Carnegie Hall in June 1963.
Protest songs don’t generally change minds or even immediately bring change to the world, but they’ve been with us forever. In classrooms across America, one might still hear “Yankee Doodle,” a song – ironically – used by the British to mock the typical American colonist “who stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni.” And protest songs were not always about war.
American slaves sang, “Go Down Moses,” and, in their response to pain and oppression, gave birth to the musical styles of gospel, blues, rock and roll, hip-hop and rap.
Woody Guthrie sang out against poverty and inequality in 1940 with “This Land is Your Land,” as his frustrating response to Kate Smith’s singing “God Bless America.”
The story of work-‘til-you-die “Casey Jones” has lived through labor union history, thanks to its recording by Johnny Cash.
Protest songs grew out of anger and frustration. They became part of America’s songbook in social climates rife with hypocrisy, duplicity and greed. So, where have protest songs gone today? Conditions would seem to be ripe for a Seeger or Dylan or a Guthrie to be railing against gun violence, the drug culture, racism and economic inequalities. Instead, we seem to have the sounds of silence.
“People want to be honest with their music, but they want to get air play, too,” local music buff Steve Reid says of the conundrum artists face today. “They’re dealing with the aspect of not getting air play if their work is too controversial. People have to be willing today to do their music more for the art than for the money.”
Reid has lived the evolution of protest music. For Summerfest 2014, he brought Barry McGuire to Hastings, the author of, perhaps, the anti-war movement’s most stark ballad, “Eve of Destruction.”
“You’re old enough to kill, but not for voting,” McGuire sang in his 1965 song, words that resonated across America in those days but which are seldom heard in music today.
Maybe we’re not listening carefully enough though – and maybe we have to suspend judgment of the form it takes in our world today.
Anger not unlike that felt by the early colonists, union members and the impoverished gave birth in 1988 to the group NWA, which took the boiled-over tensions between minorities and law enforcement and turned it into an album with a controversial name. Tell me you haven’t heard that protest music style from the thumping speakers of the vehicle idling beside yours while waiting for a traffic light to change.
Even the more mainstream pop singer Pink paints a grim picture of a broken America in her song “What About Us?” with lyrics just vague enough to apply to almost any social injustice. The opening voice-over is former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie providing the keynote address at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.” deals with the meaning of being black and delves into the idea that success can separate persons from their race and from responsibilities to society.
Many listeners wouldn’t have liked the song presented recently at an open-mic night in a town north of Grand Rapids, either. Songwriter Tom Russell’s “Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall?” was heard by just a handful of people, but it, too, evoked the same anger and frustration as that of old-time protestors and today’s popular artists. Protest music is still being made and played – but not being delivered like it was in days gone by.
The protest music of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary was a vibrant, focused billboard traveling across America in a time before we were all demographed, algorithmed and gerrymandered into cultures, sub-cultures and target groups. Music, political talk, every part of culture has been flattened and expressly directed to like-minded and aligned audiences. Protest music has not disappeared. It’s just harder to find.
That doesn’t mean, however, that there are no lessons to learn. The evolution of culture has at least three important tenants for any listener, viewer or consumer.
One is the importance of free expression. Even though we may not agree with the viewpoints of others, the greatest takeaway is the grace of living in a world in which we can speak our minds and show our hearts. With it, of course, comes the penalties of expression – witness the current imbroglio in which the National Basketball Association is involved with China, itself worthy of a protest song about oppression and greed. Free expression can come at a cost.
Two, listening to the viewpoints of others – especially those with whom we disagree – teaches us patience and tolerance. That, of course, provides us with the courage of our own free expression with others, knowing that it comes with the assurance of someone willing to listen.
And finally, engaging with those with whom we disagree builds, reinforces and refines our own viewpoints. In his enlightening book, “Love Your Enemies,” author Arthur C. Brooks cites the “evidence that as we become less exposed to opposing viewpoints, we become less logically competent as people.”
That may be why McGuire’s 50-year-old “Eve of Destruction” lyrics still remain so poignant today:
Well look at all the hate there is in Red China
Take a look around at Selma, Alabama.
You may leave here for four days in space,
When you return it’s the same old place.
Protest songs may be diminished today, but their reasons to be here have never changed.