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All About Protest Music

An introduction to American protest music and political song


Phil Ochs Live in Concert

Phil Ochs Live in Concert

© Robert Corwin, courtesy Sonny Ochs

What's so great about protest music?

The most remarkable thing about protest music is that it helps people realize they're not alone in feeling a spirit of dissent against certain injustices, whether on a personal or more overarching governmental level. Great protest songs by artists like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie are so infectious, you can't help but sing along. This is hugely effective in creating a sense of community, helping groups organize to affect change.

Protest music has a very deeply rooted history in the United States, and reaches back as far as American history reaches. Every major movement in American history has been accompanied by its own collection of protest songs, from slave emancipation to women's suffrage, the labor movement, civil rights, the ant-war movement, the feminist movement, the environmental movement, etc.

  • Why Does Protest Music Work?
  • Environmentalist Folk Songs
  • The Immigrants' Movement and Folk Music
  • Civil Rights Songs
  • Labor Movement Songs
  • Classic Anti-War Protest Songs
  • Where are the songs protesting George Bush and the War on Terror?

    A common misconception is that nobody's writing songs that speak out against the current administration, the Iraq War and the War on Terror in general. The truth is that the national music scene is absolutely teeming with these songs, it's just that mainstream radio either hasn't caught on, or is so corporatized these days that it bars most protest music from going mainstream.

  • Folk Songs Protesting George W. Bush and the Iraq War
  • Is protest music a dead art?

    Absolutely not. Many people feel like protest music is something that came and went with the Vietnam War era and civil rights, but that's just not so. Protest music has accompanied every major (and many minor) period of progress in America, and the current generation is no exception. These days, even major pop stars like Pink and Johh Mayer have recorded protest or politically-charged songs. Meanwhile lesser-known folk, bluegrass, alt.country and artists in other roots-related genres are carrying on the tradition of political song.

    Who are some of the great protest singers?

    Probably one of the greatest protest singers ever was Phil Ochs. His short career was absolutely chock full of topical songs ripping at just about every aspect of society, and all sides of the political spectrum. His song, "Love Me, I'm a Liberal," is one of the few liberal folk songs written to satirize the liberal movement.

    Other great classic protest singers include:

  • Pete Seeger
  • Woody Guthrie
  • Tom Paxton
  • Joan Baez
  • Peter, Paul and Mary
  • The Alamanac Singers
  • Judy Collins
  • Utah Phillips
  • Best Political and Protest Singer/Songwriters
  • Are there any Web sites dedicated to protest music?

    While I've been unable to find entire Web sites dedicated to the art of protest music, there are several articles online that address the history of political song. These include:

  • Counterpunch.com
  • PopMatters' list of 65 Great Protest Songs
  • Alternet.org answers: Is Protest Music Dead?
  • Anything else?

    Protest music is one of the richest traditions in American folk music. The original folklorists at the turn of the 20th century often disagreed about whether or not to even record the protest and political music they found in their research. Luckily for us, some of them did, and we now have those folksingers' accounts of American history from which to learn and be inspired.

    Whether joining in a sing-along of "We Shall Overcome," or sharing a protest song of your own composition at a local song circle or open mic night, protest music is something that can not only affect change around you, but can help us all feel like we're a little less alone in our beliefs.

    Do you have a protest song to share? Leave us the lyrics or a link to your Web site in the folk music forum.

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