I learned more than I could have ever imagined in that evening, just leafing through the pages of the book, thinking about what drove Woody Guthrie—then little older than I am now—to write a political response to "God Bless America" that would be not only poignant and purposeful, but timeless, as well.
Picking Up the LegacyOf course, years after Woody wrote the song, another young songwriter named Bob Dylan would pick up his legacy and record two albums full of eloquent protest songs that would inspire his generation to take a look around, join the other protest singers, and get something positive done.
Whenever a cynical audience member corners me after a show to ask why I write protest songs when the love songs are so pretty, I have to think about all the songwriters who came before me: Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, not to mention the slew of unknown artists like myself that I've met along my travels. These people started within their communities, singing songs about the simplest of truths—that the one common thing we can all agree on is we wish the world was more full of peace. No matter where I've gone in my travels, no matter what out-of-the-way small town I've landed in, I've never met a single person who wouldn't agree.
Sing-Alongs and SermonsSomehow, whether your mode of protest song is a sing-along or more of a lesson, focusing on that simplest of commonalities is something very few politicians, preachers, or teachers can exemplify quite as well as a songwriter. Why is that? I don't know that many people have cracked that code, but I don’t think that's quite as important a question to answer, as much as "How can we continue?" Or, even more importantly, "How can we not continue?"
Ever since George W. Bush's initial "election" into the presidency in 2000, there have been protest songs pointedly singling him out as the source of all the calamity and disappointment, destruction and mismanagement that has ensued. Famously, Neil Young's 2006 release Living With War sang the line, "Let's impeach the President for lying." But GWB is not the first politician to inspire such musical editorial, and he most certainly won't be the last.
A New Generation of Protest SingersWhere our parents' generation seemed to scroll through history, soundtracked by an endless array of political songs and protest singers, my generation has gotten sidetracked by reality television, the Internet, the blogosphere, and electronic music. Despite the overwhelmingly shared opinion among singer/songwriters that the time for change is near, there seems to be a stark absence of protest song available in comparison to the similar events of 40 years ago.
Nonetheless, a few artists perservere, and I say good for them.
While some will remark that protest singers only preach to the choir, as Dan Bern has said, "Sometimes the choir needs a little preaching." Protest songs are important for reminding us that we don't exist in a bubble, that there are entire communities out there who feel the same way we do, who are trying, as the song says, to "keep [their] eyes on the prize and hold on."
Protest music has never directly resulted in legislation that changed the world, but it's hard to believe Civil Rights would have been won without folks like Pete Seeger heading to the south and teaching people to sing together, "We Shall Overcome." Songs that can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, because of the degree to which they resonate with your personal will to beat the odds, can be extraordinary motivators. It is in that way that protest music affects change.