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Classic Anti-War Protest Songs

A look at some of America's finest political folk songs

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American folk music is rich with political commentary and protest songs. Because of the folk music revival in the middle of the 20th Century - and the socio-political climate in America in the 1950s and '60s (the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War era, etc.) many people these days conflate American folk music with political commentary. But, if you consider the entire tradition of American folk music, it's clear that folk songs cover topics ranging from historical events to songs about food and cars, sex and money, and of course plenty of heartbreak and death. Still, the songs that often seem most pervasive are those about overcoming struggle; the moments when the world is quietly hoping for change, but one single folksinger has the nerve to stand on a stage, open their mouth, and sing out against injustice.

Political protest songs cover all kinds of issues, of course, from the environment to marriage equality, economic stability and civil rights. But, since people are always struggling between the way humans are drawn to conflict, and the ways in which we prefer to prevent it, here's a look at some of the finest, most timeless anti-war folk songs, in no particular order.

"Bring Em Home" - Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger performs at the 2009 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize on September 3, 2009 in New York City.
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
When Pete Seeger originally wrote this song, he was singing for the soldiers in Vietnam ("If you love your Uncle Sam, bring em home. Bring em home...") Lately, however, Seeger and others have resurrected the tune as a tribute to the soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. This version was reprised by rock icon Bruce Springsteen in his tribute to Seeger in 2006.

If you love your Uncle Same, bring 'em home, bring 'em home

"Draft Dodger Rag" - Phil Ochs

Phil Ochs live at Newport Folk Festival
© Robert Corwin
Phil Ochs was undeniably one of the greatest protest songwriters to have lived. This is only one of his great compositions, and it uses Ochs' wry whit and humor to depict a soldier trying to get out of being drafted. Through the silliness of the lyrics, Ochs was able to paint a clear picture of the opposition to the draft so many men felt during the Vietnam war era.

I've got the weakness woes, I can't touch my toes, I can hardly reach my knees / and when the enemy gets close to me I'll probably start to sneeze

"Give Peace a Chance" - John Lennon

Peace
photo: Getty Images
At the end of his week-long "bed-in" in 1969 with his new wife Yoko Ono, John Lennon had recording equipment brought into the hotel room. There, along with Timothy Leary, members of the Canadian Radha Krishna Temple, and a roomful of others, John recorded this song. It was the height of the Vietnam war, and this song became an anthem of the peace movement that summer. It has lived on in its anthemic quality since then during peace movements all over the world.

Everybody's talking about Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism, This-ism, that-ism, ism ism ism / All we are saying is give peace a chance

"People Have the Power" - Patti Smith

Patti Smith
photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images
Calling Patti Smith a folksinger would surely upset fans in both Folk music and Rock circles. But her anthem, "People Have the Power," is one of the most potent, lyrical, lovely protest songs I've ever heard. And it's certainly a big part of what has taken her work to legendary status. Recorded in 1988, "People Have the Power" serves as a reminder that, as she sings at the end of the song, "everything we dream can come to pass through our union" including, presumably, a world without war.

I awakened to the cry that the people have the power / To redeem the work of fools upon the meek / the graces shower / Its decreed / the people rule

"Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation" - Tom Paxton

Tom Paxton
© Elektra Records
Tom Paxton is another one of those artists who has just penned song after song of exquisit empowerment and protest. His classic "Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation" was pointedly about being drafted to serve in Vietnam, but if you substitute any international conflict, the words still ring true. The song sings about being part of an escalation of troops, fighting a neverending war, using force to proliferate peace: all topics as topical today (unfortunately) as they were when the song was penned.

Lyndon Johnson told the nation have no fear of escalation / I am trying everyone to please / Though it isn't really war, I'm sending 50,000 more / to help save Vietnam from the Vietnamese

"If I Had a Hammer" - Pete Seeger, Lee Hays

Peter, Paul & Mary
© Rhino/WEA
This is one of those songs that has seeped so far into the public consciousness that it's included in children's songbooks. It's a simple, easy song to remember. It so idealistic that people can't help but sing along. Although this was a Pete Seeger composition, it's most frequently linked to Peter, Paul & Mary, who helped popularize it.

I'd ring out "Danger!" / I'd ring out "Warning!" / I'd ring out love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land

"War" - Edwinn Starr

Edwin Starr
© Motown
Originally recorded by the Temptations, this song was popularized in 1970 by Edwin Starr. The Vietnam war was at the height of its conflict, and the peace movement was gaining speed. The song talks about war in general, not specifically the one in Vietnam. The lyrics raise the question of whether there must be a better way to resolve conflict.

War, I despise because it means destruction of innocent lives / War means tears to thousands of mothers eyes / when their sons go to fight and lose their lives

"I Ain't Marchin' Anymore" - Phil Ochs

Phil Ochs - I Ain't Marching Anymore album cover
© Elektra
Phil Ochs was one of the most prolific "protest song" writers on the scene in the 60s and 70s. This song takes the voice of a young soldier who is refusing to fight in any more wars, after having seen and participated in so many killings at war. It's a poetic look into the inside of the ugliness of war, and a staunch claim for Och's "War is Over" stance.

I marched in the battle of New Orleans at the end of the early British war / I killed my brothers and so many others, but I ain't marching anymore

"Where Have All the Flowers Gone" - Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger
© Sony
That Pete Seeger really knows how to write those protest songs. This is yet another classic by Woody's protege. The simple recurring lyrics make it completely sing-along-able. The story is of the cycle of war, beginning with young girls picking flowers that eventually end up on the graves of their dead soldier husbands. The recanting of "When will they ever learn" is so pretty and catchy that it gets sung at peace demonstrations even still.

Where have all the young men gone? / Gone for soldiers every one / When will they ever learn?
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