The Virgin Media website just posted their list of the "Top Ten Protest Songs". My initial reaction was one of healthy skepticism, as people who post these things tend to not know anything about which they're writing. I was not surprised to find I was correct. Clearly these people have never heard a protest song in their lives, so I felt the need to educate the masses.
Phil Ochs defined a protest song as, "A song you don't hear on the radio. And they'll say you don't hear it on the radio because the guy can't sing or because the words are no good."
The truth is, most of the protest songs that I've heard have had some damn good lyrics that denounce war, promote peace and environmentalist action, and talk about the dangers of conformity and group-think.
A great deal of the novel I'm writing takes place in Chicago of the late 1960s. This is the kind of music my characters would have listened to, so to get myself in that mindset, I've been listening to an awful lot of protest music. This means, of course, I've been listening to the Beatles, Billy Bragg, Bob Dylan, Woodie Guthrie, Phil Ochs, and Pete Seeger. The title of my novel is a line in a Phil Ochs song.
I knew that surely a list by a major label would have someone on their staff who knew enough about the history of protest songs to have at least a few I had heard before. Boy, was I wrong. Though I agree with one of their choices (Green Day-American Idiot), I was scratching my head at the other choices.
Rather than go through their list and tear it apart, I'm going to post my own list of the best protest songs (that I know of, right now). With the exception of the first entry, this list is in no way in any kind of order. It is also incomplete, as I have not heard every protest song ever written, though I would not be opposed to the idea.
Phil Ochs also said, "A protest song is a song that's so specific that you cannot mistake it for bullshit." Many of the protest songs I love the most are the stories of unsung heroes in the struggle for equal rights and an end to war. As I listen to songs like "Too Many Martyrs" or "The Ballad of Emmitt Till", I remember Black History Month in school, and wonder if I had heard these stories before.
These are stories of men who died because they believed everyone should have the right to vote regardless of the color of their skin (Medger Evers), and men who died because they were dared to flirt with a white woman (Emmitt Till). I have a pretty good memory for history, and I don't recall ever having heard of either of these men before I started investingating the topical songs of the time. It's good to talk about Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luthor King Jr., and Malcom X, but let's put a human name on these crimes. Let's tell stories of ordinary men and women like Evers and Till.
So without further ramblings by yours truly, here is my list of what should be the "Top Ten Protest Songs":
1. We Shall Overcome - Pete Seeger
If you have ever seen archival footage from virtually any protest march in the 1960s, you've heard this song. This became the hymn of the anti-war marches, the civil rights movement, the women's rights movement, and the gay rights movement. Same on you, Virgin Media, for not recognizing this anthem of the tumultuous 1960s.
2. I Ain't Marchin' Anymore - Phil Ochs
Phil Ochs called this a "turning away song". Turning away from unnecessary violence, turning away from war, and essentially saying, "dude, enough is enough already". Ochs gives us a brief history of wars that the United States has been involved in, by speaking though the experience of a soldier. He's telling us that we've been in too many wars, and, "look at all we've won with a saber and a gun, tell me, was it worth it all?" The answer, he says, is no.
3. Here's to the State of Mississippi - Phil Ochs
A lovely ballad commenting on the the deeply rooted racism in Mississippi. Phil Ochs re-wrote the lyrics to this song in the early 70s, titled "Here's to the State of Richard Nixon". The lyrics were about the Watergate scandal. A few years ago, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam reworked the lyrics to rant about the Bush Administration.
4. Outside a Small Circle of Friends - Phil Ochs
This song has some of the most clever lyrics in a protest song I've heard. It talks of the apathy of the people of the time. The first verse is about the 1964 rape and murder of Kitty Genovese. Thirty-eight people witnessed the crime, thirty-eight people watched her die, and no one called the police until it was much too late. In psychology classes, her case is often used as the textbook example of the Bystander Effect: The more people who witness a crime, the less likely anyone is to report it, because "someone else will do it".
5. Too Many Martyrs - Phil Ochs
This is the story of Medger Evers, a black man who was murdered for registering other black men to vote. He was murdered by a member of the KKK in 1955. It wasn't until a new trial presenting new evidence was able to bring his murderer to justice, in 1994. He died in prison in 2001.
6. The Death of Emmitt Till - Bob Dylan
This is the story of Emmitt Till, a fourteen year old boy who was dared by his friends to flirt with a white woman. He was murdered in 1955. The men who killed him were never brought to justice.
7. American Idiot - Green Day
Okay, here it is. I spent a lot of Bush's first term in office pissed off because I would have voted for Gore in Florida, but I was seventeen years old in the year 2000. Then one day in 2004, a single came out. This single broke through the rage I had felt for four years, the rage I felt so strongly was articulated brilliantly, perfectly, in this one song, and later, I discovered it ran through the entire album. Sadness over the tragedy of September 11th. But American Idiot was different than Wake Me Up When September Ends. American Idiot showed people, people like me who felt helpless and alone in her views about the war, that we weren't alone. This was 2004. The people who were speaking up were the few and the brave. It wasn't until 2006 that the tide started turning against the Bush Administration's clusterfuck of horrors and people started paying attention. American Idiot made a lot of us say, "The world is fucked up, I'm not alone in knowing so, let's fucking do something about it." And four years later, we were finally able to put a man in office that actually speaks in full, coherent sentences.
8. Give Peace a Chance - John Lennon
This is another song that I was surprised to see absent from this list. Shame on you, Virgin Media.
9. Little Boxes - Pete Seeger
Chances are, you know this song because it's the theme song of the TV show Weeds. It talks about the dangers of conformity and group-think that happened in the United States between World War II and Korea.
10. Power and the Glory - Phil Ochs
Let's be honest-98% of patriotic music is cheesy crap. No one wants to listen to it on a regular basis because, well, 98% of it is cheesy crap. I could listen to this song every day. I do listen to it every day, when I write. I might be listening to it right now. I will devote a later post to why I think it should be the new national anthem, but I think that's a pretty good reason right there. It's listenable all year long, and not just while watching fireworks on the fourth of July.
But if I may...
I think it says a lot, that this man, this tortured songwriter who wanted to use his music to raise awareness and end the war, end violence against women, end racism, who saw so much hatred, violence, and war in this country during his brief life, could write THIS song. He's inviting the listener to take a look around and see that yes, we have a lot of problems in this country. War, violence against women and children, women who were murdered while thirty-eight people watched, racism, homophobia, corruption on all levels of government, and the lack of respect for your fellow humans. But he asks us to look around and see that the mountains in North Carolina are beautiful. The deserts out west are beautiful. The cities are beautiful. He begs us to see that there is enough good, there is enough beauty to want to preserve it, to fix it, to make it better for a new generation.
That, my friends, is what a protest song is.
I encourage you to take a look at some of these songs. All of these songs. Play them in your car, play them on your guitar, play them when you're getting high with your friends.
That's my soap box for today, kids. Support the Revolution and your local microwbrewery.