Journalists of British daily The Guardian have made a list of protest songs. All of them in the English language.
I’ll reproduce some of that list on this blog. Not exactly in the same way as they did. Eg, they have options to listen to songs on Spotify, which is not available in all countries.
And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda Eric Bogle 1971.
There are a thousand anti-war songs, most angry, some sad, others defiant, but none with the novelistic scope and detail of this first-person tale of the battle of Gallipoli, written by a Scottish folk singer who emigrated to Australia while that country was fighting alongside the Americans in Vietnam. Told through the eyes of a rambler who answers his country’s call and returns minus his legs, it skews patriotic fraud like nothing else. Impossible to sit through its seven minutes with dry eyes. SY
Army Dreamers Kate Bush 1980.
This demure chamber-folk waltz masks a deceptively sharp piece of political observation from [Kate; not George] Bush, ostensibly concerning British soldiers in Northern Ireland. Singing with a slight Irish lilt, she laments the boy who “should have been a father” but never even made it into his 20s. “It’s just so sad that there are kids who have no O-levels and nothing to do but become soldiers,” she said. “It’s not really what they want, that’s what frightens me.”
The power of subtlety in protest music is brilliantly expressed by one of the earliest anti-nuclear songs, an unofficial anthem of the CND movement and Ban the Bomb marches. Originally sung with innocent clarity by his sister Lorna – and later covered by Simon and Garfunkel – Ian Campbell’s clever descriptiveness gradually subverts a scene of idyllic normality into a shocking climax as the sun falls to earth and “death comes in a blinding flash of hellish heat”.
Company Policy Martin Carthy 1988.
Martin Carthy claims only ever to have written two songs, but he’d be hard pushed anyway to match this damning analysis of the cause and effects of the Falklands war. At the height of his powers both as an expressive singer and innovative acoustic guitarist, Carthy adapts the traditional song form to knit a particularly harrowing human tragedy into the context of a cold commercial enterprise and the gruesome triumphalism of the victory parades. CI [Unfortunately, I could find no video of this song at first. But I have found one now, in July 2015]
Ohio Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young 1970.
“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming/ We’re finally on our own/ This summer I hear the drumming/ Four dead in Ohio.” CSNY’s stomping slice of angry hippie rock was a rapid response to the Kent State shootings on 4 May 1970, when the Ohio National Guard shot four students taking part in a Vietnam war protest. Neil Young saw a report in Life magazine, wrote the lyrics, recorded the song with the band and released it by June. RV
I Ain’t Marching Anymore Phil Ochs 1965.
Written as the Vietnam war was starting to escalate, Ochs’s defiant soldier-song ties together centuries of bloody US military history to powerful effect, told over a simple folk strum. The lyric prises the generation gap wide open – “It’s always the old who lead us to war/ Always the young who fall” – while Ochs provocatively described his signature tune as bordering “between pacifism and treason, combining the best qualities of both.” GT
This video is called Steve Earle sings Bob Dylan‘s “Master’s of War”.
Masters of War Bob Dylan 1963.
According to Dylan this is a pacifistic song against war and not an anti-war song, though the distinction might be lost on many listeners. Taken from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, it is certainly the work of a young man, one who puts himself front and centre to denounce those that “build the death planes”. “I just want you to know/ I can see through your masks,” he whines, but in its arrogance the song carried a real power; one that was to find popular expression as the 60s wore on. PMac
John Walker’s Blues, Steve Earle, 2002.
One of the most significant political songs of recent times, and a notable attempt to dig into the mindset of John Walker Lindh, the alienated “American boy” who fought for the Taliban forces before his capture late in 2001. In doing so, Earle unearthed some uncomfortable home truths about US complicity in 9/11: “I’m trying to make clear that wherever he got to, he didn’t arrive there in a vacuum,” he said. GT
What’s Going On? Marvin Gaye 1971.
Reluctantly released by Motown, who were dismayed by its downbeat social message, this remains a landmark in soul music’s politicisation. Both a cry of confusion and a plea for tolerance, the song has personal resonance: the “brother, brother, brother” of the lyric is Gaye’s sibling Frankie, who served three years in Vietnam. Though the message is banal in places – “war is not the answer, only love can conquer hate” – its liquid groove and complex, layered harmonies remain eternally fresh. GT
The “Fish” Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag Country Joe and the Fish 1967.
“Country Joe” McDonald would lead audiences in a call-and-response chant, spelling out the nickname of his partner, Barry “the Fish” Melton. Except sometimes – as memorably captured during his performance at the Woodstock festival – he’d swap “fish” for another word starting with “F”. The segue into the rest of the song then made more sense. “One, two, three, what are we fighting for?” he asked, and a generation railed against the war in Vietnam. CLS
Give Peace a Chance John Lennon 1969.
Although nobody was talking about Bagism, apart from John and Yoko, Give Peace a Chance became as recognisable a call to disarm as Guernica or the CND sign. Lennon had used the phrase as an answer to a reporter during the Montreal bed-in. He liked it so much that he set it to music on a cheap four-track with the help of Allen Ginsberg and others. Even Lennon admitted the song wasn’t his finest, but as a peace chant, it’s untouchable. WD
Born in the USA Bruce Springsteen 1984.
The title track of the Boss’s biggest album is a cautionary lesson for the composers of ironic protest songs. The US right heard the clarion call of the chorus and persuaded Ronald Reagan to use an implied Springsteen endorsement in a September 1984 campaign speech. Fans heard the furious denunciation of America’s use of working-class men as Vietnam cannon fodder in the verses and knew that the song was a critique of the exploitation of patriotism. GM
Woodstock 40 years ago: Country Joe McDonald’s and Jimi Hendrix’s antiwar classics: here.
Martha Rosenberg: Remembering Woodstock’s Women Musicians — Both of Them: here.