For the Record: American Protest Music


Graham Edmonson '24

Blues, jazz, rock & roll . . . America has always been a hotbed of musical creativity and originality. In every genre of American music, songs have been written that are meant to convey a political and/or a social point. From the get-go, American music and protest have been used together to rally people around an issue and change the nation for the better. Let us now journey together through time and discover how America has used music as a civil tool.

 Protest music in America begins even before the beginning: during the Revolutionary War. The first American protest songs were call-and-response style songs sung by marching soldiers. The purpose of these songs was to unite the soldiers, and the people, around a common cause. The songs were based on simple melodies, often melodies that people already knew from other popular tunes, with the lyrics altered to fit the purpose. Revolutionary War period protest music was not centered around beauty. The goal, rather, was utility. The songs were not meant to be works of art, they were meant to gather people and entertain troops. Songs from this era include “Free America,” a tune penned by a minuteman named Joseph Warren, and “Yankee Doodle,” which was originally written by British soldiers mocking Americans, until the Americans adopted it as a song of pride, throwing the British mockery back in their faces. 

Following the Revolutionary War, American protest music shifted to the topic of slavery. Slaves developed protest hymns with themes of freedom and escape to recite while working or at gatherings. The purpose of these hymns was spiritual; to gather together and express collective emotions of frustration and suffering. One such song, called “Go Down Moses,” was based on the Old Testament story of Moses freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. During the Civil War, the Union took up the song “John Brown’s Body” as a mantra. The song is about John Brown, the abolitionist who led the Harpers Ferry Raid in 1859, and is set to the tune of a popular call-and-response camp meeting call of the day, the melody now known as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” 

One other significant figure that doesn’t exactly fit into either of the previous two categories of American protest music is Joel Hagglund, a Swedish immigrant who took the name Joel Hill, and sang songs such as “Casey Jones” and “Rebel Girl” to encourage workers to unionize and fight for fair wages.

Coming into the 20th century, two important things had changed the nature of American protest music. First, slavery had been abolished in 1865. Second, the technology to record and distribute music was developing at an insane speed. For these reasons, protest music of the 20th century is incredibly different from the times before. With the invention of televisions and radio, a national culture was growing. People could now become household names for their music. Artists such as Billie Holiday, with her song “Strange Fruit” in 1939, began to merge protest music with pop music. “Strange Fruit” was not a chant, or a call to arms like earlier protest music, it was an artistic depiction of the horrors of a lynching. Protest music was no longer just about usefulness, it was about art. Songs became more complex in structure and became more original, less rewording of melodies, more original composition. 

After World War II, during the Civil Rights Movement, folk music became one of the biggest portals for protest music. Artists such as Peter Seeger; Peter, Paul, and Mary; and Joan Baez were significant figures from this time. Especially important was Woody Guthrie, who wrote “This Land is Your Land” in response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” “This Land is Your Land” became an anthem for the working class, with its focus on a down-to-earth feel. This time period also saw Bob Dylan rise to significance. Dylan continually denied that he wrote protest music, but nevertheless, multiple of his songs, such “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times they are a Changin’” became a huge part of the protest against the Vietnam War. “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival is one of the most well known songs protesting the war in Vietnam. 

Around the same time as folk music took an  activist turn, another movement of protest music was evolving. Soul, beginning in the 1950s, had its roots in gospel music, the blues, and jazz, and often was focused on the injustices faced by Black Americans. The Soul movement drew on the tradition of shared music in historically Black churches. The practice of sharing music like this in African American culture went all the way back to slavery, continued on through Worship Music, and was critical to the creation of Soul. Much like protest music from the slavery period, Soul music catalyzed the civil rights movement and expressed both hope and frustration. Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” for example, was written after the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers, a civil Rights activist, and criticized those who said that the civil rights movement should move more slowly. Other notable artists include Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, and Gil Scott-Heron, whose piece “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” was a spoken word ode to the Black power movement that insisted that the fight did not belong to the media, but to those fighting. 

In 1975, the Vietnam War ended and American protest songs shifted from the focus on specific events or issues towards criticisms on societal norms and behavior. The boom in both hip-hop and punk music around the same time, of course, came into play. Groups such as NWA, Lauryn Hill, A Tribe Called Quest, the Dead Kennedys, Public Enemy, and Rage Against the Machine all bashed modern society, politics, and group thought to the sound of some punchy beats, cool guitar riffs, and groovy basslines. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, and even before in the ‘70s, protest songs often made it high up in the charts. Rage Against the Machine, for example, has sold almost 12.5 million albums worldwide.

Now, you may have noticed that no mention has been made of a significant women’s protest music movement. Unfortunately, for much of its history, the United States has not been too keen on listening to women. A feminist protest music movement finally did form in the 1990s, with the development of the Riot Grrrl movement. Songs such as Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” in 1993, and Sleater Kinney’s “A Real Man” in 1995 exemplify the anti-patriarchal basis of the movement. Riot Grrrl music advocated for women’s rights, abortion rights, and the advancement of a progressive agenda. The riot grrrl movement was never at the top of the mainstream, and many consider the movement short-lived, yet still many riot grrrl bands are around, playing smaller venues. Both Veruca Salt and Bruiser Queen (a STL local band!) are highly recommended by the author. 

This article, of course, is simply a much abridged summary of American protest music. Many songs, artists, movements even, have been left out for the sake of space. To end this summary, we must ask ourselves where all of this history has landed American protest music now, in the modern day. Pop music, as a whole, has recently been moving away from protest music. Multiple Lady Gaga songs, it can be said, cross into protest territory, as well as some elements of Harry Styles’s persona, but for the most part pop singers have been sticking to more lighthearted topics. Right now the most significant protest music in America is found in hip-hop. Artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Lil Baby, Dinner Party, Juicy J, and more have used rap to deliver heartbreaking messages that emphasize the need for action against systemic racism in the United States. It may not seem like it, but protest music is definitely still present in America, it is just as powerful, meaningful as ever, and now is definitely no time to ignore it.