Born in New York City in 1935, Peggy Seeger enjoyed a childhood steeped in music and politics. Her father was the noted musicologist Charles Seeger; her mother, the modernist composer…
October 10, 2017 | by Hannah Marshall
Peggy Seeger’s new memoir, First Time Ever, brings to life not only Seeger’s incredible career as a musician but also her tireless life-long commitment to political and social activism. Seeger is, of course, part of a long and continuing tradition of musicians delivering political messages through their work, and to celebrate these musical heroes we’ve compiled a playlist of some of our favourite protest songs, to get you fired up and ready for the fight.
Based on a poem by Abel Meeropol, the most famous version of ‘Strange Fruit’ is Holiday’s, first recorded in 1939. The song was a clear protest against racism in the US and particularly the lynching of African Americans in the south of the country. The lyrics combined with Holiday’s unique voice makes this one of the most powerful songs of all time.
Released in 1964, the lyrics in Sam Cooke’s legendary song speak of his own experiences of prejudice as a black man in 1960s America, yet it also swells with the possibility of an impending change in the situation of African Americans, reflecting the message of the Civil Rights Movement.
In Peggy Seeger’s rousing ‘Song of Choice’, the folk singer calls for us, in the face of repression and persecution, to fight for what we believe is right. In a warning, as relevant today as it was then, Seeger sings:
‘It’s alright for you if you run with the pack
It’s alright if you agree with all they do
If fascism is slowly climbing back
It’s not here yet, so what’s it got to do with you?’
In the mid-sixties Nina Simone’s music took on a distinctly political tone and she would later go on to call ‘Mississippi Goddam’, recorded in 1964, her first civil rights song. Responding to the racially-motivated murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, as well as other attacks on African Americans making the news at the time, the song begins with the killer line: ‘Alabama’s got me so upset, Tennessee’s made me lose my rest, and everybody knows about Mississippi goddam.’
There have been many versions of ‘Which Side Are You On?’, a song written in 1931 by Florence Reece, the wife of a union organiser for the United Mine Workers in Harlan County, Kentucky. Artists such as Billy Bragg and Deacon Blue have covered the track but this version is by Pete Seeger, Peggy Seeger’s brother and one of Twentieth Century music’s most prolific activists.
‘How do you raise your kids in a ghetto?
Do you feed one child and starve another?
Won’t you tell me, legislator?’
So snarls Marlena Shaw in this fierce response to economic and racial inequality in 1960s America. Her vocal has perhaps reached greater fame due to subsequent tracks that sampled the song (including Blue Boy’s ‘Remember Me’ and Ghostface Killah’s ‘Ghetto’) but in fact none of these songs come close to eclipsing Shaw’s astounding original.
You could pick any one of the nine songs that feature on Gaye’s eleventh studio album for this playlist. What’s Going On was a concept album, with a narrative thread running from the album’s first track to its last, telling the story of a Vietnam veteran returning to the US and discovering the country he’s been fighting for is full of hatred, suffering and injustice. The album touches on the themes of inequality, war, environmental destruction and drug abuse among others. The album’s last song, ‘Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)’ protests social inequality and urban poverty, with Gaye lamenting:
‘Make me wanna holler
The way they do my life
This ain’t livin’
This ain’t livin’
No, no baby, this ain’t livin’
No, no, no’
John Lennon’s post-Beatle’s music career saw him singing an overtly activist tune and his work was to become particularly famous for its pacifist positioning. In ‘Imagine’, the best-selling single of his solo career, Lennon encouraged the listener to consider the possibility of a world at peace, undivided by politics or religion and without conflict or material attachments. It became an anthem for the anti-war movement and after his murder in 1980 the song was re-released, reaching number 1 in music charts around the world.
When it comes to protest songs, there’s no escaping the influence of Bob Dylan, whose career was shaped early on by his politics. Arguably his most famous protest songs (‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘Let Me Die in My Footsteps’, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin” etc.) were composed in the 1960s, yet one of his most lasting musical protests came over a decade later. ‘Hurricane’ tells the story of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, a boxer who was falsely imprisoned for murder. In the process of telling the story of one man, Dylan protested racial profiling and the corruption of the US justice system.
A total rejection of ‘normal’ society, ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’, presented in technicolour the frustrations and anger of a generation of British youth and called on them to overturn social order by any means necessary.
Featuring a revolutionary rhetoric and a direct call to ‘fight the powers that be’, Public Enemy’s 1989 track was a massive hit. The video was directed by Spike Lee and sees the band performing among placard-waving protesters on the streets of Brooklyn.
In Meet Me in the Bathroom, Conor Oberst (aka Bright Eyes) recounts the events leading up to his infamous performance of ‘When the President Talks to God’ on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, which resulted in him appearing in a cowboy outfit. He had written the song two days after the 2004 US election result, in a direct protest against the re-elected president George W. Bush and his policies.
M.I.A. is one of the most politically outspoken musicians of her generation. Of her huge 2007 hit ‘Paper Planes’, M.I.A. once told an interviewer, ‘You can either apply it on a street level and go, oh, you’re talking about somebody robbing you and saying I’m going to take your money. But, really, it could be a much bigger idea: someone’s selling you guns and making money. Selling weapons and the companies that manufacture guns – that’s probably the biggest moneymaker in the world.’
Although not composed as a protest song, Lamar’s ‘Alright’ became the anthem of the Black Lives Matter protests, with the crowds – in the face of corruption, injustice and racism – chanting ‘We gon’ be alright’.
Specifically written for the Anti-Trump Women’s March protests, Fiona Apple’s ‘Tiny Hands’ features the catchy line, ‘We don’t want your tiny hands anywhere near our underpants’ repeated again and again – and again.
One of the first musicians to respond to Brexit in their work, Kate Tempest’s politically charged song, from the album Let Them East Chaos, is a sad record of where the world stands right now:
‘The money, the money, the oil
The planet is shaking and spoiled
And life is a plaything
A garment to soil
The toil, the toil
I can’t see an ending at all
Only the end.’
Take a listen to our ‘Which side are you on? A Protest playlist’ on Spotify below.