Where Have All the Protest Songs Gone?

By Jamie Stiehm

May 23, 2014 5 min read

"Where have all the protest songs gone?"

That's what the California newspaper editor said to me. Long time passing. For what it's worth, there's nothing happenin' here. The sound of political music is the silence you hear.

Come gather round young people nowadays, you haven't lived until you've sung songs of a movement out on the streets. Put your social media devices down and go to the rally, line or march (maybe for raising the minimum wage.) Sure, take a hammer and a bell. Bread and roses, anyone?

A good protest song is hard to find in the 21st century — one that seizes a generation's imagination. What the gospel anthem "We Shall Overcome," was to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" was to the anti-Vietnam War movement. Yes, I know that was when I was very young, but '60s flowers are still fresh. Billy Bragg's wrenching "Between the Wars" is a strong '80s vintage.

We'll give shout-outs to the Dixie Chicks for "Not Ready to Make Nice" (addressed to George W. Bush) and Bruce Springsteen for "We Take Care of our Own" (a red, white and blue rock'n'roll hymn.) The grand old folksinger, Pete Seeger, just left us; his 95th birthday would have been this month. Thankfully, Bob Dylan is still singin' words in the wind. His defiant "Masters of War" never gets old, also sung by golden Judy Collins.

Graduation season is the last of salad days. May is all aglow and fragrant with fresh hopes, plans and beginnings. The peonies are spectacular this spring after a fierce winter.

But the unpleasant truth is that our latest crop faces an austere economy that's just plain soft. The long Iraq War sapped it, and you don't need to be Ben Bernanke to know it.

A sea of graduates faces a horizon of climate change and student loan debt, which further clouds their prospects. Why not get up, stand up and say hey, they need help, too, like the government rescues of General Motors and Wall Street? They are the nation's seed corn, let's just say, not too big to fail.

It's not fair for the youngest adults to bear the burden of reckless war-mongering waged by a president they did not even elect. Those in their 20s were never drafted for an unpopular war, but they have serious issues with living the American dream.

This is my graduation gift, a mosaic of favorite protest songs that may suggest new songs, past to present. They are by nature populist songs with a subversive streak, arising from mass movements. When I enlisted my social media, the outpouring came like falling water.

One vein is the early union song, like a coal miner's lament in "16 Tons." It asks, what you get for loading 16 tons; and it answers, you get another day older and deeper in debt. "Which Side Are You On?" was written by a woman, Florence Patton Reece, in Kentucky coal mining country in the 1930s. Still right on point.

The rousing song "Oh, Freedom" sounds like a spiritual, which it is: "Before I'll be a slave/I'd be buried in my grave." Other civil rights songs are "Eyes on the Prize" and "If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus." As a child, such songs transported and made me feel, I know what's up. One I just learned: "Bid 'Em In," a harsh song by Oscar Brown, Jr., which portrays a woman slave sold at auction.

Another fine newspaper editor brought up "Bill," from the musical Showboat, a sad song about interracial love in the South. "Strange Fruit" went where few dared go; it's a Billie Holiday song about a lynching. Phil Ochs composed the protest classics, "Draft Dodger Rag" and "Joe Hill."

Folklorist Jean Freedman, writing a life of folk singer Peggy Seeger (Pete's sister), says the art is not dead. But it needs fresh blood. Indie rockers, see what you can do.

As the Stephen Stills song goes: "What a field day for the heat/A thousand people in the street." People, there's no big movement without the music.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm, and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.

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