21 Protest Songs That Changed History

21 Protest Songs That Changed History

‘What’s Up,’ 4 Non Blonds

The song “What’s Up” by 4 Non Blondes is considered a historical protest song due to its enduring relevance and the issues it addresses. Originally released in 1993, the song was a snapshot of the political and social climate during the George Bush administration, addressing issues such as the AIDS epidemic, the Gulf War, and a growing drug crisis. Lead vocalist Linda Perry‘s inspiration for the song came from a period of reflection on the world and politics, capturing the defiance and uncertainty of the time. The song’s messages of inclusivity, spirituality, and hope have resonated with a wide audience, making it a classic protest anthem that still rings true today, proving its enduring relevance and impact

The song’s powerful and timeless message, coupled with its association with various social and political movements, has cemented its status as a protest song. Its themes of questioning the state of the world and seeking meaning and truth have resonated with audiences across different generations, further solidifying its place in the cultural zeitgeist as a historical protest song

Songs don’t have to be wildly popular to be important. Still, as the following look at 21 Protest Songs That Changed History so clearly shows, they often are.

Mainstream America has embraced anthems that spoke to rising or initially unpopular ideas, forming a rallying cry for counterrevolutions against everything from war to racism. In some cases, the songs became synonymous with their moment, inseparable from the times and the fight for peace, justice and equality.

Tragedy sometimes proved to be a creative spark, including the 1970s Kent State shooting where the Ohio National Guard killed four young Americans while dispersing student demonstrators. Human rights for minorities, for women, and for workers became topics of conversation – and soon made their way to the hit parade. The country – and singer-songwriters – were galvanized by things like the trial of the Chicago Seven, a group of anti-war protesters who were charged with inciting a riot. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and other key leaders moved others to place pen to paper.

Yet their messages were often transcendent, rather than being tied to any specific era. Sadly, each successive generation has found its meaning in songs like “Give Peace a Chance.” Many of them can be heard at movement gatherings to this very day.

Perhaps that’s because there are few easier, more effective ways to communicate complicated political messages. Some are so catchy that listeners might miss their hard truths.

Stacker compiled the following list of 2 Protest Songs That Changed History using official documents from these movements, historical archives, and various other online sources. These stories, like the lyrics, continue to inspire:

Here’s a look back at songs that played a key role in political movements compiled by Stacker.

‘Fortunate Son,’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival

Known for powerful anti-war, anti-establishment ideals, the John Fogerty-led group Creedence Clearwater Revival gave us such classics as 1969’s “Fortunate Son,” which spoke to the frustrations Fogerty felt over the military draft during the Vietnam War. On top of the anti-war themes, CCR also touched on the apparent favouritism faced by the sons of the politicians and decision-makers who were sending troops to war in the first place.

‘Give Peace a Chance,’ by the Plastic Ono Band

John Lennon and Yoko Ono caused quite a few controversies throughout their relationship—including various anti-war protests. “Give Peace a Chance” arrived in July 1969 as Lennon’s first single without the other Beatles. The title phrase was first uttered by Lennon during the couple’s infamous “bed-in” protest, where the song took flight.

‘War,’ by Edwin Starr

Edwin Starr’s 1970 single “War” was quickly picked up by the anti-war movement. The powerful chorus features a multitude of voices chanting “war” and “what is it good for?” as Starr translates his anger, frustration, and pain into the refrains. Despite being widely popular in the Vietnam era, Starr would lament that his best-known single’s true lyrical meaning got lost. “It was about the neighbourhood wars and the racial wars that were going on inside America at the time,” he told The Voice in 2001. “It just happened to coincide with the war in Vietnam.”

‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ by Bob Dylan

Another seminal classic, “Blowin’ in the Wind” was written by Bob Dylan and also performed by Peter, Paul and Mary. Its foundation was pulled from an old spiritual titled “No More Auction Block” and echoed the same messages, but “Blowin’ in the Wind” was quickly adopted by the anti-war movement of the time since Dylan seemed to be alluding to sentiments against war, segregation, and racism.

‘A Change is Gonna Come,’ by Sam Cooke

The brief but brilliant career of singer Sam Cooke featured many popular songs, but this 1964 classic is among his most beloved. One of the unofficial anthems of the Civil Rights movement, “A Change is Gonna Come” was also one of the last songs Cooke recorded before he was murdered in a Los Angeles motel. Cooke had been moved to write a protest song that could climb the charts like Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and infused it with a sense of urgency that could only come from someone who has lived the problem and continued to press on.

‘For What It’s Worth,’ by Buffalo Springfield

This 1966 Buffalo Springfield single was another prime example of mainstream audiences embracing the messaging of the counterculture. Written by Stephen Stills, who would later form Crosby Stills Nash & Young, “For What It’s Worth” landed in the Top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100 but boasted a deeply anti-establishment slant. In fact, the lyrics were inspired by the Sunset Strip Curfew Riots of the ’60s.

‘This Land Is Your Land,’ by Woody Guthrie

“This Land Is Your Land” was written in response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” which had a message that increasingly annoyed Woody Gurthrie. He decries the overwhelming wealth held by an infinitesimally small portion of society – and the disparity between the wealthy and the rest of the country. Decades later, the song remains relevant: Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello memorably sang “This Land Is Your Land” in 2022 as he stood in solidarity with California farmworkers during the push for a pro-collective organizing bill.

‘All Along the Watchtower,’ by the Jimi Hendrix Experience

Originally written by Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix’s powerful interpretation has maintained a heavy rotation on people’s playlists. The anti-establishment messaging, crunchy electric guitar riffs provided by Hendrix, and the powerful contrast to Dylan’s soft-spoken folk version turned this into a hard rock classic. The single peaked at No. 20 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and remained on the charts for nine weeks, proving that mainstream listeners were hungry for something more than saccharine pop groups.

‘Get Together,’ by the Youngbloods

“Get Together” by The Youngbloods blended folk sensibilities with psychedelia to create a shiny, happy protest song. The lilting lyrics melded with the gently harmonious tones of lead singers Jesse Colin Young and Jerry Corbitt as they called for listeners to solidarity across all manners of divisions. “Get Together” would play a key role in the peace movement at the time and has since been sampled in multiple iterations throughout the decades: Nirvana used the refrain for their song “Territorial Pissings” in the early ’90s.

‘People Get Ready,’ by the Impressions

Officially added to the National Registry in 2015, “People Get Ready” was chosen as the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights movement by none other than Martin Luther King Jr. The Imressions’ 1965 song played on secular themes and had lyrics embedded with meaning. Written by Curtis Mayfield, “People Get Ready” eventually made its way from Chicago church songbooks to No. 3 on the Billboard R&B chart, then No. 14 on the Billboard pop chart, and into history.

‘Time Has Come Today,’ by the Chamber Brothers

There are few more memorable lines than the repetitive “TIME!” offered throughout this 1967 Chamber Brothers classic. The lyrics from “Time Has Come Today” were almost cleverly ambiguous, but its constant call to action helped the single continue to resonate with various counterculture movements over the years.

‘Respect,’ by Aretha Franklin

The late Aretha Franklin’s music crossed generations, with hits spanning decades. Yet few made as much of an impact as her first No. 1 hit, “Respect.” The song managed to play dual roles in both the feminist and the Civil Rights movements with a lasting message of empowerment. This demand for validation boasted a universality that allowed “Respect” to shape around a variety of causes.

‘San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),’ by Scott McKenzie

Written by John Phillips from the ’60s group Mamas & the Papas, this Scott McKenzie-sung hit was beloved for capturing the spirit of the counterculture – especially in Northern California. But “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” also found its way into multiple movie soundtracks set during the ’60s and ’70s, including the box office smash and Oscar-winning Forrest Gump. This song was later updated by San Francisco rapper San Quinn, who shifted the original meaning to discuss the modern era of gentrification in the city.

 

‘Get Up, Stand Up,’ by Bob Marley and the Wailers

Bob Marley wrote “Get Up, Stand Up” alongside Peter Tosh as a call to action in the fight against oppression. Inspired by Marley’s own life experiences in Jamaica, as well as his travels to other countries, “Get Up, Stand Up” offered a somewhat militant message that took hold of the hearts and minds of counterrevolutionaries around the world. It’s still considered a relevant political anthem to this day.

‘Inner City Blues,’ by Marvin Gaye

Another shining example of a song that has continued to carry weight, “Inner City Blues” has been covered and sampled by Gil Scott-Heron and A Tribe Called Quest, among more than 100 others. Marvin Gaye’s thought-provoking lyrics speak to the idea that freedom is a constant pursuit, while also pointing to the incredible spending our government directs at things like the space program while poorer neighborhoods continue to struggle. The song suddenly felt all too relevant again as residents in Flint, Michigan, residents grappled with a water crisis.

‘We Shall Overcome,’ by Pete Seeger

“We Shall Overcome” was sung quite often during the Civil Rights movement, but it wasn’t the first time that Pete Seeger’s words were found on the lips of protesters. Its first appearance came in the ’40s during the labor strike against American Tobacco in South Carolina, when workers protested in an attempt to achieve higher pay than what they were offered.

‘How I Got Over,’ by Mahalia Jackson

Few artists had as big of an impact on the Civil Rights movement as the powerful New Orleans gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. She appeared at a seminal moment during 1963’s March on Washington to sing “How I Got Over,” then set the stage for Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech. Jackson’s repeated call to King – “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin” – inspired the Civil Rights leader to cast aside his notes and speak extemporaneously. His subsequent “I have a dream …” speech would reverberate through the decades, while Jackson’s song and the moment became inextricably linked.

‘Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,’ by James Brown

Few songs have captured the attention of both the Billboard charts and a mass movement like “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Released four months after King’s assassination, this 1968 James Brown hit seemed to take the anguish and anger that many were feeling and somehow transpose it into a powerful expression of pride. Brown climbed to No. 1 on the R&B charts, remaining there for six weeks, while also peaking at No. 10 on the Hot 100.

‘I Ain’t Marching Anymore,’ by Phil Ochs

Protest singer Phil Ochs was well known for his consistent critique of the military-industrial complex. This 1965 single seemed to strike a particular chord with listeners, with a stark anti-war stance punctuated at the end of every verse with the title line. “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” offered a repeated mantra of defiance as Ochs declared that he would no longer be a pawn in the political game of the Vietnam War – or any other conflict. “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” would become deeply rooted in anti-war protests as a song, a chant, and a declaration.

‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,’ by Gil Scott-Heron

Call it a phrase, a mantra, or a slogan – but Gil Scott-Heron’s jazz poetry fusion song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” elevated an idea that would become one of the most powerful messages of the counterrevolution. The late writer, musician and activist’s words still carry weight in modern-day political movements. Added to the National Registry of the Library of Congress in 2005, the song acts as a sharp reminder that nothing will change if you sit as a passive observer.

 

Related Articles

The Day the Music Burned

It was the biggest disaster in the history of the music business — and almost nobody knew. This is the story of the 2008 Universal fire.
Chuck Berry, 1958.CreditCreditPhoto Illustration by Sean Freeman & Eve Steben for The New York Times. Source Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

Responses