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As one author quoted, “Music cleanses the understanding; inspires it and lifts it into a realm which it would not reach if it were left to itself” (Henry Ward Beecher). He couldn’t have been more right. Protest songs are considered to have span over the centuries, continents and race.
They are songs that majorly address issues that range from social injustices like racism and slavery to political matters like wars. They either inspire crowds for mass actions or simply just create awareness of the problem. Protest songs are, however, known to be associated with peaceful social movements.
In the 1960’s, the prevalent issues then were the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. This article explores the many artists/musicians who were actively involved during this time and the protest songs that they sung that meticulously addressed the then current issues.
Protest songs stem from the folk music (Protest Song 1) that was present in the early 19th century. The folk music of that period addressed matters of social injustices and folk music eventually transitioned to protest songs in the1960s as a result of the dissatisfaction of the public and their current political and social environment especially after the end of World War 2 (Hurry et al. 162).
Folk songs were generally characterized by their simplicity and repetitive choruses (Hurry et al. 162). These songs were also appropriate alternatives to the other genres especially jazz (Gonipraw 4).
Protest songs however transitioned from the “acoustic-oriented folk styling to rock-based rhythms” (Protest Music 1) although this entirely depended on the musician. Gonipraw attributes this transition to “artistic decisions, record company involvement and a growing disillusionment among young people” (Gonipraw 5).
The then artists/musicians were known to contribute greatly to protests that sought to address the civil rights concerns and the Vietnam War (Gonipraw 4). Gonipraw has argued that: “when the needs and goals of the people were sung together by the people, a force was created, capable of defeating alienation” (Gonipraw 4). Peter Seeger who was a known musician in the 1960s summarized it rightly.
Artists/Musicians involved and their messages
Some of the popular artists and groups of this time were: “Woody Guthrie, Peter Seeger, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Joe Hill, The Weavers, Leedbelly, Joan Baez, Neil Young, The Doors, Country Joe and the Fish, Jefferson Airplane among others” (Cogan et al. 126). Peter, Paul and Mary were also another famous trio during this time (Protest Music 1).
Woody Guthrie and Peter Seeger were very vigorous in their approach since they traversed their country and actively became involved with the political events of that time (Gonipraw 3).
For the Vietnam War, songs that were composed had messages that basically advocated the end of the war or showed its ineffectiveness. “Where have all the flowers gone?” (Perone 20) is one such a song written by Peter Seeger, and it even had the privilege to be sung in Vietnam by the soldiers.
The song’s story is about “young girls picking flowers that eventually end on the graves of their dead soldier husbands” (Ruehl 1). Another song by Peter Seeger “Last train to Nuremberg” (Perone 61) is seen to directly point accusing fingers to the President Nixon and others as to blame for the blood shed in Vietnam.
Barry McGuire is also one such artist whose song “Eve of Destruction” in 1965 had a stern message against the war in Vietnam (Protest Music 1). Bob Dylan is also a famous artist whose music mostly addressed “world problems” (Cogan et al. 128). His lyrics unlike other musicians were not as direct but were “deliberately trying to obscure the meaning of his politics in a political context” (Cogan et al. 129).
He is considered to have been the best of them all since “he redefined what protest music said and what it sounded like” and he is also know to have mentored many others (Gonipraw 7). Some of his songs that were really popular include “Blowin in the wind” and “Master of War”.
During the Civil Rights Movement, the African Americans really made use of song as a way to “send hope, calm sorrows and heal” themselves even as they struggled to find freedom (Freeman 2).
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The songs they sang had been used in the slave era and were changed to work for them during their other struggles: for instance “Oh Freedom” sang by Joan Baez was initially “written about freedom in heaven…” (Freeman 2) but it was adapted to describe “the harsh realities of segregation that included shootings, burning and bombing of churches” (Freeman 2).
The protests were to fight for equality with other Americans and they were sang “almost nightly in the churches from the South” (Freeman 5). The fact that these musicians even stood by Dr Martin Luther King Jr. is very remarkable, since it signifies that it was not just about African American civil rights struggle but it was more of a joint effort from leaders and musicians alike.
In about 1968, the vitality of protests song was on the decline and this could be attributed to many things: President Nixon’s administration may have had a hand in it (Protest Music 1). Nevertheless, John Lennon’s song “Give Peace a Chance” in 1969 seems to have brought a good closure of the protest songs to more of peaceful songs (Ruehl 1).
Its message was just simply summarized in its title and its popularity did not stop then but continued throughout time especially where there was any “peace movement involved”. Not only did the songs lose their power, but time also saw some very influential musician like Phil Ochs who started out very well, lose ground as a musician (Gonipraw 6).
The question however is, did the songs achieve the purpose for which they were composed? They did. Simply because protest songs were a part and parcel of the movements in 1960 and the two went in hand in hand (Gonipraw 6). The popularity was more on the musicians as compared to politicians since they had much more impact than the latter (Gonipraw 6).
Songs and music definitely have a very great impact be it in mobilizing masses or passing a message across from time immemorial. The protest songs in their time are known to have had a great influence on the leaders, the Vietnamese soldiers and even unifying many from all races during the Civil Rights movement.
Their popularity in the 1960s fully served their purpose and some of the songs are even sung to date and they even persisted through the 1970s. Though not as popular, there are songs which are sung presently that could fall in the category of protest songs.
Cogan et al. Encyclopedia of Politics, the Media and Popular Culture. Santa Barbra CA, 2009. Print.
Freeman, Tracy. Spiritual and Freedom Songs. Coded Communication, n.d. Web.
Goniprow, Dan. Where have all the Protest Songs Gone? Senior Honors Projects, 2007. Web.
Hurry et al. Heinemann Advanced Music. London, UK: Heinemann, 2001. Print.
Perone John. Songs of Vietnam Conflict. New York, NY: Greenwood, 2011. Print.
Protest Music. American Renaissance. Music, n.d. Web.
Protest Song. Music. Neo Himanism, 2004. Web.
Ruehl, Kim. Best Classic Anti-War Songs. Folk Music, 2011. Web.