No protest songs!

Reading The Nation’s new list of protest songs, I’ve finally figured out what’s wrong with the whole genre: it assumes you’ll never be able to change anything. It’s like naming your magazine Dissent. You’ll always be on the sidelines, complaining.

An outlier on this second Nation list is “The Internationale,” which is about transformation, not whining. But they pick the Billy Bragg version, which drains the song of a lot of its militance in that folky way.

17 Comments on “No protest songs!

  1. Speaking of Dissent magazine — Red Balloon Collective put out an issue in 1991 and named it the Woody Allen joke: Merging Dissent and Commentary to form a new magazine — “Dysentery”.


  2. Hey Doug,
    The previous comment was made by me (Mitchel Cohen), on Cathryn’s machine. So if that can be corrected so Cathryn doesn’t get blamed for my posts, please ….

  3. Where are The Clash songs? The Pogues’ stuff? C’mon Nation!

  4. I’ve been telling people for years to use Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power.” It’s easy to sing along with, propulsive, and doesn’t evoke 60s hippies, which for many people is a big turn-off. I know my spirits sag every time I hear another anemic rendition of “We Shall Overcome.”

  5. Doug,
    You miss a major point regarding protest songs. People who are exploited and subjugated are trained by their culture in many ways to not see their subjugation and exploitation. Protest songs serve the function of helping people realize this. They will never act until this happens. The other function is to help unite many people by speaking to their shared experience. You build a cohesive group buy such communication. You need to honor such songs for their true purpose. Now, new generations do not understand this and they weren’t there, so they see nothing to respect and appreciate. Protest song have played a powerful role in movements and still do. They should be appreciated.

  6. Ivan: When I interviewed Ned Sublette, he told me about a wonderful Spanish word for earnest political music: “pamphletismo.” What you’re describing sounds like pamphletismo, not music.

  7. Hmm. It seems to me that perhaps the real issue is not the art itself, but the designation “protest song.” I’m not sure the authors of most of the songs listed would classify their works as such. The Waits piece, for example, is an expressive description of a lousy and dehumanizing situation, carried off with his typical sentimentality. “Mississippi God Damn” was written as a personal reaction to violence. All fair game for artistic expression. And any art that gets banned in rigid societies automatically gets extra credit in my book.

    “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “This Little Light of Mine” – which seem to fall squarely in the genre – come off as solid albeit somewhat insipid inspirational folk songs, which probably accounts for their staying power. They appear to function as affirmations of strength and perseverance. Calling attention to situations and giving people something to connect over seems like a worthy enough cause; a song needn’t preclude appropriate action. Is it the songs themselves that bother you? Or how they get used?

    I recently realized that “Kumbaya” is actually pretty cool. The harmonies are rich and beautiful; it’s a fine example of the spiritual tradition (regardless of its disputed origins). But at this point, it’s a musical poster child for the activism grotesquerie. You can’t even hear it properly anymore. The real trouble with such songs amounts to nothing more than artistic erosion due to misuse. That, and perhaps an unrealistic expectation as to what art ought to accomplish. Is Picasso’s “Guernica” irrelevant because it was protesting from the sidelines?

    As to pamphletismo (love the word) not being music…well, shoot, as Doctor Boob used to say, “99% of everything is crap.” Which is to say, the majority of all artistic endeavors are either average or below. So sure, there’s plenty of room for arguing a piece isn’t good. Taste aside, I think unifying anthems can be a positive influence. Personally, I still get choked up when I try to sing “We Shall Overcome” under certain circumstances. Hope is a powerful thing.

    Barring that, Mr. Henwood, you could always write a little ditty drawing attention to the plight of activists in need of better music, and calling for the immediate eradication of the genre. I promise to hold your hand and sing it with you. ;-)

  8. Doug,

    I get your point, not your metaphor. Isn’t dissent what leads to protest; what gets you off the proverbial sidelines?

  9. Take this job and shove it I ain’t workin’ here no more
    My woman done left and took all the reason I was working for
    Ya, better not try and stand in my way
    Cause I’m walkin’, out the door
    Take this job and shove it I ain’t working here no more

    Well, I been working in this factory for now on fifteen years
    All this time, I watched my woman drownin’ in a pool of tears
    And I’ve seen a lot of good folks die who had a lot of bills to pay
    I’d give the shirt right off of my back if I had the guts to say…


    The foreman, he’s a regular dog the line boss, he’s a fool
    Got a brand new flat top haircut Lord, he thinks he’s cool
    One of these days I’m gonna blow my top and that sucker, he’s gonna pay
    I can’t wait to see their faces when I get the nerve to say…


    Take this job and shove it

  10. Kimberly, Liza (my wife) and I were talking about this last night, and punctuating our conversation by listening to songs. As we talked, I realized that there’s a lot of good political music – The Clash, Gil Scott-Heron, The Coup – but I don’t see it as “protest music.” The good stuff is complex, analytical, pissed off, mournful. What bothers me is when the music is treated as a vehicle for mobilization instead of something worth listening to for itself. That may be bourgeois of me, but, hey, I got an expensive bourgeois education and sometimes it shows.

    I alos realized that the phrase “protest music” makes me think of all that crap from the 1950s and 1960s that makes we want to scream – Baez, The Weavers, Seeger. Sometimes I think the banjo is an instrument of Satan (and not the lovable Satan of Paradise Lost).

    Some sociologist whose name now escapes me claims that “protest music” in the U.S. emerges from Protestant evangelical culture. Maybe I’m reacting against that too.

  11. Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” is out because patti remained a supporter of nader – her song, apparently, leads to unhealthy rejection of lesser-evilism

  12. Dear Doug,

    Well…I take the view that protest mobilization music is a sort of activist work song category. Think of them as sea chanteys for the politically inclined and see if your perception changes. Work songs are a class unto themselves whose function is orthogonal to pure artistic expression. They’re intended to help you keep marching while people beat you up.

    Protestant evangelical culture, eh? That makes a lot of sense. John Brown’s Body and all that. As to Baez and Seeger, I like them fine. There was a lot of satire aimed at hippie culture when you and I were growing up (we are the same generation, yes?) as a means to distract us from its critique of established society. I wonder if this comes into play when you think about the music of the period…?

    I offer this all merely as a way to unburden yourself of unnecessary annoyance. And yes, banjo – like zydeco and cilantro, is an acquired taste that some never do. ;-)

  13. Political songs either need anger (which is why Nina Simone’s work’s so well – it’s the contempt and disgust. That’s a fighting song), energy (to mobilise the troops), or something that enables people who are not predisposed to a cause to see it differently to be effective, or they need to be actual art and have some sophistication.

    Songs that just make activists feel good about themselves, or worse feel good about their demo (the point is not to demonstrate – the point is to improve things using whatever tools are most effective), are just political masturbation. Which is what protest songs mostly are.

  14. Think of them as sea chanteys for the politically inclined and see if your perception changes.

    It does. Those protest songs are rubbish because they lack rhythm. It all makes sense now. Even army songs have better rhythm than most of those.

  15. Leaders leave the stage
    To end a long dark age
    Move like puppets on a string.
    And the world is suffering
    The world is not what you see
    But truth will set you free
    You don’t get peace by fighting wars
    Let us make a stand and heal the scars

    Refr: Hope comes in the dark
    Just ignite that spark
    The future will be bright
    After dark, comes the light
    Now it’s time to act
    To make a stand and seal the pact
    And our future could be bright
    ‘Cause I can see the light

    The world is changing fast
    Freedom will come at last
    It’s crystal clear to see
    So leave the powers that be
    ’cause fear and terror is their game
    They rule the world without shame
    You don’t get peace by fighting wars
    Let us make a stand and heal the scars

    Now it’s the time to awake
    For you and me and our children’s sake

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