A Brief History of the Protest Song (in the USA)

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By Evie Erickson

Protest music has existed long before the creation of the United States, likely it has been around since the invention, or perhaps discovery of music itself. Music has the unique ability to give a voice to the oppressed and form a genuine organization of people that can stand up to their oppressors when all together. During the Albany Movement in 1961, Martin Luther King Jr., referring to protest songs, said, “They give the people new courage and a sense of unity. I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope, in the future, particularly in our most trying hours.”[1] Music spreads awareness and encourages passion for an issue, it has in the past and continues to this day.

The creation of jazz and blues music itself can be interpreted as a defiant protest in the face of Black Americans’ living conditions. There is no single origin of either genre, rather it formed as a collective, cathartic, creation of music, dance, and rhythm that expressed the pain of oppression, living in a white supremacist society. This kind of music is the root for almost all popular music today, so in a way, it goes to show that much of music has its roots in protest, creating art as an act of resilience. The resilience of humanity is often expressed in song.

Throughout much of the 18th and 19th centuries, protest songs frequently stuck to the same tune but changed lyrics depending on the cause for the movement. Women’s suffrage is a great example of this, with the familiarity of songs used to spread the message more easily and receptively. Slavery and subsequently abolition tunes drew from African musical traditions, with songs like “Wade in the Water” taking the form of spirituals and becoming anthems.[2] This theme of melodic continuation can be explained by the fact that there was no other way to preserve important songs, other than to sing them and teach others, especially younger generations, to sing them as well. Plenty of artists over the decades passed down melodies and made lyrical changes where they saw fit. Even today with radio, physical copies of music, and digital streaming existing, many songs are remembered timelessly through repetition and sharing them with one another, even one as simple as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

Music’s power and influence can be easily seen through the intentional banning of songs, sometimes artists are even prohibited from performing. An example of a song that was banned for its deemed provocative nature is “Strange Fruit.” To protest against Jim Crow laws and their brutal enforcement in the South, specifically criticizing lynchings against African Americans, Billie Holiday performed “Strange Fruit” for the first time in NYC, in 1939.[3] Almost no executives agreed to distribute it, including her own record label, Columbia. Multiple cities even banned the performance of the song, fearing it’d create civil unrest. This was until Commodore Records agreed to publish it, recognizing its greatness, and its success shows its audiences did too. The co-founder of Atlantic records, Ahmet Ertegun, called it “the beginning of the civil rights movement.”[4] Into the 80s and 90s as hip hop emerged and other genre-bending sounds formed, a whole generation of songwriters took a new approach to the protest song. “F%#@ tha Police” by NWA (1988) criticized police brutality and racial profiling; this song wasn’t aired, firstly, due to its explicit content, but also because of its anti-establishment rhetoric. Nonetheless, it’s a message that has ingrained itself in pop culture and still motivates anti-police-brutality movements to today, for example, its streams surged during 2020, after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police and large protests commenced.[5]

The Civil Rights Movement drew from the abolitionary spirit and created some of the most revolutionary, impactful tunes. Artists like Sam Cooke and Nina Simone crafted the sound of their era with songs like “Backlash Blues” and “A Change Is Gonna Come.” This is only a snippet of a movement that spanned across many genres, creating a cultural shift. The Harlem Cultural Music Festival in 1968 or the “Black Woodstock” was nearly lost to history but was luckily reinvigorated by Questlove’s recent film entitled Summer Of Soul, and is a perfect example of a festival which represented the Black liberation movement, celebrating Black culture and empowering one another.[6][7] It really showed how music can help to unite a group of people.

Folk music also flourished during this time as a form of protest. Artists such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, and Peter Paul and Mary were all singing anti-war songs starting in the early 60s, before the anti-war movement really took form. Phil Ochs and Pete Seeger were prime examples of anti-Vietnam War musicians. Their songs acted as lessons on the draft and the war, generally. Pete Seeger toured the nation from 1964 to 1965, singing his protest songs and becoming the most successful male singer-songwriter during that period. His song, “People Get Ready,” aimed to mobilize listeners for nonviolent protest in opposition to the war. Bob Dylan is perhaps the most notable figure from this time, composing songs like “Times they are A-changin” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” both of which were popular hits. This tradition of folk being used as a vessel for protest wasn’t new. Dylan was greatly inspired by the Great Depression-era singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, who famously wrote “This Land Is Your Land,” a song envisioning socialist idealism where there is no private property, the nation’s ecology is unharmed, as well as its people.

Anti-war events were also held to celebrate the power of music and the strength of community especially as the movement grew legs; “at the first major anti-war rally in Washington in April 1965, Judy Collins sang Bob Dylan’s “The Times They are A-Changin,’” and Joan Baez led “We Shall Overcome,” an anthem of the civil rights movement.”[8] Phil Ochs organized a few rallies in 1967, one in Los Angeles and two others following in New York and then Los Angeles, performing his song “War is Over ” and claiming it to be so.[9] Grassroots movements were not uncommon, as writer Bruce Franklin explains in his book, Vietnam War in American Stories, Songs, and Poems: “Some of the first organized activities against the Vietnam War centered on the singing of songs at concerts, in clubs, and on campuses.”[10] This continued into the late 60s, when in 1969, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty wrote a timeless hit called “Fortunate Son” where he explains his anti-establishment views, resentment for the unfair draft, and what he deemed a meaningless war. The movement lasted years and really challenged the US government to take action in response to it.

More recently, Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly” in 2015 furthered these themes to create one of the most significant protest songs of our time, ”Alright,” that became an anthem for the BLM movement, explaining the struggle of the Black experience living in the US and bringing a sense of hope and optimism for the future.

[1] Robert Shelton, “Songs a Weapon in Rights Battle,” New York Times, 20 August 1962.

[2] National Women’s History Museum, “Brief Overview of Protest Songs.”

[3] First Amendment Museum, “Protest Music: 1911 – 1947.”

[4] Laura Snapes, “The Greatest Banned Songs of All Time – Ranked!The Guardian, February 14, 2019, sec. Music.

[5] Jonathan Bernstein, “Streams of N.W.A’s ‘F-k Tha Police’ Nearly Quadruple Amid Nationwide Protests,” Rolling Stone (blog), June 3, 2020.

[6]​​ Tucker Toole, “The Most Popular Music Festival You’ve Probably Never Heard Of,” National Geographic, August 19, 2021, sec. History and Culture: Race in America.

[7] The Harlem Cultural Music Festival has been referred to as the “Black Woodstock” as it occurred the same summer as the infamous festival in rural New York.

[8] Anne Meisenzahl and Roger Peace, “Protest Music of the Vietnam War,” United States Foreign Policy History and Resource Guide, 2017, updated September 2023.

[9] Celebrating Phil Ochs, “Concerts,” August 15, 2015.

[10] H. Bruce Franklin, Vietnam War in American Stories, Songs, and Poems (Boston: Bedford Books, 1996), p. 204.