Where Are All The Protest Songs?

The present political turbulence in the U.S. would be well represented by Jimi Hendrix's anthem to a country divided again.
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Pete Seeger performing on stage.
Pete Seeger performing on stage.

The 1960s gave voice to four prominent protest movements: the civil rights crusade, environmental concerns, women's issues and anti-war demonstration. Turbulent times in history produce ageless protest songs.

Our protest was heard in the silence that surrounded it. Every nuanced line of those songs became a personal anthem for the causes we supported.

In the absence of silence today, we have the addition of many protests, and each one has a smaller voice. A cacophony of constant noise rises up on social media where at any given time someone is protesting something somewhere. It is a world full of exhaustive reactionism.

Fifty years ago Gordon Lightfoot wrote "Black Day in July" in response to the Detroit Motor City Madness riots that "touched the countryside." This iconic song was banned in the U.S.A. at the time and has been immortalized with a commemorative statue. A unique and lasting legacy for one protest song.

In the 1960s, racial issues in the U.S. began a slow, steady march toward the future. "We Shall Overcome" rang out over the Washington Mall in 1963 — a timeless classic dating back to the songs "sung by slaves to sustain themselves."

In January 2017, church bells and children's voices lifted that same song up and over the Washington Mall again during the Women's March on Washington. "We Shall Overcome" gives hope and voice to all kinds of persecution.

Women's issues found a voice in 1963 with Leslie Gore's "You Don't Own Me" and later in the decade the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin demanded "Respect."

In 1962, Rachel Carlson's book "Silent Spring" focused our attention on pollution and the environment. The folk and rock world reverberated with protest. Pete Seeger sang about "To My Old Brown Earth" and The Beatles joined the chorus with "Mother Nature's Son", songs that would fit comfortably into the climate change challenge today.

Anti-war protests were everywhere in the 1960s.

In 1964, the issue of nuclear proliferation and testing prompted Malvina Reynolds to ask "What Have They Done To The Rain?" as nuclear testing fallout made "Just a little breeze with some smoke in its eye." 'In 1962, The Canadian Voice of Women collected baby teeth to demonstrate high levels of Strontium 90 which enters the environment after nuclear testing. World leaders are sabre rattling again. Will we be faced with a new nuclear threat?

Country Joe MacDonald ended the decade of anti-war protest by shouting "Give Me an F ..Give Me a U" at Woodstock. In an unexpected solo performance, he used his altered opening and forever placed "I Feel Like I'm Fixing To Die Rag"in musical protest history. As spontaneity often does, the song became one of the seminal moments at Woodstock.

There's the sobering line "be the first one on your block to have your boys come home in a box"and the young crowd roared. I have often wondered how many in that infamous Woodstock hillside scene did come home in a box. The war would escalate before its end in 1975.

Today war is big business and the U.S tops the list for armament sales in the global economy. Who wants to end war if it means a loss of revenue? I doubt Country Joe's Rag would have the same resonance today. War has become, for many countries, an acceptable financial asset.

A protest song has to cleverly define the issue. Its purpose is to shine a musical light to create awareness and urgency.

In 1965 Barry McGuire sang the ominous "Eve of Destruction", reminding everyone "If the button is pushed there's no running away," a sobering possibility even today. And he scolded society with "Hate your next door neighbour but don't forget to say grace." The song has as much relevance today as fifty years ago.

In my view, one of the most blistering, most searing protest songs for the ages was Jimi Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner" at Woodstock. Only the diehard left to watch Hendrix rip his guitar with such scorching emotion. And through it all was this unsung lament. His face held an intense, taut expression, eyes glued to his white Fender Stratocaster. Few words spoken and a desire to say it all with guitar riffs. It grew almost organically from his hands as he started to play.

Peaking at those unsung lines "rockets red glare, bombs bursting in air,"his protest shot into the morning sun. It was intense, he was absorbed, and protested the only way he could, with his guitar. The present political turbulence in the U.S. would be well represented by this soaring, piercing, mournful anthem to a country divided again.

Protest and protest songs unite us and remind us "there will be no one to save with the world in a grave."

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