This is my selection of my favourite political songs. Some people suggest that music and politics do not mix- well this list would seem to go against that opinion as some of the greatest songs ever written have come from the tradition of protest songs.
- ‘Change Is Gonna Come’, Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke wrote this song after he heard Bob Dylan’s Blowin in the Wind and was inspired to write a brilliant song which summed up the plight of black Americans in the 1960s. It had a working title of ‘My Brother’ and the original had a line in it which was edited out of the final mix ‘don’t hang around when going downtown to see a movie’ a clear reference to racism and segregation in 1960sAmerica.By the Autumn of 64 in his final ever recording session Cooke had changed the title to ‘A Change Is Gonna Come.’ He was shot dead at the age of 33 outside the Hacienda Motel in mysterious circumstances in Dec 1964 but his legacy still lives on with this song which became the unofficial anthem for the civil rights movement.
- ‘Strange Fruit’, Billie Holiday
Written recorded and released in 1939 it is neither in the jazz or folk tradition. Many music historians point to this as the first protest song as it is a song which depicts the horror of lynching in the Deep South. It articulated the growing awareness and anger that was to find expression in the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s. There is an interesting story about the songwriter as well. Few of the millions who have heard “Strange Fruit” are aware of its genesis and history. It was written in the mid-1930s by a New York City public school teacher, Abel Meeropol, who was at that time a member of the American Communist Party, and who later became better known as the adoptive father of the two sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Jewish couple who were executed in 1953 for the alleged crime of giving the secret of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.
- ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone’ Pete Seeger/Kingston Trio
My next choice is by a songwriter called Pete Seeger – there were many folk heroes in the 1940s and 50s including the legendary Woodie Guthrie who we will hear from later. Pete Seeger was another and he formed the Almanac Singers with Guthrie in the 1940 and performed many of Guthrie’s songs in the 1950s with his group The Weavers. During the McCarthy era Seeger’s was banned from the radio and TV for 17 years. However the irony is many groups covered his songs during this period including this group the Kingston Trio who the first artists to popularise folk for the masses. But with their clean cut collegiate image they came in for some criticism from folk purists but this song is still a great anti -war song.
- ‘Washington Bullets’, The Clash
This song is on the Clash’s fourth album, Sandinista. It’s not one of their most famous songs but it is arguably their most political song. Strummer takes us on a political history lesson from Cuba to Chile Nicaragua to Afghanistan. From Castro to Allende and it encourage many to read up on the political situations he references and includes the classic line – In a war-torn swamp stop any mercenary ‘N’ check the British bullets in his armoury.
- ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, Gil Scott-Heron
The song’s meaning is not as obvious as most people think. Scott-Heron explained in an interview that the ‘Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ was about the change that happens inside people’s minds rather than an observation about the coverage of war and revolution. It was 1st released on his album called Small Talk in 1970 but then again in 1974 with the album of the same name.
- ‘God On Our Side’, Bob Dylan
This was written for the album ‘The Times They Are A Changin’ written around the time of the Cuban Missile crisis, it’s an ironic look at American history. This version is by UK group Manfred Mann who covered many Dylan songs.
- ‘What’s Going On’, Marvin Gaye
Recorded in 1970 – the last Motown recording in Detroit before they label moved to LA. By 1970 Marvin Gaye was already a very successful entertainer but when he went into the Hitsville studio he wanted his music to reflect what was happening in society at large. Motown’s owner Berry Gordy didn’t approve and rejected the recording but Marvin refused to deliver any further material and the label relented released it and it was a massive success. A timeless classic.
- ‘Give Peace A Chance’, John Lennon
Written in Montreal by John Lennon in 1969 when he was still technically a member of The Beatles this became an anthem to the anti –war movement. At an anti- war demo in Washington in 1969 Pete Seeger led the communal singing of the song. It was released under the name the Plastic Ono Band.
- ‘Redemption Song’, Bob Marley
Probably my favourite Marley song, this was released in ‘1979 on his ninth album ‘Uprising’. I think this was written after he had been diagnosed with cancer and it’s almost as if he was aware of his own mortality. It contains one of my favourite lines ‘emancipate yourself from mental slavery’.
- ‘Shipbuilding’, Elvis Costello
This version by Robert Wyatt and was a hit just after the Falklands War and is beautiful poignant song. Costello and Clive Langer wrote it about the Falklands War.
- ‘Biko’, Peter Gabriel
A very powerful song about Steve Biko, who was killed in police custody in Sept 1977 in South Africa. He was interrogated in room 619 which is referenced in the song. This was on Gabriel’s third album.
- ‘Free Nelson Mandela’, Special AKA
Released as part of the anti-apartheid movement this was written by Jerry Dammers and became the battle cry of the movement after its release in 1984.
- ‘Eton Rifles’, The Jam
Written by Weller in 1979 after he read about a ‘Right To Work’ march passing the Eton school gates – he was shocked in 2008 to discover that David Cameron listed it as one of his favourite songs asking ‘which part of the song didn’t he get’.
- ‘Alternative Ulster’, Stiff Little Fingers
From Belfast this song was out at the height of the troubles and reflects the anger of the street.
- ‘Universal Soldier’, Donovan
After the success of Dylan the so called British Dylan popped up. A pale imitation of Dylan however this song probably his most famous stands the test of time.
- ‘Fight The Power’, Public Enemy
Released in 1989 – Spike Lee had asked the group to write something for his film Do The Right Thing it references African American culture.
- ‘War’, Edwin Starr
It has often been noted that more Black Americans fought in the Vietnam War than any other racial group it was probably fitting then that this was the first anti-war protest song to reach number one on a black label.
- ‘This Land Is Your Land’, Woodie Guthrie
Probably Woodie Guthrie’s most famous song was written in 1940 and was a critical response to Irving Berlin’s ‘God Bless America’.
- ‘For What It’s Worth’ – Buffalo Springfield
Written by Stephen Stills it was originally written about a curfew around Sunset Strip, and later went on to be an anthem for rebellious youth.
- ‘Television’, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy
Released in the 1990s this should have been a massive hit.
Peter Hooton, @thefarm_peter