Driving home from the Black Spirituals concert this weekend, KUNM 89.9 FM transmitted Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” into the car. Back at the casa, events in Ferguson, Mo., continued to unfold on CNN. Popular American music continues to speak to issues affecting our culture. From perpetual war to police militarization to racial tensions and troubles afflicting our nation, music plays an essential role in defining, documenting and urging the struggle for social justice forward.
Consequently the history of protest music in the United States is particularly interesting these days. It can be observed as a cohesive and constant stream charting our culture’s progress or lack thereof. It’s impossible to speak to its historical impact comprehensively in one article, but even a brief discussion of its brightest practitioners reveals a national commitment to progress.
In the mid 19th century, the Hutchinson Family Singers established a dialogue about slavery, women’s suffrage and the effects of war. Focusing their efforts on pacifism and equal rights, the Family advocated for progressive change in four-part harmony well into the 1880s. This early American singing group offered a glimpse into the future of activism and popular American music.
Predating widespread cultural awareness of social hierarchies preventing equality, spirituals gave voice to the oppressed. These songs served as symbolic iterations of the role of faith in survival under the dreadful conditions of slavery. In the dark soil of the American South, these “startling flowers” and “strange fruit” thrived. Spirituals provided a means of transcendence for enslaved African-Americans whose voices and intentions rose up through their song. This oral tradition gained strength as it traveled from ear to mind and back, providing an evolving basis for a belief in (and hope for) cultural change.
After the Civil War, it was plain to see meaningful revolution of values was a long-term goal. By century’s end activist/author James Weldon Johnson penned poetic lyrics that became emblematic of the nascent civil rights movement. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” debuted at a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, and it's still revered by many as the black national anthem.
The dawn of the 20th century brought some advances to causes served by protest music, but necessary, radical change failed to manifest. This resulted in an increase in the output of music composed to elaborate on themes of social justice. The labor movement and Great Depression spurred an expansion of music created in the spirit of righteous revolution. Activist and IWW member Joe Hill contributed powerful songs calling for equitable wages and better living conditions for the working poor.
In the 1930s American music spotlighted racial divides. Alongside the socialist politics of pre-war, end-of-modernism America, songs like Lead Belly’s “Bourgeois Blues” demonstrated musical virtuosity while keeping the pulse of growing dissatisfaction of the disenfranchised.
Then came Woody Guthrie, who had the uncanny ability to bring these seemingly disparate concerns together. Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lee Hays and Millard Lampell formed The Almanac Singers in 1940, breathing life into the genre with a plaintive style calling attention to domestic problems facing our nation. By 1948 Seeger and Hays went on to found seminal folk/protest act The Weavers, whose style and success inspired countless others.
In the ’50s and ’60s, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, growing civil unrest owing to segregation, the death of a beloved president and a war in Asia transformed the medium and message further. Bob Dylan contributed to the evolution of protest music early in his career with tunes like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Masters of War” and the ubiquitous “Blowin’ in the Wind.” His catalog is prodigious.
After visiting Guthrie’s deathbed in 1961, Dylan stayed focused on folksy anthems of social criticism ... until John F. Kennedy’s assassination soured him. By the 1965 Newport Folk Festival’s start, Dylan had progressed to a surrealistic take on social consciousness filtered though cynical rocanrol. Yet his greatest protest song “Hurricane”—the tale of a black man framed and imprisoned for a murder he was innocent of—wasn't written until the ’70s.
Dylan weaved in and out of the protest movement, and contemporaries Phil Ochs, Joan Baez and Guthrie’s son Arlo remained squarely in its midst. During the late ’60s and early ’70s, the war in Vietnam and tragic events of 1968—the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King and riots in Chicago, Harlem and elsewhere—created an environment wherein musicians from a variety of genres addressed injustice, poverty and war.
In the ’70s soul music captured the essence of inequities experienced by minorities in our country. Marvin Gaye’s 1971 paean to protest What’s Going On was preceded by one year by Gil Scott-Heron’s visionary album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox; that work envisioned new forms of protest music, including spoken-word poetry entwined with jazzed-out melody.
Black artists of the 1980s took up the aesthetics and themes explored on Heron’s Small Talk, and the results were rap and hip-hop. N.W.A (Niggaz Wit Attitudes) and Public Enemy took words to the streets, using bold vocabularies and thunderous beats to address the squalor and desperation of urban poverty and its impact on African-American communities. “Fuck Tha Police” and “Fight the Power” are vital statements of American protest of police brutality and social inequality.
Throughout the ’90s and aughts—as dreams of equality, justice and peace remained deferred—protest music reflected the frustrations of many hoping for a better life under the stars and stripes. Ani DiFranco, Dar Williams and Lucy Kaplansky—as well as more traditional adherents of folk like Utah Phillips and David Rovics—come to mind as war abroad continues and the militarization of police gains national attention.
Ultimately the sentiments of American protest music can be summarized by Heron’s intonation: “You will not be able to stay home, brother. You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out. You will not be able to lose yourself ...”