The Power 5 Protest Songs

Jackson Caines 27 May 2014

TCS provides you with the Top 5 Protest Songs that have been somewhat forgotten about. Don't let this fool you into thinking it will be a light hearted list, however. Here are some real hard hitting, emotional, almost tragic songs which remind us of the roots behind all protest music. 

Various – Brother, Can You Spare A Dime? (1930)
America was reeling in 1930: after a decade of easy prosperity, the country had plunged into Depression, and unemployment skyrocketed. ‘Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?’ was the song that best encapsulated the sheer injustice of the Depression, E. Y. Harburg’s lyrics giving a voice to the forgotten men who had built America’s wealth only to be left destitute: They used to tell me I was building a dream / With peace and glory ahead. / Why should I be standing in line / Just waiting for bread?. It was recorded by such household names as Al Jolson, Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee and its sad, winding melody became the soundtrack of a generation.

Credit: Public Affairs

The Specials – Ghost Town (1981)
An ominous wind whistles through The Special’s masterpiece: it’s the sound of a country in decline. Recorded in the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, Ghost Town is a catchy, creepy reggae lament to urban Britain. The lyrics allude to unemployment (No job to be found in this country) and disaffected youth (Government leaving the youth on the shelf), but the band wisely shy away from details and let the music do the real talking. The flute riff – added as an afterthought – sounds like it could be the lonely whistling of the last lad left in Coventry.

Billie Holiday – Strange Fruit (1939)
Has a more beautiful poetic image ever been fashioned from such a gruesome source? High school teacher Abel Meeropol wrote ‘Strange Fruit’ in protest against the lynching of African Americans, a phenomenon still all too common in the Deep South of the 1930s. In the hands of jazz singer Billie Holiday it became one the most devastating recordings of all time. The bitterly ironic juxtaposition of a Pastoral scene of the gallant south with The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth retains all its power today. I challenge you to watch this live performance and not shed a tear. 

Credit: Mikal Altermark

Gil Scott-Heron – The Bottle (1974)
After a long-awaited emergence from the wilderness in 2010, Gill Scott-Heron died unexpectedly the next year, leaving behind a colossal legacy. A poet, author and musician, his soulful spoken-word recordings paved for the way for generations of hip-hop artists. He’s best known for ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, but equally good is ‘The Bottle’, a funky, vivid portrait of alcohol abuse. Over a sparse arrangement of bass, drums, keys and jazz flute, Scott-Heron introduces us to a series of tragic characters enslaved to the demon drink. His impassioned refrain, Don’t you think it’s a crime / The way time after time /People in the bottle, is direct, authentic and moving. 

Joni Mitchell – Sex Kills (1994)
After making titanic contributions to the worlds of folk, pop and jazz-rock, Joni Mitchell settled later in her career into an alt. rock sound that yielded weird and wonderful results. In ‘Sex Kills’, from 1994’s Turbulent Indigo, Mitchell is at her angriest, but articulate as ever. Her target of protest? Pretty much every social ill plaguing Bill Clinton’s America, from gas leaks and oil spills to lawyers and prescription pills – Oh, and the tragedies in the nurseries / Little kids packing guns to school. These days, we tend to see the 1990s through rose-tinted glasses. ‘Sex Kills’ in a jolting reminder that not everyone was happy.