Here’s some notes from the show I just hosted on KPFK in LA about the history of protest songs and contemporary protest songs and singers:
By the way, the interview I did with Pete Seeger is not yet posted up, I will be posting it on the night of Friday, October 5th, so check back for that.
Lots of Links, etc. below-
Here’s a blurb for each song. I see the program as being a bit of history and then bringing it up to date with great contemporary stuff. We’ll start at the beginning of the 20th century with the IWW, a One Big Singing Union who liked to parody Salvation Army bands because they had good familiar tunes. And if the Salvation Army band tried to drown out the IWW singers with their brass bands, the Wobblies could just sing along. “The Preacher and the Slave” is a song written by Joe Hill in 1911. It was written as a parody of the song “In The Sweet Bye and Bye.”
1. Preacher and the Slave by Harry “Mac” McClintock – Harry McClintock was a singer associated with the IWW. He is the composer of the song Big Rock Candy Mountain, but here sings a song by Joe Hill, of whom he was a personal associate, one of very few the reclusive Joe Hill had. They, along with T-Bone Slim were the main composers of the IWW, International workers of the world. I think they had the best songs of any labor movement in America. This recording is taken from a remarkable one of a kind interview with McClintock, conducted by Sam Eskin in 1950. Click the above link to got Smithsonian Global Sound where you can buy the track, read the liner notes, etc.
2. Join the CIO by Aunt Molly Jackson– This song brings us from the early IWW period into the CIO days and the Communist era. A singing United Mine Workers organizer who came to New York from Kentucky in the 30’s to try to raise funds for the struggles in the coal fields of Kentucky. She was a skilled traditional southern mountain ballad singer and started the whole folk revival movement in New York by accident- ask me about it.
3. Bring Em’ Home by Pete Seeger– Aunt Molly Jackson inspired Pete Seeger’s father and through him Pete, fastforward 30 years and Pete is singing to end the Vietnam War. This is a great song, relevant today. Check out my internet radio show, Down Home Radio for a brand new hour long interview with Pete Seeger!
4. Operation Iraqi Liberation (O.I.L.) by David Rovics – I can’t say enough good stuff about David Rovics. We’re lucky to have such a good dedicated topical song protest singer in the absence of a true big mass movement. But David’s our man. He’s very much in the Phil Ochs school. Look out for a complete one hour interview that I did with him on Down Home Radio. He plays most of the big demos, as well as local meetings and clubs. He’s touring all the time and gives all his music away for free on his website.
5. I’m a Better Anarchist Than You by David Rovics – Its very important to have a sense of humor, irony and humility, and be able to poke fun at ones self. This song is hilarious.
6. God Must Be a Terrorist by Steve Strohmeier – There are a lot of young musicians all over the country writing protest songs. Most of them are entirely under the radar and just becoming known by a few people. I’m very happy to promote Steve Strohmeier. Steve is one of the best I’ve heard period, a great musician and songwriter. He is also my close friend and former roommate, currently living and playing music in Baltimore, MD. These people need a venue, a forum, a place to be heard! Even David Rovics, the main protest singer in America has a hard time making ends meet. These singers need a place to play, an audience and a way to not starve! The movement needs to support this kind of important work in a better organized and more concrete fashion!
7. There are Mean Things Happening in This Land by John Hand Cox – This is an old field recording from the wonderful “Songs for Political Action” box set on Bear Family records. Recommend that highly. I want to address the question about whether there is historical precedent for protest music among African-Americans. There is not much record of it before the civil rights era, but there is some, and this one is actually not about racism but about the union movement, very interesting! Its based on an old spiritual called “Strange Thing Happening in the Land” or variations on that.
8. Alabama by J.B. Lenoir – This is a stunning example of protest blues from the 1960’s. There is not much example of protest blues from the pre-war WWII era, but by the 60’s one of the greats, Lenoir, Muddy Waters’ favorite blues musician did a whole album of protest songs, called Vietnam Blues. Every song is great, devastating.
9. A Song for Assata by Common – Today, right now, is the golden age of protest music by African-Americans in the form of hip-hop, and its relatively popular! Weird in the absence of a mass movement, but there it is. Common is one of the biggest stars in Hip-hop right now, he appears in films and on television. His daughter is named after Assata Shakur. Maybe he read her awesome autobiography and then wrote the song, kind of like Woody Guthrie reading The Grapes of Wrath and writing Tom Joad. A Song for Assata appear on Common’s album, Like Water for Chocolate.
10. Police State by Dead Prez – This is a group of explicitly radical, revolutionary oriented rappers who have also achieved a relatively high degree of commercial success among youth and college audiences.
Here’s a wikipedia article political hip hop artists