Stories Behind 10 of the Greatest Protest Songs

    Bruce Springsteen

    Do you sometimes have a feeling this generation lacks artists with nerve and protesting stamina? While you contemplate on that, we are giving you a list of 10 most famous protest songs. Additionally, you will find which events inspired them. Spoiler alert: most of them were written before the 90s.

    10. Bob Dylan “The Times They Are Changing”

    The onset of the sixties in the United States was superbly chaotic. The whole country was shaken by the racial conflicts, while the youngsters were dying in the jungles of Vietnam. We could write thousands of words about this and many other events which deteriorated the image of ideal society Americans always wanted to maintain, but music genius Bob Dylan already did it in only three and a half minutes of the brilliant The Times They Are Changing. He confronted Vietnam war, stood up for female and racial rights, and made one of the most famous protest songs ever. Dylan’s verses crossed the borders of music, which proves the Nobel Prize for literature he won in 2016.

    9. Bruce Springsteen “Born in the USA”

    On the first listen, you’d think it’s a patriotic song, but the truth is different. Many Americans took this massive hit by Springsteen as a glorification of the country, an anthem par excellence. George Will, a conservative journalist who was supporting Ronald Reagan during his presidential campaign, was among them. Reagan’s team contacted Springsteen hoping for the musician’s full support. The Boss openly rejected them since his song is purely cynical. Bruce is actually referring to many of his friends who never returned from the nonsense war, and to those who did but were forever changed because of it.

    8. Buffalo Springfield “For What It’s Worth”

    Sunset Strip was a hippie oasis in Hollywood during the sixties. Still, the local government wanted to get rid of the sketchy youth by closing legendary clubs such as Whiskey A Go Go and Pandora’s Box. More than 1,000 people gathered to protest against the closing of Pandora, but police forces prevailed. Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda were some of the arrested celebrities. Although often believed to be a war protest song, Buffalo Springfield’s classic “For What It’s Worth” is actually about the Sunset Strip riots.

    7. Crosby, Stills, and Nash “Ohio”

    In May 1970 in Ohio, Kent State students were protesting against Richard Nixon’s announcement that the US was going to bomb Cambodia. When the military tried to push away the students, tragedy resulted as shots were fired from semi-automatic M1 guns. Four students died. Although the song for criticizing Nixon, it became a classic protest song and is regarded a signature Neil Young song.

    6. Joan Baez “Joe Hill”

    Joe Hill, a Swedish immigrant, experienced fully how it was to be a foreigner in the States at the beginning of the last century. He dedicated his time to the working class rights, which wasn’t dear to capitalistic elite there. They set him up for murder in order to shut him up. Further on, he was sentenced to death, and before he was shot, he exclaimed: “Do not be sad, rather organize yourself”. No wonder Joan Baez was inspired by this fella.

    5. David Bowie “Heroes”

    David Bowie’s “Berlin Triology” was not accepted on the charts and award ceremonies, and neither was this song. One afternoon in 1977, Bowie gazed through the window towards Berlin Wall. In front of the wall, he saw a producer Tony Visconti with a woman he was not supposed to be with. He subsequently wrote a song about two people in love who were separated by a wall.

    “I can remember standing by the wall, and the guns shot above our heads, and we kissed as nothing could fall, and the same was on the other side.”

    4. U2 “Sunday Bloody Sunday”

    Sunday, January 30, 1972 in Derry, Northern Island. A protest by unarmed participants against the British ended with 26 people being shot by soldiers and 14 deaths. Years later U2 would release one of their most political songs which references the tragic day.

    3. Johnny Cash “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”

    Ira Hayes was a soldier in the battle for Iwo Jima. After the war, he was tormented by the images of his dead friends, and eventually lost his life to alcohol after falling asleep in the snow. He was 33 years old when he died.

    Years later, President Richard Nixon called Johnny Cash into the White House to perform “Okie From Muskogee”. Cash rejected the request. Instead he performed “What Is Truth a song about the youth and freedom, “The Man In Black a song about the solidarity with the prisoners, and “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.”

    2. The Cranberries “Zombie”

    In 1993, twenty years after Bloody Sunday with tensions still high between the Irish and British, three members of the Irish Republic Army (“IRA”) demolished a gas station in Warrington, England. Weeks later, another attack resulted in two children losing their lives.

    “Another head hangs lowly, child is slowly taken. And the violence caused such silence, who are we mistaking.”

    The Cranberries “Zombie” is a protest song in written in memory of Johnathan Ball and Tim Parry, the two children who died in the Warrington Bomb Attacks.

    1. Billie Holiday “Strange Fruit”

    In 1930, three African American men, J. Thomas Shipp, Abraham S. Smith, and James Cameron were arrested and accused of killing Claude Deeter, a white male, and raping his girlfriend Mary Ball, a white female. After news spread of the alleged murder and rape a mob of people stormed the Marion, Indiana jail that held the Shipp and Smith. The mob beat both men before lynching them .

    Mary Ball later testified that she was never raped.

    “Blood on the leaves and blood on the root, black bodies swinging in the southern breeze.”

    Nine years later, Billie Holiday would record “Strange Fruit”. Originally written as a poem by Abel Meeropol, the song was a protest of the lynchings and racism against African Americans.