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Playlist: 15 greatest protest songs calling for change, peace

Bob Dylan, pictured on the cover of his song and classic protest anthem, “The Times They Are A Changin’.” Image courtesy of Rolling Stone.

A great protest song is a timeless one and stands the test of history to continue to say something about humanity even decades after being released. That’s why many of these songs, calling for change or asking for peace, made this list. Take some time to listen and discover some of the most powerful songs calling for revolution or protesting injustice that have ever been released.

1. Fortunate Son – Creedence Clearwater Revival

This song became an anti-war anthem for many in the counterculture opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War. Irrevocably tied to the legacy of the war by protesting what the song depicts as poor and unfortunate people fighting the wars of the rich, it has been used in a variety of films and documentaries about the conflict by now.

2. The Times They Are A Changin’ – Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan’s call to all to gather and seek after change in the face of injustices is a milestone in music. It has been covered by many and is still seen as a defining moment in music calling for change, transcending the politics of the 1960s as a timeless message.

3. Blowin’ In The Wind – Peter, Paul & Mary

Also written by Bob Dylan, this version of this song features rich harmonies and acoustics, contrasting with a somber plea to humanity in the face of unanswerable questions about the injustices of the world.

4. War Pigs – Black Sabbath

With this anti-war song, Black Sabbath pulls no punches in their dark picture of war as a “killing machine” and savagely attacking the generals and politicians calling for more wars “in their black masses.”

5. Sunday Bloody Sunday – U2

Based on the deadly day in 1972 when British troops fired on unarmed civilians in Derry, Ireland, this song is about the conflict and deaths in Northern Ireland. Despite protesting such brutality and killings, the lyrics also reject hate and revenge as a response -“There’s many lost, but tell me who has won.”

6. God Save The Queen- The Sex Pistols

Disillusionment with authority drives this one by The Sex Pistols, released during the Silver Jubilee honoring Queen Elizabeth II in Britain that year. It was controversial for equating the Queen with fascism and implying that young people had no future to dream of in the country.

7. Meat is Murder – The Smiths

This classic is a call against the consumption of meat, in a boldly political stance taken by Jim Morrisey. The musician has since gone vegan and the song remains an anthem for anyone protesting the animal industry.

8. Mississippi Goddamn – Nina Simone

It took courage to release a song like this in the 1960s (“Hound dogs on my trail/School children sitting in jail/Black cat cross my path/I think every day’s gonna be my last.”) The show tune rhythm drives this song with a bitter irony, but its unmistakable pain and frustration provide a vivid picture of this particular moment in the Civil Rights Movement.

10. Strange Fruit- Billie Holliday

Originally a poem written by a teacher in 1937, this song was recorded in 1939, one of the most earlier and most explicit musical protests of racism against African-Americans. Lyrics with vibrant tastes of the South contrast with horrific imagery to be deeply haunting (“Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh/Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.”) Coupled with Holliday’s signature raw, aching delivery, this one cuts deep.

11. Killing In The Name – Rage Against The Machine

“Killing In The Name” was released against the backdrop of the Los Angeles riots in 1992, and is now seen as Rage Against The Machine’s signature song. It calls for revolution and garnered controversy for recalling US police forces coordinating with white supremacist organizations.

12. If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next – Manic Street Preachers

About the Spanish Civil War from 1936-1939, this song has many real-life inspirations including the volunteers who helped fight against military rebels attacking the Spanish Republic at the time. It had great success as a modern cry against fascism.

13. The Unknown Soldier – The Doors

Inspired by the ongoing conflicts and deaths in Vietnam at the time, this song was Jim Morrison’s response to how the war was being portrayed in America. Lyrics such as, “Breakfast where the news is read/ Television children fed/ Unborn living, living dead/ Bullets strike the helmet’s head,” depicted the world he saw where people watched footage from the war on television while going about their everyday lives. By 1968, public opinion was turning against the war in large numbers.

14. What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye

This gorgeous, tragic song from Gaye’s landmark concept album is also about the fallout of the Vietnam War in inner cities, as well as by riots and racist attacks that Gaye and other musicians witnessed. Aching dissatisfaction with the world in 1973 come through with Gaye’s soulful vocals -“Picket lines and picket signs/Don’t punish me with brutality/Talk to me, so you can see/Oh, what’s going on.”

15. Get Together – The Youngbloods

A rallying anthem for peace, love and brotherhood, this became the best-known song by The Youngbloods in the ’60s. Staunchly hopeful for the future of humanity, this song became controversial in years after for its vision of a world united, but remains a remnant of the 1960s with its message about love and unity and the need for all to be “together.”

Natalie Hanson can be reached at [email protected] or @NatalieH_Orion on Twitter.

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About the Contributor
Natalie Hanson
Natalie Hanson, Editor-in-Chief
Editor-in-Chief, Spring and Fall 2019. Former Arts & Entertainment editor, Breaking News editor and reporter.

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