The term Protest Song brings to mind a cry against war but the truth is songs can be written in protest of many controversial societal concerns such as religious strife, working conditions in the mines, the labor movement, freedom from slavery, woman’s rights, environmental conditions etc. A protest song can be a call to action used to draw supporters into the cause promoting solidarity such as those common with the labor movement of the 1900-1920s. They might also be used to raise awareness of the social issue or deliver a political message. Protest songs can be found in cultures all over the world.
A few of the more prominent protest singer song writers in the United States are: Woody Guthrie, Hazel Dickens, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, and Utah Phillips.
Woody Guthrie began traveling America’s roadways at the age of 13. His voice of protest was his unique political view point of what he saw during those travels as he observed the effects of the Great Depression across America’s Landscape. His best known protest piece was This Land is Your Land which is said to be his response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. This Land is Your Land is a cry for the people to stand up with pride and rebuild America’s strength.
Hazel Dickens came out of the coal mining hills of WV with a calling to fight for labor’s rights. She was one of the most prolific protest songwriters to fight against oppression. Her work has been highlighted in film and documentaries. Her song They’ll Never Keep Us Down was featured in the documentary Harlan County USA which depicted the coal miner’s struggles.
Phil Ochs, posthumously, has become highly recognized as a major contributor to activist and protest styled folk music. He wrote politically infused songs about the Vietnam War, Civil Rights and Labor Rights. His success as a noted folk singer and song writer was cut short when at the age of 35, manic depression and alcohol abuse drove Phil to take his own life. His most notable protest song on war was I Ain’t Marching Anymore.
Pete Seeger's contributions to folk music are legendary. He has been an activist, pacifist and environmentalist for more the 60 years. His voice has resonated and endured on topics such as Labor Rights, the Cold War, Vietnam, Civil Rights, and the environmental condition of the Hudson River . One of his most recognized and greatly covered songs has been Where Have All the Flowers Gone, which he has said represents a call for peace.
Utah Phillips was inspired to use music to deliver his view of the human condition across America. His work centered on Labor Rights, the devastation of war and homelessness. His political views were shaped by a father who was a labor leader, a stint with the US Army during the Korean War, his hobo years riding America’s rails, and his work with homeless people. One of his most poignant songs was I Saw my Country’s Flag Go Down which lamented Kennedy’s assassination and speaks of the nation’s political mood at the time.