Musings on Protest Music
In 1999 Time magazine named “Strange Fruit,” written by Abel Meeropol and first recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939 as “Song of the Century.” “Strange Fruit,” references the racial barriers of the Depression era in lyrics that refer to the plight of African-Americans as they fought for freedom and equality in society, despite the Constitution granting freedom and citizenship more than 60 years before this song’s appearance.
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Woody Guthrie spent much of the 1930s traveling with migrant workers in the West, an experience reflected in his best known composition “This Land Is Your Land” as well as 1940’s “Tom Joad.” The latter song shares the story of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath character who chose to break his parole in order to help his family during the Dust Bowl Era. Guthrie’s1940 album, Dust Bowl Ballads, tells similar stories such as “I Ain’t Got No Home,” which took a Baptist melody whose original lyrics referred to accepting your lot in life and waiting for salvation in the next life, juxtaposed with Guthrie’s lyrics in which he describes hard-working farmers who lose their farms to the banks: “Rich man took my home and drove me from my door.” To be clear where his mindset was, Guthrie’s guitar was affixed with a sticker that read ‘This Machine Kills Fascists’, an idea later borrowed by Pete Seeger for his banjo (his reads “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender.”)
Pro-union songs led to the birth of Pete Seeger’s illustrious career as a folk singer with The Almanac Singers (a group that also included Guthrie) singing classics “Which Side Are You On?” and “Union Maid”, both of which have remained relevant as causes changed over time. With The Weavers, Seeger sang “If I Had a Hammer”, which caught the attention of the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee and led to his blacklisting in the late 1950s. For a few years, he was unable to perform in public without catching the ire of many local towns, but soon after performing at Carnegie Hall to great acclaim in 1963, he became a voice for the budding anti-war movement and later wrote “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” a song inspired by seeing a photo in a newspaper of soldiers crossing a river. A later, more obscure song by Len Chandler titled “Beans in my Ears” was covered by Seeger and included references to a young boy named Alby Jay who put beans in his ears and couldn’t hear what others said to him. Seeger recorded the song in 1966 and Alby Jay’s behavior reflects that of President Johnson as he ignored the cries of anti-war protestors.
But before Vietnam would become a main focus of protest songs (and in effect, a large swath of popular music over the course of the 1960s), many Americans began writing and performing music that reflected the struggle for civil rights. “We Shall Overcome,” which took the tune of a Gospel song was originally a union song popularized by Pete Seeger. Eventually Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. thought so much of it that one day while driving to a speech in Kentucky, he remarked to a mutual friend of his and Seeger’s, “’We Shall Overcome,’ that song really sticks with you, doesn’t it?”
“Blowin’ in the Wind” was adapted by Bob Dylan from the old Negro spiritual “No More Auction Block.”Also recorded by Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary and many others, the song addressed a variety of concern, before returning to the refrain “The answer is blowin’ in the wind.” With the winds of the national culture changing, the answer was not what it had once been. Similarly, Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” spoke volumes about the changes taking place in America and that indeed, the present state of the country was changing. Dylan told Cameron Crowe for the liner notes to his 1985 album Biograph, that with a reference to the “Gospel of Mark” he used lyrics to create “a song of purpose, influenced by Scottish and Irish ballads”:
Come Senators, congressman, please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’_
A few years later, in “Southern Man,” Neil Young sang out against the continued racism in the south and a call for amends is made. Meanwhile a related cry appeared in another context as Sly and the Family Stone wrote “Everyday People” calling for equality and peace among all peoples, one of the most positive-thought evoking songs of American history.
In 1968 both Dr. King and Robert F Kennedy were assassinated. The loss of these two leaders, along with John F Kennedy five years earlier led to “Abraham, Martin and John,” which Dion recorded in 1968. The lyrics are similar throughout the song, except for the change of the names with each verse.
Has anybody here seen my old friend Abraham/John/Martin?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lot of people,
But it seems the good they die young.
You know, I just looked around and he’s gone.
With their passing so too did the era lose a certain measure of innocence, which inspired additional songs of protest.
Click here to read part two of the feature.
The Howlin’ Brothers take to the Relix rooftop and share a song they wrote with Warren Haynes.
Beth Hart shares the opening track from her latest album, Bang Bang Boom Boom, live at Relix.
Jamie Lidell sets up in the Relix boiler room and delivers a tune from his 2005 album Multiply
Duane Trucks is happy to announce his new project, King Lincoln. Watch them perform “Coffee” live and acoustic at Relix’s Online-Video Coordinator’s loft in Williamsburg.
Here’s another song from Crystal Bowersox’s new record All That For This, live at Relix.
WYATT share a song in the famed Relix boiler room.
Goodnight, Texas share a song from their latest studio album, A Long Life of Living, live at Relix.
Warren Haynes performs a solo, acoustic version of “Railroad Boy” and explains how he adapted the traditional Celtic song for Gov’t Mule, backstage at the Hangout Music Festival.
Australia’s Alpine recently made their NYC debut at the Relix office with this song from their new album A is for Alpine.
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
- Summer Stars: Shovels & Rope
- Preservation Hall Jazz Band: Free Download "Dear Lord (Give Me The Strength)"
- God Street Wine with Warren Haynes "Sweet Little Angel" (Live 1996)
- The Howlin’ Brothers "Big Time"
- Primus in Toronto
- Twice "The Joker" on Saturday at Bonnaroo (Gov’t Mule and Jack Johnson)
- The National’s Grateful Dead Tribute Album Dead Hot In Motion
- Daft Punk: Random Access Memories
- Interlocken Confirms Daily Lineups, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Punch Brothers, Keller & The Keels and More Added
- Mumford and Sons Cancel Bonnaroo Show, Summer Tour
- Ed Helms: Bonnaroo, Banjos and a Bit of Phish
- Robert Hunter Will Return to the Stage for Eight Shows
- Warren Haynes to Play Jerry Garcia’s Wolf on Symphony Tour
- Tedeschi Trucks Band Share New Song
- Jack Is Back: Jack Johnson Talks Bonnaroo, ALO and New Album
- Patty Griffin in Boston
- Doctor’s Orders: So what should we call the Super Ball IX Newspaper?
- John Kadlecik Posts Statement on Bob Weir’s Collapse
- "I Wanne Be In moe.": The Latest Volunteers
- Bob Weir Escorted Off Stage During Furthur Show
- Vote for Your Favorite "I Wanne Be In moe." Contestant
- Furthur Cancels BottleRock Show as Bob Weir Is Out Of Commision
- Doctor’s Orders: What’s Your Favorite Furthur Song? (Win Copy of Relix Signed by Phil and Bobby)
- On The Verge Poll