Protest Songs Through the Ages - Be inspired to write the next one!

Today Progressive Majority and Grassrooting Productions launched a collaborative protest song project to raise awareness of the Wisconsin recall elections! (read our recent blog post and check out the official website!)

In honor of the launch of this project, I've compiled a list of famous protest songs (plus a few of my personal favorites) to hopefully inspire you to participate in our project and collaborate to write the next big protest song! Music is such a powerful tool, as evidenced by the songs below. Let's use the power of music together to bring attention to the Wisconsin recall elections and the fight for labor rights that they stemmed from.

"We Shall Overcome"

The lyrics of "We Shall Overcome" come from an old gospel song. The song was made popular in 1959 by Guy Carawan, the music director and song leader at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, training school for social justice leaders. He also taught the song to members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. After that, the song quickly became an unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

Here's a clip of the song being performed at Pete Seeger's 90th Birthday Concert:

"Solidarity Forever"

Perhaps the most well known labor rights song, "Solidarity Forever" was written as a poem in 1915 by Ralph Chaplin. Chaplin, a social activist, was covering a coal miners' strike in West Virginia, which inspired him to write the poem. The poem was initially used in song form by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), but since then numerous unions have adopted the anthem.

Listen to "Solidarity Forever" performed by the Twin Cities Labor Chorus:

"Bread and Roses"

This song also originated as a poem, written by James Oppenheim in 1911. The phrase "Bread and Roses" was used as a slogan during the textile workers' strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912. The phrase refers to workers demands for fair wages as well as dignified treatment and working conditions. The Lawrence strike has also come to be known as the "Bread and Roses strike". The poem was set to music by Mimi Farina in 1976.

Here's a recording of Farina performing the song with Joan Baez:

"Strange Fruit"

"Strange Fruit" is an anti-racism song, but more specifically an anti-lynching song. The poem "Strange Fruit" was written in 1936 by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish teacher who was the adoptive father of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg's sons. The poem was first published in The New York Teacher, a union magazine. Abel later set his poem to music. It is thought that Abel wrote the poem in response to seeing a photograph of two black men who were lynched in Indiana.

Listen to Billie Holiday's hauntingly famous rendition, first recorded in 1939:


Written by Neil Young in 1970, "Ohio" is a song about the shootings at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, which resulted in the deaths of four students at the hands of the Ohio National Guard. Students were nonviolently protesting Nixon's invasion of Cambodia.

Listen to the song set to photographs taken that day:

"Blowin' In The Wind"

Perhaps the most ambiguous protest song listed here, "Blowin In The Wind" was written in 1963 by Bob Dylan. It's a pretty vague song but in some lines it's clear that he's talking about inequality and racism: "How many years can some people exist before they're allowed to be free? How many times must a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn't see?"

Watch this old footage of Bob performing his song:

"A Change is Gonna Come"

When Sam Cooke heard "Blowin in the Wind" by Bob Dylan, he was surprised that such an emotional song about racism would be written by a white man. Cooke started writing "A Change is Gonna Come" after meeting with some sit-in demonstraters in North Carolina in 1963. The song was released in 1964 and it quickly became a musical symbol of hope for the Civil Rights Movement.

Here's my favorite rendition of the song by the ever-ethereal Lauryn Hill:

"Give Peace a Chance"

John Lennon first started singing this song during he and Yoko Ono's "bed-ins" in 1969, where they stayed in bed for long periods of time to protest the Vietnam War (modeled after sit-ins). The song was officially released later in 1969.

Listen here:

"The Message"

"The Message" is arguably one of the first mainstream examples of socially-conscious hip hop. The song is by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and was released in 1982. It speaks of the struggles of life in the ghetto. It was the first hip hop song to be inducted into the National Archive of Historic Recordings.

Check out the music video:

Last but not least, be sure to take a look at Progressive Majority's cover of Tracy Chapman's "Talkin About A Revolution."

Feeling inspired?? Submit your own songs, poems, slogans, or videos and help us create the next protest song!!