Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Gil-Scott Heron: They're three names that immediately come to mind when I think of the phrase “protest song.” But the history of protest songs began decades before Guthrie’s landmark 1940 album, Dustbowl Ballads. Some of the first protest songs surfaced not long after the founding of the United States and those were primarily by and about slaves.
This week on Music Thursday, WBEZ’s Richard Steele and I survey the protest song in its numerous forms.
Below are some tunes I think best capture a spirit of rebellion, frustration, displacement and oppression of people from the Southern U.S. to the African country of Zimbabwe.
This first song comes at the end of what many called the terrible '30s and not without good reason: the Depression and the Dustbowl. More horrifying though than being left without a job or on a farm buried in dust was the brutal lynching of African Americans – mostly men.
Between 1889 and 1930, 3,724 blacks were lynched. A Bronx-raised teacher named Abel Meeropol was moved to write a poem titled "Bitter Fruit" after he saw a graphic newspaper photo of a lynching. Meeropol wrote poetry and music under the pseudonym Lewis Allen. Billie Holiday, herself the victim of racism time and again, was playing New York’s Café Society one evening when Meeropol approached her with the song. She and pianist Sonny White decided to perform the song at the end of their show. According to accounts, the room was completely dark except a spotlight on Holiday. The song’s graphic lyrics and haunting melody resulted in a totally silent room after the song was performed.
Holiday’s then record company, RCA, refused to release the song, prompting her to move to the more progressive Commodore label. The song is considered one of the most important in the protest song canon. I only wish I was at Café Society that night to witness the haunting beauty of Lady Day’s delivery.
There’s been no shortage of controversy in the history of American popular music: Elvis, jazz, rap lyrics, even the merits of disco. But imagine living in a country where performing a particular genre could get you killed.
That used to be the case with Algerian rai. "Rai" means "opinion" and originated in Oran, Algeria, created by Bedouin shepherds in the 1930s. The music is a stylistic mix of Arab, French, Spanish and African. It was forbidden music, but since the 1980s, restrictions have loosened and it’s no longer the underground music it once was.
Cheb Mami is a contemporary rai artist who Americans may have heard in 1999, the year he sang with Sting on the former Police member’s Desert Rose. That same year, Mami, already known as the prince of rai, released "Parisien du Nord" with rapper K-Mel, a French rapper of North African descent. The song became an anthem against racism and the issue of identity. A serious topic with a groove behind it.
Talk about a slow jam dance groove laced with anger and a sense of despair. I remember running into the old Club 950 in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood after parking the car one night back in '82, because my friends and I could hear the DJ blasting this song. I had purchased the 12-inch after hearing it on WGCI radio late one night. I’m pretty sure it was the first time the rap genre had been used in protest music. This song hits you in the face with the singer’s “I can’t take it anymore” mood in the chorus: “Don’t push me cuz I’m close to the edge." A Gil Scott Heron attitude for a new decade.
If you ask a Zimbabwean to describe chimurenga music, they’ll probably say two words: Thomas Mapfumo. The word is Shona and it means struggle and Mapfumo has used music to bring attention to the struggles in his home country, beginning with his involvement in the fight to transform white-dominated Rhodesia into the Republic of Zimbabwe in 1980. He was forced into exile by his criticism of Robert Mugabe's old regime and now lives in Oregon. The man known as the Lion of Zimbabwe doesn’t get his music played in the country of his birth because it’s banned there.
Chimurenga dates back to at least the 1890s. For black Zimbaweans, the music is emblematic of nationalist sentiment: an icon of the strength, integrity and modernity of black tradition. The sound of Thomas Mapfumo’s chimurenga is based on Shona mbira (thumb piano) music, where the guitar replaces the mbira. It’s highly danceable with tinges of reggae horns, rock and roll and afropop, which dates back to the 1930s and has primarily evolved through women in the culture.
Marvin Gaye was one of the legendary recording artists for Motown Records, but the birth of the song “What’s Going On” was touch and go in the delivery room. It almost never saw the light of day.
The basic structure of the song was written by Obie Benson, bass singer for The Four Tops. He brought it to his label-mate for some retooling; then Gaye called in Al Cleveland to help. The end result was one of the most impactful contemporary protest songs ever written.
But Berry Gordy was not impressed! Not only didn’t he like the song, he thought it was a mistake for Gaye to step outside of his romantic image with female fans. Gordy was adamant about his position that Gaye not do a protest song. This was one of the few times Gordy was wrong.
“What’s Going On” (the single) went to number one shortly after its release. Gordy then gave Gaye, whose brother was a returning vet, the green light to do an entire album addressing a range of social issues, including the Vietnam War. Gaye’s question regarding all of these social issues was “What’s Going On.”
In the mid ‘50s, Nina Simone played piano and accompanyed her own vocals in small clubs in and around New York and also working in Atlantic City. Simone recorded for a small label during this period, and her music covered a wide range of categories including blues, jazz and folk. She hit the jackpot in 1959 with her recording of “I Loves You Porgy” from the Gershwins’ folk opera Porgy and Bess.
Simone had a very unique voice and admirable song-writing skills. She lent those abilities to the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s with songs like the classic “Mississippi Goddam.” Some of her anger stemmed from the fact that she had always wanted to become a classical pianist. She even studied at Julliard, but she felt that being a black woman in the 1950s held her back.
She co-wrote and recorded “Revolution” in 1969. This version was a performance at the Harlem Cultural Festival that same year. This song should not be confused with “Revolution” by The Beatles, which was written a year earlier and has no connection to Simone’s recording.
Bobby Darin was a man of many talents who lived a very short life; he died at age 37. Some might say that this singer, actor and musician was dealt a bad hand. He had rheumatic fever as a child, which damaged his heart and gave him a short life expectancy, so he worked hard to get in as much as he could.
Darin started writing songs and working as a demo singer early on. Then in 1959 he hit it big with a recording of “Mack The Knife,” which earned him a Grammy.
Darin was especially close to Robert Kennedy. After the senator’s assassination, Darin wrote and recorded some protest albums, which tended to show his feelings of pacifism. “Simple Song of Freedom” is a reflection of where his thoughts were at that point in his life.