December 3, 2014
The Ferguson grand jury’s recent decision not to indict former police officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown kicked off a storm of protest all across America. Because of this, we figured it was a good time to poll our readers and determine their favorite protest songs. Needless to say, most of them came from the 1960s and early 1970s. Here are the results.
10. Country Joe and the Fish, ‘I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag’
His words weren’t exactly Shakespeare, but Country Joe McDonald spoke for young people all over America when he released the anti-Vietnam classic “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag.” “One, two, three, what are we fighting for?” he sang. “Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn/Next stop is Vietnam.” The song took on a new life when he performed an impromptu rendition at Woodstock, a highlight of the documentary that followed.
9. Bob Dylan, ‘Hurricane’
Bob Dylan was a decade past his protest song phase when he became aware of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a professional boxer in jail for a murder he claimed he didn’t commit. With help from playwright Jacques Levy, Dylan wrote an impassioned eight-minute tune about Hurricane’s ordeal, dramatically raising public awareness of the situation. Dylan didn’t exactly get all the details right and was even taken to court by witness Patty Valentine over alleged inaccuracies, but the song remains incredibly powerful. Even so, he hasn’t performed it a single time since 1976.
John Fogerty wrote “Fortunate Son” 45 years ago, but it continues to cause a stir. Just last month, the former Creedence frontman played the song at the White House to honor the troops and nobody said a peep. But a week later, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl and the Zac Brown Band played it at a Veterans Day show at the National Mall and many on the right freaked out, saying they had attacked the military. In reality, Fogerty served in the Army Reserves and wrote the song about how the elite members of society made sure their own children never made their way to Vietnam. Like most great protest songs, it’s as relevant today as it was on the day of its release.
7. Bob Dylan, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’
In the early Sixties, most people knew “Blowin’ in the Wind” long before they had heard the name Bob Dylan. Peter, Paul and Mary turned the tune into a hit in 1963, and everyone from Sam Cooke to the Doodletown Pipers followed. It’s been translated into at least a dozen languages, featured in countless movies and played live over 1,200 times by Dylan alone. The songwriter has dropped almost all of his 1960s catalog from his current tour, but he still breaks out “Blowin’ in the Wind” every night.
6. Rage Against the Machine, ‘Killing in the Name’
Rage Against the Machine released “Killing in the Name” as their debut single in 1992, showing their unique fusion of rap and rock from the very start. It’s a furious song about racism, police brutality and defiance, culminating in a furious cry of “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.” It has the power to stir up a crowd like virtually no other song in human history, and it served as the final encore at what could very well go down as their last concert.
5. Barry McGuire, ‘Eve of Destruction’
Bob Dylan was mostly done releasing protest songs by 1965, creating a vacuum that Barry McGuire was all too happy to fill. His cover of P.F. Sloan’s “Eve of Destruction,” a tune originally presented to the Byrds and the Turtles, became a Number One hit. These were the early days of the Vietnam war, but the Cuban Missile Crisis was a very recent memory and there was widespread fear of a nuclear war. McGuire later turned towards Christian music, but he still performs “Eve of Destruction” at his gigs.
4. Bob Dylan, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin”
Bob Dylan’s old friend Tony Glover tells an amazing story about finding a draft of “The Times They Are A-Changin'” in a typewriter: “I said to him, ‘What is this shit, man?’ And he responded, ‘Well, you know, it seems to be what the people like to hear.'” Whether or not Dylan really wrote the protest anthem in a moment of cynicism, it remains one of the defining works of the 1960s. It was released weeks after JFK’s death and just a few months before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed. It was a time of tectonic cultural shifts, and Dylan summed it up in a three-minute folk song.
3. Buffalo Springfield, ‘For What It’s Worth’
Contrary to widespread belief, Stephen Stills didn’t write “For What It’s Worth” about Vietnam. He wrote the song in late 1966 out of solidarity with Sunset Strip hippies who fought the police over a potential new curfew. The song became Buffalo Springfield’s breakthrough hit, launching the careers of both Stills and Neil Young. Countless replays in movies and Time Life commercials may have slightly dulled its impact, but it remains a classic.
2. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, ‘Ohio’
Days after the Kent State massacre, Neil Young saw a photo of 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the dead body of college student Jeffrey Miller. He poured his rage and sorrow into the lyrics to “Ohio” and called his Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young bandmates into the studio the following day to record the new song. Even though “Teach Your Children” was all over the radio, the label rushed the finished product out, and it was playing over the air before week’s end. CSNY broke up just a few months later, making “Ohio” their furious final statement – at least until the many reunion tours.
1. Bob Dylan, ‘Masters of War’
The very week that Bob Dylan arrived in New York City, outgoing president Dwight Eisenhower warned the country about the dangers of the “military-industrial complex.” His words were largely ignored, and just two years later the world was even closer to nuclear war. Meanwhile, the arms industry was making a fortune and spreading money all over Washington, D.C. The situation enraged Dylan, and he funneled this anger into the caustic “Masters of War.” “I hope you die and your death will come soon,” he wrote. “I’ll follow your casket in the pale afternoon and I’ll watch while you’re lowered to your death bed and I’ll stand over your grave ’til I’m sure that you’re dead.” It’s hard to get much harsher than that.