Protest music has taken many forms over the decades, from the folk tunes of the early 20th century to more modern genres such as hip-hop and punk-rock. Its potential as an art form is expansive, bringing demands about war and violence, labor reform and unionization and even environmental consciousness straight to the masses — all in the form of a catchy, powerful tune.
This short playlist takes a trip into America’s past by highlighting some of the prominent protest singers of the early-to-mid 20th century. Most of the tracks featured here deal with unionization and specific labor demands, while others, specifically those from Black artists such as Nina Simone and Sam Cooke, call for solidarity and equality amid the civil rights movement.
It’s important to note that these songs, as artful as they may be, are not an aesthetic to be consumed, nor can they be expected to represent a complete and unimpeachable political manifesto in under three minutes. Rather, they’re best seen as living historical documents that allow us to access the frustrations and hopes of the so-called “common folk,” and remind us of the people who have fought — and continue to fight — against injustice in America. While the specific labor strikes mentioned in several of these songs have long since concluded, the legacy of solidarity and community lives on through the music itself.
Without further ado: Sit back, put on your thinking cap and get ready for some banjo music.
“Which Side Are You On?” by Pete Seeger
This bold tune recently took the spotlight in the first season of HBO’s “Succession,” but that’s not to say that its singer, Pete Seeger, needed any help with exposure. Originally penned by Florence Reece during a 1930s mining strike, “Which Side Are You On?” is one of Seeger’s best-known covers, showcasing the lively and sparse instrumentals that characterize most of his music. The lyrics are as straightforward as can be: “You’ll either be a union man/ Or a thug for J. H. Blair,” Seeger sings, bringing in a chorus of men to ask the titular question.
“A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke
Named the 12th greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone, Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” inspires and uplifts anyone who listens. Cooke captures the hope of the civil rights movement in just a few short verses, combining sweeping instrumentals and a gorgeous vocal delivery that puts the whines of other singers on this list to shame. The lyrics touch on his experiences in the Jim Crow South, but constantly repeated throughout the song is his conviction that “a change gon’ come,” an evocative refrain that resonates with listeners even today.
“Whatever Happened to the Eight Hour Day?” by Anne Feeney
It’s not Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” but it may be just as fun. “Whatever Happened to the Eight Hour Day?” is a jaunty, piano-laden tune from activist Anne Feeney that asks what workers are supposed to do when their jobs fail to provide a living wage. Feeney paints a somewhat comical portrait of modern life, describing how the constant need to work to survive leaves little time for basic necessities. “The kids need attention, the house is a mess/ Our marriage is buckling from all of this stress,” she sings, painting a rather bleak picture of American domesticity in just a few lines.
“We Shall Not Be Moved” by Mavis Staples
Like many of the songs on this playlist, “We Shall Not Be Moved” has a long and varied history. It’s been covered countless times with different names and different lyrics, and over its lifetime, it’s been a staple of both the civil rights movement and the labor movement — but no matter what form it takes, it remains a powerful declaration of freedom. This 2007 cover by Mavis Staples, though more recent than others, effortlessly captures that sense of power with Staples’ steady voice and an even steadier, marching beat.
“That’s What I Want To Hear” by Phil Ochs
Though he may not have the household recognition of Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs was an equally prolific folk singer and activist, known for his reedy voice and unique lyrics. “That’s What I Want To Hear” is a perfect example of this lyricism; it takes a serious approach to labor issues through the eyes of a not-so-serious narrator, poking fun at men who complain about their situation without taking any action. “Every bad thing that’s happened to you/ Has happened to better men,” he sings, and the cheerful, fast-paced flurry of lyrics leads to one conclusion: Unless you’re going to unionize, Ochs just doesn’t want to hear it.