An infamous Mancunian once thought that if you played the acoustic guitar, it meant you were a protest singer. Whilst the playing of that instrument may not earn you the right to musical protestation, the artists featured below would in most part be likely to agree that the six-stringed instrument helps with the cause. Protest songs with an Americana flavour throughout the 20th & 21st Century have used as their topic matter such issues as civil rights, women’s rights, economic injustice, politics and war; though prior these many negro spirituals from the 19th century are seen as protests against slavery and oppression.
Not one of the tracks below are lost in their own time and space, they continue to speak to us directly about their specific issues but also about the human spirit of defiance and resistance to injustice:
Steve Forbert, Jack Hardy, Jill Burkee & Mark Dann ‘This Land is Your Land’
Originally penned by Woody Gutherie, the song was written as a protest against the vast income inequalities prevalent during the Great Depression but still has relevance and poignancy today. Forbert, Hardy, Burkee and Dann create an authentic harmonised version of this classic.
Peter La Farge ‘The Senecas: As Long as the Grass Shall Grow’
Recorded by Johnny Cash but originally written by La Farge, this is a beautiful song that tells of the loss of the indigenous Seneca nation land in Pennsylvania due to the construction of the Kinzua Dam in the early 1960s.
Rhiannon Giddens ‘At the Purchaser’s Option’
This song was inspired by a slave advert from the 19th Century which was selling a woman with a 9 month year old child which could be sold “at the purchaser’s option”. A powerful tale of exploitation, cruelty and human determination.
Che Apalache ‘The Wall’
A protest against US policy to central American Immigrants, Che Apalache who have created a blend of Bluegrass and Andean folk provide some wonderful harmonies on this track
Bruce Springsteen ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’
Inspired by the killing of Amadou Diallo by four NYC police officers who directed 41 shots at the Diallo, 19 of which struck him – he was unarmed.
Peggy Seeger ‘Agent Orange’
The Agent Orange defoliant used during the Vietnam war is estimated to have affected as many as 3 million according to the Vietnamese government. The victims also included US service personnel who were exposed to the substance and subsequently suffered from diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and several forms of cancer. Peggy Seeger does not make light of these facts.
Larry Estridge ‘Spirits of the Revolution’
Estridge was an activist of the left in the USA during the sixties but also briefly played with The Velvet Underground. This is a fabulous song that at times sound like Dylan but has a unique voice of its own: “We who are the spirits of the revolution, we will not fit in and we will not give in”
Barry McGuire ‘Eve of Destruction’
A song that was turned down by The Byrds, McGuire’s record was banned by many US radio stations as it was considered an aid to the ‘enemy’ in Vietnam. This was no single issue protest song, however; as well as featuring the Vietnam war as its subject matter, also included were the threat of nuclear war, civil rights and turmoil in the Middle East.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young ‘Ohio’
Becoming an anthem for sixties counterculture, Ohio is full of anger for the shooting of four students by Ohio National Guardsmen and for Nixon and his government. With the lyrics penned by Young, CSN added their parts and the recording was complete within a few takes.
The New Lost City Ramblers ‘How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?’
Tales of hard times during the American depression of the thirties are shared in this song which was recorded during the late fifties folk revival in New York.