10 Really Great Protest Songs

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A Brief History

On December 8, 1980, John Lennon was shot and killed on the streets of New York City by a crazed fan.  Lennon, a former Beatle, was also a well-known advocate for world peace and had been vocal about his anti-war stance.  Many musicians, be they rock n’ roll musicians or even folk singers, use their music as a means of protest and to communicate their feelings about hot and controversial topics such as politics, war, racism, sexism, etc.  Here 10 protest songs are listed.  These were not all necessarily big hits or particularly effective, but they were all spectacular on some level.  

Digging Deeper

10. “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” Eric Bogle, 1972.

This song commemorates the horrific Gallipoli campaign of World War I where Australian and New Zealand troops were sacrificed in a vain attempt to seize the entrance to the Black Sea.  “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” is the lament of a soldier who has lost his legs for no good reason, and he knows it.

9. “Fortunate Son,” Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1969.

John Fogerty wrote this song to protest how the rich and powerful send other people’s kids off to war and generally avoid their civic responsibilities while demanding sacrifices from less fortunate people. Fogerty himself served in the Army Reserve..

8. “Zombie,” The Cranberries, 1993.

“Zombie” is one of many songs that protest the the British occupation of Northern Ireland and the violence there.  This one is about 2 young men who are killed by an IRA bomb.  Other artists who tackled this topic are Paul McCartney with “Give Ireland Back to the Irish,” John Lennon with “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and U2 with “Bloody Sunday.”

7. “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday, 1939.

Featuring the line “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,” this song protests the most egregious of the racist acts in America, namely lynching.  The Billie Holiday version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978 and has been honored by the Recording Industry of America and The National Endowment for the Arts.  “Strange Fruit” was originally a poem by a white, Jewish man, Abel Meeropol, a communist high school teacher from New York City.

6. “Universal Soldier,” Donovan, 1965.

Originally a Buffy Sainte-Marie song, the Donovan version of “Universal Soldier” was the major hit.  This is one of those “What if we had a war and nobody came?” type songs which blamed each individual soldier rather than of the politicians who send them to war.  It has a certain logic that appeals to well-meaning but perhaps naïve people.

5. “The MTA,” Kingston Trio, 1959.

Before The Kingston Trio adapted it, this song, also known colloquially as “Charlie on the MTA,”  first appeared in 1949 as a campaign song protesting a subway fare increase.  It has since become one of the core songs of Boston.  The Kingston Trio even later sang a rendition of it with then Governor Mitt Romney in 2004.  Because of this song, the Boston transit card is known as “The Charlie Card.”

4. “Ball of Confusion,” The Temptations, 1970.

An example of a psychedelic protest song, the fast-paced “Ball of Confusion” laments the state of American society and reached #3 on the pop charts and #2 on the R&B charts.  One question though: Who the heck is the “Great Googa Mooga?”

3. “Eve of Destruction,” Barry McGuire, 1965.

Sung with the rough, growling voice of Barry McGuire, “Eve of Destruction” hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, although amazingly it had been turned down by both the groups The Turtles and The Birds.  A personal favorite of the author, this song seems as relevant today as it did nearly 50 years ago.

2. “Blowin in the Wind,” Bob Dylan, 1963.

Written by Bob Dylan, but recorded by The Kingston Trio,  with the definitive version sung by Peter, Paul and Mary, “Blowin in the Wind” is ranked #14 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”  This song is the very essence of the American civil rights and anti-war movement.

1. “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” The Who, 1971.

If only all the revolution-prone countries of the world would listen to the great rock song “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” they would be just a bit more skeptical about the latest groups that come along promising change but in actuality seeking power.  Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.  If you think things cannot get worse, you are wrong!

Question for students (and subscribers): Please feel free to nominate other protest songs for inclusion in a sequel list.  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Lynskey, Dorian.  33 Revolutions per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, from Billie Holiday to Green Day.  Ecco, 2011.

Phull, Hardeep.  Story behind the Protest Song: A Reference Guide to the 50 Songs That Changed the 20th Century.  Greenwood, 2008.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.