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Where have all the protest songs gone?

By Katrina Taylor

Whilst listening to the radio over the years I’ve noticed that the artists and song titles have changed, but, the themes still remain the same. Love whether it is lost, found or unrequited. Jealousy and revenge. Then there are the songs about being happy, sad, angry and all the other emotions in between. Songs about places near and far away. As well as those that are just for fun or about nothing at all. With the occasional novelty song thrown in for good measure.

But, I haven’t heard a protest song in a long time. Well, not a new  one anyway. The most recent one I can think of was from 2000, “Blow up the pokies” by the Whitlams. All the others that I have heard on the radio since the new millennium were in the charts in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s or even earlier.

Why is that? Is it because I’m not listening to the radio at the right time of day or to the right radio station/s? Have they disappeared completely? If not, then where did they all go to, and does anyone listen to them anymore? This started me thinking about protest songs- what makes a protest song and what is its purpose? When did protest songs first appear? Do they only belong to certain artists or genres?

When we think of protest songs most of us tend to think of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, a time of upheaval, significant social change, rowdy demonstrations often resulting in violence, strumming guitars and wearing flowers in your hair. But, protest songs didn’t start and end in these decades. The earliest protest song that I’m aware of is from 1939, “Strange Fruit” sung by Billie Holiday, referring to the hanging murders of African-Americans.

Was the Great Depression and pre-World War II, with worldwide poverty and political unrest, the birthplace of the protest song? Or did it start even earlier than that? An online search yielded evidence of protest songs from 18th century America. Anti-war was a popular theme as America fought for its independence from Britain. With songs like “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye” from Ireland and the American variation “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again.” I recognise the latter as I’d learnt it in grade 12 for a school production, but had no idea of its origin or meaning.

In 19th century America women’s suffrage, poverty and anti-war were common themes for protest songs. The Hutchinson Family Singers [Wikipedia] became well known from 1839 onwards for their abolitionist songs as they travelled from town to town. Of course, protest songs would not have been the sole domain of the new world. Each nation would have boasted its own collection of songs expressing their disapproval of and desire for change regarding social issues that were pertinent at the time.

Through the centuries protest songs were folk songs that members of a community sang amongst themselves. As people moved further away from their place of birth they took these songs with them. Such songs were either adopted by new communities or made their own like the example given above of “Johnny I hardly knew ye.” Groups of travelling singers and performers also carried songs to new audiences.

Songs spread even further afield in the late 19th century with the invention of the phonograph cylinder and record. Although it wasn’t until the 1920’s when the first regular radio broadcasts commenced that songs of all genres reached even larger audiences. The growth of radio, the record industry, live concerts and music videos exposed wider audiences to a more diverse range of music.

As a result, protest songs were not only heard by those associated with a particular movement or cause but, by the broader community. Thus providing a new vehicle for the raising of consciousness on a gamut of social issues both locally and internationally supporting worldwide movements.

During the ‘60’s, ‘70’ and ‘80’s many Australian radio stations played songs protesting, the Vietnam War, the experiences of Vietnam Veterans, nuclear disarmament, American Civil rights, Aboriginal land rights, environmental issues and Apartheid. Although, not all Australian radio stations played protest songs. On occasions certain protest songs were banned, such as in 1978 Cold Chisels’ “Khe Sanh,” about Australian Vietnam Veterans. Apparently it was banned due to sex and drug references. Was this the real reason or was it something else?

Not all protest songs are anti-war, pro freedom women’s rights or anti-racism. Midnight Oil, well known for their songs on nuclear disarmament, Aboriginal land rights and environmental causes also wrote songs on other issues. In 1990 the Oils released “Blue Sky Mine,” a song about the miners at the Wittnoom asbestos Mine in Western Australia who were suffering from asbestos related diseases. This was before the dangers of exposure to asbestos had made it into the public arena.

Protest songs have also been inspired by tragic events that have happened to someone the writer knew. Gary Kemp from Spandau Ballet wrote “Through the barricades” [released 1986] following the shooting death of one of the band’s roadies during the Northern Ireland conflict. Tim Freedman lead singer of the Whitlams penned “Blow up the pokies” [released 2000] after witnessing the destructive effect of gambling upon the life of the band’s former bassist Andy Lewis.

Protest songs have not only been the exclusive realm of established solo artists or bands. On occasions artists have come together to record a song in protest. For example, Artists United Against Apartheid recorded “I Ain’t gonna play sun city” in 1985 to protest against the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Over 50 artists contributed to its recording.

Finding protest songs that have been written since 2001 has proven to be quite a challenge. Why is that? Protest songs now seem to be more of a niche market rather than a mainstream one, with a more fragmented audience. Maybe, it is because the protest song’s role of increasing awareness and rallying people to action on social issues has been predominantly taken over by social media platforms such as Facebook and twitter.

You can search the internet for songs about a particular issue but, you won’t necessarily find them in the singles charts. As many people share songs and albums electronically or access them on music sharing platforms rather than purchasing them on itunes or on CD, so artists don’t see the need to release a song commercially to get their message across. Resulting in fewer modern protest songs making it into the singles charts.

For example, rapper J.Cole’s 2014 song “Be free” inspired by the shooting death of unarmed African-American teen Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, doesn’t appear in the singles charts as it was released on SoundCloud a music sharing platform.

Overall, there appears to be few if any modern protest songs that have made it into the singles charts. in contrast, the below protest songs made it into the singles charts in either Australia, the UK, the USA or Canada. Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” peaked at 33 in the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1975. “Through the Barricades” by Spandau  Ballet Peaked at 6 in the UK singles charts in 1986 charting higher than the other 2 singles released from the same album. Midnight Oils’ “Blue sky Mine” peaked at number 8 in the ARIA singles chart in 1990 and at number 7 on the RPM top 100 singles chart in Canada. “Blow up the Pokies” by the Whitlams peaked at 21 on the ARIA singles chart in 2000.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of articles or references out there about individual modern protest songs, with the exception of System of a Down’s “Boom” [2002], as its music video created controversy with its depiction of anti-Iraq war protests and war images.

As to the other modern songs I was seeking information on, “Nation of Heat” by Joe Pug 2008, “Somalia” by K’naan 2009, “Black rage” by Lauren Hill 2012, and “Paper Planes” by M.I.A 2007, I was only able to find basic information including lyrics. In comparison, I easily managed to track down numerous references and articles on the older songs that I have listed above along with their chart rankings.

As I was finishing this article [October 2017], I heard a new Australian protest song on the radio. It was featured on Radio National. The song was a collaboration between Shane Howard, the lead singer of Goanna and John Shuman the lead singer of Redgum. Both bands had songs in the charts in the ‘80’s about Aboriginal land rights and environmental issues. “Times like these,” is about how the fight for the environment is still ongoing but things really haven’t changed. It will be interesting to see how this does in the singles charts and if an Australian protest song still has a place in the charts.

Protest songs are still out there, but they are much harder to find. In order to seek them out you either, need to be concerned about a particular issue, into a particular artist or know where to look. You are far less likely to just happen to hear one on the radio than you once were. If modern protest songs are only preaching to the converted, then are they really making a difference?

1 Comment

  1. Great piece of writing. I learnt a great deal and found it very interesting. Thank you.

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