Comparisons are often made between Vietnam and Iraq. (My favorite joke right now is “Vietnam is nothing like Iraq. Bush had a plan to get out of Vietnam.) One of the few comparisons that are completely invalid concerns the music industry’s response to the Iraq war. Maybe it has something to do with the industry’s blacklisting of the Dixie Chicks, or maybe it has to do with the severe decline in the quality of songwriters and performers, but when you compare the protest music during the Vietnam War era to the protest music during the Iraq war era, well, there is no comparison because aside from British singer/songwriter Billy Bragg and a handful of independent bands flying well under the radar of even satellite and college radio, there has been precious little protest music concerning the policies of the Bush government. This isn’t really surprising; there’s been precious little protest music in America since the 70s.
Like most revolutionary genres, protest music arose out of a response to unfair and exploitative labor practices. The first protest records sprang from the reaction to big business, also known as The Man or-as I and Homer Simpson prefer-Whitey, and the capitalist owners’ desire to get as much work as possible for the least possible salary and benefits. One of the first truly memorable and effective protest records grew out of the horrendous-still-exploitation of coal miners in America: “Hard Times in Colman’s Mines” by Aunt Molly Jackson. Of course, the most famous and probably misunderstood revolutionary protest song to grow out of the anger and depression caused by unfair labor practices was “Sixteen Tons.” This song became a monster hit for country singer Tennessee Ernie Ford. Of course, Ernie Ford softened the impact of the astoundingly socialist cry “I owe my soul to the company store.” However, if you rent Joe Versus the Volcano, you will understand better just why that song was a socialist anthem as well as a country music staple.
The godfather of protest music in America is, of course, the great Woody Guthrie. Woody’s protest music tackles subjects ranging from migrant workers to coal miners to war. The great irony of the life of Woody Guthrie is that his most famous protest song-a song that would be banned from country music stations today most likely if it were just now introduced-has been transformed into a jingoistic piece of mindless patriotism right up there with “Proud to be an American.” Perhaps the reason that “This Land is Your Land” is misunderstood is because it has changed so much from Guthrie’s original vision. We all know the opening lyrics of the song:
“This land is your land, this land is my land
From the Redwood Forest to the New York Island
The Canadian mountain to the Gulf Stream waters
This land is made for you and me.”
And we can easily identify with the patriotic pro-American sentiments. But let’s take a moment to wonder if children all across this great country would have been singing this song in school pageants for decades if they were to sing these original lyrics which, it must be said, as just as patriotically pro-America as those above:
“In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I’d seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?
As I went walking, I saw a sign there;
And on the sign there, It said, ‘NO TRESPASSING.’
But on the other side, It didn’t say nothing.
That side was made for you and me.”
And those lyrics are why Woody Guthrie may be the only true genius that country music ever produced.
It was the 1960s turmoil that really shifted American protest music into high gear, however. Not just Vietnam, of course, but also the explosion of the Civil Rights movement and the feminist movement and the gay rights movement. The two giants of this era were Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, but of course one can’t speak of this era of protest music without whispering such names as Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, the Smothers Brothers and, lest we also forget, the iconoclastic walking contradiction, Phil Ochs, a guy whose big hero was John Wayne, of all people.
Of course, what article about American protest music would be complete without a mention of a Native American protest song and what Native American protest songs are better than “My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying” or “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by the protest singer who may very well have the coolest name of them all: Buffy Sainte-Marie. Although actually more folkies than protest singers, the music of Simon and Garfunkel-mainly Paul Simon-probably have a place and certainly if nothing else the duo deserves mention for having an almost Beatles-like influence on others who followed in their footsteps.
These infamous artists of the 60s paved the way for such socially conscious musicians as Janis Ian and the truly stunning popularity of one of the most incredibly mainstream protest songs in history, Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman.” Can you imagine a song like that even being released as a single today, much less getting radio play, much less becoming one of the biggest songs of the year? No way. Couldn’t happen in this climate, despite the fact that this climate bears bizarre resemblances the climate in which it was originally released.
By 1976 protest music underwent its most remarkable change and, ironically, began its long slide into obscurity. Obscurity at least as it relates to radio play. Protest music was wrestled out of the domain of folk music, sped up and screamed during punk rock concerts. All the best punk rock is really just protest music, after all. Surely it cannot be simple coincidence that protest music became a lost genre on American radio at the same time it was co-opted by punk rock, which never received radio airplay.