Some of the world’s most trying and noteworthy times have yielded important music whose aim is to capture revolutionary moments, condemn injustice, and raise hope for change in the future. As Folk Singer Phil Ochs once said, “one good song with a message can bring a point more deeply to more people than a thousand rallies.”
Indeed, it has become clear over the years that music has the power both to epitomize a cultural milieu and shape important historical moments. A very recent example of this is the 2014 Grammy Awards, which featured a fully-fledged wedding officiated by none other than Queen Latifah. To the recent same-sex marriage anthem “Same Love” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis featuring Mary Lambert, thirty-three hetero and homosexual couples were wed. Although, certainly, there is more work to be done on this human rights issue – as well as many, many others – this event represents one of many efforts at fusing music culture and political activism to the benefit of many.
While the music industry has undergone significant change over the years, their power for positive change remains. The rise of globalization has catalyzed the ability to share music across the globe with incredible speed and ease. The development of large-scale music videos also presents a new and more dynamic way to portray musical messages with an additional visual punch. The following is a brief survey of these types of songs, ranging from the 1930s to 2012. Though these are only ten examples, there have been thousands of songs over the years that have been, ahem, instrumental to historical movements all around the globe.
10. “Strange Fruit” – Billie Holiday (1939)
Before it became a song, “Strange Fruit” was originally written by a teacher named Abel Meeropol as a poem. The powerful lyrics detail the extremes of American racism, particularly the act of lynching. This practice occurred primarily in the South but was present in other regions of the United States as well. “Strange Fruit” is most famously performed by Billie Holiday, who first recorded it in 1939. In 1978, Holiday’s version of the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. The song has been covered by numerous other artists, and has been the inspiration for novels, poems, and other creative works. In 1999, Time magazine called it the song of the century.
9. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” – Bob Dylan (1964)
Dylan’s classic song gives an account of the death of the black 51-year old barmaid at the hands of white William Zanzinger, a young tobacco farmer from Charles County, Maryland. It is a commentary not only on this specific incident but also on the blatant racism and societal injustice that this case represents. The crime this song details took place in 1963 in the still-segregated Charles County. An intoxicated Zanzinger beat Carroll with a toy cane and verbally abused her. Only hours later, Carroll died in Mercy Hospital of a brain hemorrhage. Zanzinger’s charge was reduced from murder to manslaughter based on the assumption that it was Carroll’s stress reaction – rather than blunt-force trauma from the blow to her head – which led to her death. Zanzinger served only six months in a comparatively safe county jail 70 miles from the scene of the crime. Curiously, Zanzinger’s sentence was given to him the same day Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington. Dylan, 22 at the time, read about the Hattie Carroll case and composed this song, which he continues to perform in concert to this day.
8. “A Change is Gonna Come” – Sam Cooke (1964)
“A Change is Gonna Come” is a single by the R&B singer-songwriter Sam Cooke; the song was written in 1963 and was released as a single shortly after his death in late 1964. This song soon came to represent the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Over the years, the song has gained popularity and even made it to #12 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The song is often thought to have been a reaction to an incident in Shreveport, Louisiana where Cooke and his band tried to register at a ‘whites-only’ motel and were arrested for disturbing the peace. Cooke is commonly known as the ‘King of Soul;’ his contributions to the genre paved the way for many other prominent figures such as Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder.
7. “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” – Phil Ochs (1965)
Phil Ochs is known as an American protest singer and songwriter famed for his strong sense of humanism, political activism, and sardonic humor, all of which are translated into his music. His song “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” directly attacks failures to comply with civil rights laws in Mississippi. The injustice in Mississippi was indicative of the kind of corruption in the South during the 1960s. One line memorably states, “when the black man stands accused the trial is always short.” Ochs directly mentions the Klu Klux Klan, calls elected officials “criminals posing as mayors of the towns,” and repeats the song’s central message: “Mississippi find yourself another country to be part of.” Many people deem Ochs’ ballads protest music, though Ochs gave himself the title of a “singing journalist.”
6. “War” – Edwin Starr (1970)
“War” is a counterculture anti-Vietnam War protest song written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong in 1969. Whitfield first produced the song with The Temptations, but later re-recorded it with Edwin Starr after the label decided to withhold the Temptations version so as not to alienate conservative fans. Starr’s version of the song quickly became a number one hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1970, and became one of the most popular protest songs ever recorded. Big names like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Joan Osborne have since covered the song, which has proven applicable in any era.
5. “Imagine” – John Lennon (1973)
This famed song was written and performed by Beatle and English musician John Lennon on his solo album, “It’s So Hard” (US) or “Working Class Hero” (UK). The lyrics ask the listener to imagine a world freed from class, religious, or political boundaries; it also encourages people to become less attached to material possessions. It is ultimately a call for world peace. One month after the release of his LP, Lennon released “Imagine” as a single in the United States; the song hit number three on the Billboard Hot 100, and the LP reached the top spot on the UK charts only a few months afterward. Lennon himself once said of the song that it is “virtually the Communist manifesto, even though I’m not particularly a Communist.” It was written in 1971 during the Vietnam War, though its message encouraging tolerance and equality is no less relevant today.
4. “Get Up Stand Up” – Bob Marley (1973)
This iconic song is a reggae song written by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. The song originally appeared on The Wailers’ 1973 album “Burnin’” and was played live in many versions by Bob Marley & The Wailers. While touring Haiti, Marley was extremely moved both by the lives of the Haitians and the extreme poverty they faced; according to his then-girlfriend Esther Anderson, this is what inspired him to write this song. As with many of these songs, “Get Up Stand Up” still holds relevance in the modern world where inequality and human rights violations still abound. It has been covered by a myriad of other artists.
3. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” – U2 (1983)
“Sunday Bloody Sunday” is the opening track from U2’s album War, and is one of the rock group’s most overtly political songs. Its lyrics relate to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, focusing on the Bloody Sunday incident in the county of Derry where British troops shot and killed many unarmed civil rights protesters who were there to rally against internment. The song has remained one of the band’s staples in concert and is considered one of U2’s signature songs. The band was nervous about how the song would be perceived when they played in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Bono promised that he would “never play it again” if the crowd didn’t like it. However, the overall reception of the song was good; yet, Bono still introduced the song for a number of performances with the disclaimer” “this song is a not a rebel song.”
2. “American Idiot” – Green Day (2004)
This punk rock anthem is the title track from Green Day’s album “American Idiot.” The song was released in August of 2004 to mostly positive reviews by critics and four Grammy nominations. The song criticizes America circa 2004 in the midst of the Bush Administration and the growth of the “new media,” which comes under fire in this song. In a 2004 interview with Q magazine, members of Green Day even discussed flag desecration in relation to their song, saying that they would support it. “American Idiot” was ranked the number 13 Single of the Decade by Rolling Stone in 2009; Stone also placed it at 432 of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time in 2010. The album ‘American Idiot’ has since been adapted as a hit Broadway musical.
1. “Same Love” – Macklemore (2012)
Although “Same Love” is a recent addition, the song’s popularity and political message are sure to land it in the ranks of politically significant songs. The track is the fourth single released by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis from their 2012 album, “The Heist.” The track also features Mary Lambert and discusses the issue of gay and lesbian rights. It was recorded during the campaign for Washington Referendum 74, which legalized same sex marriage in Washington state. It was most recently nominated for a Grammy for Song of the Year at the 2014 Grammy Awards.
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