Archives Experience Newsletter - March 21, 2023
A Protest Playlist
In 1993, the year the Foundation was established, the #1 song on the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 list was “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston. How about the year you were born? Or (if applicable) your children, or even your grandchildren? For every generation or era in American history, there are distinctly different sounds, moods and messages.
If we took a bird’s-eye view of the chart-topping hits throughout our history, we’d probably get a pretty good handle on the pulse of the nation. But wherever there’s mainstream art, there’s also counterculture, and music is an especially strong medium through which to channel historic events that have led to grief, anger, and protest.
Join us this week as we explore records of the soundtrack of our history.
In this issue
Lift Every Voice and Sing – Artist: James and Rosamund Johnson
This Land Is Your Land – Artist: Woody Guthrie
We Shall Overcome – Artist: Reverend Charles Albert Tindley, as sung by Charleston Cigar Factory Workers
Where Have All the Flowers Gone – Artist: Peter Seeger
Strange Fruit – Artist: Billie Holiday
We Shall Overcome – Artist: as sung by Joan Baez
What’s Going On – Artist: Marvin Gaye
Born in the U.S.A. – Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Fight the Power – Artist: Public Enemy
Glory – Artist: John Legend and Common
Lift Every Voice and Sing
Black singers and songwriters have produced many protest songs over the past century. Black soul singers have been singing about the mistreatment of Black people by authority figures for years—“Joe Turner Blues,” a song about an evil white sheriff who wrongly incarcerated Black men that originated in the late 1800s is a case in point. This is a theme that continues to resonate in protest music to the present day.
In 1901, in New York City, James Weldon Johnson, the Black American writer and civil rights activist, wrote a poem titled “Lift Every Voice and Sing” that his brother, J. Rosamund Johnson, set to music. The lyrics speak of the Exodus from slavery, the dark past Black people in America had experienced and the bright future they anticipated. The song spread like wildfire—within just a few years, people everywhere, but particularly in the South, were singing it. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) adopted the song as the “Negro National Anthem” in 1919.
The same year that the Johnson brothers composed their song, a gospel hymn by the Reverend Charles Albert Tindley of Philadelphia titled “I Shall Overcome Someday” was published. Tindley’s song is believed to be the lyrical ancestor of the famous protest song and civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” The contemporary version of the song first rose to prominence when striking workers at the Charleston Cigar Factory in South Carolina sang “We Shall Overcome” on the picket line in 1945. The song was published in 1947 under the title “We Will Overcome” in the People’s Songs Bulletin, a publication of People’s Songs, an organization Pete Seeger directed.
Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit” graphically depicts lynched Black men hanging from trees. It was written by Abel Meeropol, a first-generation American born to Jewish Russian immigrants in the Bronx. Holiday performed it on a darkened stage with a single spotlight illuminating her figure. When she finished it, she left the stage in total darkness. It became a huge hit, but the U.S. government was incensed and proceeded to frame her for possession of heroin. They succeeded in getting Holiday sent to jail and stripping her of her cabaret license.
Having heard Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” singer Sam Cooke felt ashamed that he had not addressed racial discrimination himself. He responded by writing “A Change Is Gonna Come” in 1964, a song that has since been adopted by the Civil Rights movement and many political campaigns.
James Brown’s “Say It Loud” (1968) remains a defiant anthem of Black pride. Marvin Gaye, who was not considered a particularly political figure in the music industry at this time, recorded the seminal song “What’s Going On” in 1971, a tune that challenged police brutality and the escalation of the Vietnam War.
In the 1970s, hip hop music originated in New York City as part of a larger cultural phenomenon. A subset of hip hop music, rap music, developed a protest element that aggressively denounced police violence, epitomized by recordings such as Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” (1989).
One of the more recent protest songs is John Legend and Common’s “Glory” (2014), written for the motion picture “Selma,” which won the Academy Award for Best Song that year. The song features Legend playing the piano and singing, Common rapping and a choir providing back-up vocals.
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was one musician who made a career out of writing and performing protest songs. Born in 1912 and raised in Okemeh, Oklahoma, he married young, but when the Dust Bowl era began there, Guthrie left his wife and three kids and migrated to California looking for work. There he began playing his guitar and singing for money, made friends with prominent socialists and communists like Will Geer and John Steinbeck and set himself on the path that he followed for the rest of his life.
Notable Guthrie protest compositions include “This Land Is Your Land,” which he wrote in response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” because he was tired of hearing it played on the radio continuously; “Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” composed after 28 migrant farm workers died in an airplane crash while they were being deported back to Mexico; and “Ludlow Massacre,” written about a mass killing of strikers by a militia in Ludlow, Colorado, in 1914.
Despite his close friendships with many members of the Communist Party, Guthrie was never a member. He often said, “I’m not a Communist, but I’ve been in the red all my life.” Still, there was no doubt about where he stood in political matters: his beat-up guitar bore a label that read, “This machine kills fascists.” Guthrie profoundly influenced many musicians who came after him, including Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Bruce Springsteen.
Peter Seeger was an American folk singer whose music first hit the radio waves in the 1940s and was still popular throughout the early 1950s. An early devotee of Guthrie and the blues singer Huddie Ledbetter, known as “Lead Belly,” Seeger began to affiliate himself with civil rights, workers’ rights, international disarmament and environmental causes in the 1960s. He wrote “If I Had a Hammer” with Lee Hays, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” and helped popularize “We Shall Overcome” as a protest anthem. His membership in the Communist Party cost him considerable commercial success, but Seeger never backed down from the causes he believed in. Dozens of artists have acknowledged his influence on their musical approach.
A musician whom Pete Seeger influenced very early is Joan Baez, whose aunt took her to one of Seeger’s concerts when she was 13. Baez had learned to play the ukulele a few years prior, and she then began playing and singing Seeger’s songs, first at home and soon in public. From that point onward, Baez has aligned herself with activist causes, including the anti-Vietnam War movement; the Civil Rights movement; prison and death penalty reform; environmental causes; and LGBTQ rights. She has particularly affiliated herself with the song “We Shall Overcome,” which she sang at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C.
Perhaps the best-known artist currently working in the protest genre is Bruce Springsteen, who has been actively recording such songs as “Born in the U.S.A.,” “Johnny 99,” “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” “Seeds,” “Promised Land” and “My Hometown” for more than half a century. Springsteen has depicted the drying up of manufacturing jobs in the U.S., the plight of American veterans—especially Vietnam veterans—the difficulties of American blue-collar workers, the decline of Rust Belt towns, police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement.