One of the most idyllic pleasures of a summer spent in New York is the plethora of free outdoor concerts. Tonight I’ll be heading out to the Prospect Park Bandshell, where Celebrate Brooklyn hosts a season of diverse events that span the arts. This evening, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the freedom riders, musicians will perform covers of songs associated with the civil rights movement. A late addition to the lineup is Lou Reed (whom I have never seen in concert!), someone who has always struck me, both musically and lyrically, as a man who didn’t care much about much. On my mind’s stage, I am already trying to envision him singing a rousing a cappella “We Shall Overcome”.
Now, I’ve seen many a friend wince at the prospect of listening to even one protest song, so I present you with this mix (part 1 of 2) to assuage their protests and help them enjoy the music.
How I Learned To Start Worrying And Love The Song
1. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – This Land Is Your Land
The Protest Song. Woody Guthrie wrote this in response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”. Finding Berlin’s sentimental quixotic nationalism lyrically uninspiring, and concerned with its failure to address the concerns of struggling Americans, Woody Guthrie set out to proclaim his love for American geography and achievement, while at the same time pointing out its problems and reminding everyone that this land was made for you and me. If you remember hearing this song as a child and are puzzled by the idea that this is a protest song, consider some original verses that are frequently omitted from textbooks and grade school sheet music:
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;
This land was made for you and me.
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
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?
Sharon Jones makes this song danceable, and makes sure that everyone is included in “you and me”.
2. John Fogerty – Deja Vu (All Over Again)
A protest against war, both past and present. Unable to ignore the parallels between the Vietnam war and the war with Iraq, Fogerty wrote this song and performed it on the “Vote for Change” tour in 2004.
3. Arcade Fire – Rococo
A protest song against the hip(ster) pretentions of youth. While it is definitely unfair to diminish this song as merely a protest song, its well-aimed anger, mockery, and righteousness succeed in ridiculing the target. I had the pleasure of seeing (and being ridiculed by?) Arcade Fire last year, and when they sing “Oh my dear God what is that horrible song? / They’re singing / Rococo, Rococo…” to an arena full of people singing “Rococo…” it’s a thing to behold.
4. John Lennon – I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier, I Don’t Want To Die
John Lennon doesn’t want to be a soldier, and he doesn’t want to die. It’s that simple. Alternate possibilities for this slot included “Woman is the Nigger of the World”, a lament and wakeup call for the recognition of women as equals, and “God”, a protest of disbelief in everything…everything except John…Yoko and John.
5. Rasputina – You Don’t Own Me
A protest against women as possessable objects. An incredible song, it is sadly used far too often as a brief assertion of independence in an otherwise typically misogynist movie. Rasputina, however, can always be trusted to keep it right.
6. Paul Kelly – From Little Things Big Things Grow
It’s hard for me to write about this song without recalling the first time I heard it. An unknown-to-me Paul Kelly opened for the Waifs, and I was anxiously waiting for his unbelievably long set to end. This sentiment, I believe, was shared with most of the folks around me. But then he started playing this song… and everyone began to quiet and listen to the first verse. And By the time the chorus came (along with the Waifs, joining him on stage), I knew I would never forget this one. It tells the epically inspiring tale of Vincent Lingiarri and the indigenous Gurindji people’s strike, which became a catalyst that resulted in the Land Rights Act, returning portions of Australia’s northern territories to indigenous groups. “From little things, big things grow.”