So I attended the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rider’s concert celebration in Prospect Park. And I saw Lou Reed lethargically sing “A Change is Gonna Come”. And I am now, at least politically, a fan of Toshi Reagon, and can recommend anyone with the opportunity to see Helga Davis perform to do just that.
Now I present you with the second half of the protest music mix How I Learned to Start Worrying and Love the Song:
7. Bright Eyes – Road To Joy
Beginning with the melody of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, Oberst’s “Road to Joy” quickly turns into an angry march against War. His shaky goat-like vocals bleat with indignation as he observes that “the city cemetery’s humming,” and with goat-like precision he sums up how “history gave modern man / A telephone to talk to strangers / Machine guns and a camera lens.”
8. Bob Dylan – Like A Rolling Stone (Live ’66 version)
Dylan, facing down a hostile audience of fustian folkies who fool-heartedly and sheep-herdedly believed that all electricity should be severed by Pete Seeger’s righteous axe, pauses for a moment after a particularly poetic ex-fan jeers and calls him Judas. He turns to his band, tells them to “play it fucking loud,” and snarls into “Like a Rolling Stone”, instantly turning that song into a protest against his own anachronous audience.
9. Leon Russell – Alcatraz
From the end of 1969 to the middle of 1971, Native Americans successfully took over and occupied Alcatraz Island. Citing the Treaty of Fort Laramie (which returned abandoned federal land to former Native occupiers), members of different tribes gathered to draw attention to the US government’s storied history of deceiving and impoverishing the Native American people. Many musicians initially helped aid the cause (CCR even donated a boat, named The Clearwater, to help ferry activists onto the island), and Leon Russell’s “Alcatraz” helped the movement voice its concerns and situation across the airwaves.
10. Willie Nelson – Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond Of Each Other
Maybe this isn’t technically a protest song.
11. Bruce Springsteen – John Henry
A labor movement anthem, “John Henry” depicts the struggle of the worker against the greed and inhumanity of the technologically-fuelled progress of capitalism. Although John Henry beats the steam drill, he dies from exhaustion, and his resulting death is now used to illustrate the need for companies to provide better care for their workers. In Springsteen’s version of this song, he includes a verse where, after John Henry’s death, his wife picks up where he left off:
Well, now John Henry
he had him a woman
By the name of Polly Ann
She walked out to those tracks
Picked up John Henry’s hammer
Polly drove steel like a man, Lord, Lord
Polly drove that steel like a man
12. Okkervil River – Singer Songwriter
This song reminds me of Williamsburg.
13. Billy Bragg & Wilco – Aginst th’ Law
A protest song about a city. Woody Guthrie must have had a hard time in Winston Salem. Here’s a list of all the things he found there that were against the law:
to walk, to talk, to loaf, to work, to read, to write, to be black/brown/white, to eat, to drink, to worry, to think, to marry or try to settle down, to ramble, to come, to go, to ride, to roll, to hug, to kiss, to shoot, to miss, to gamble, to roam, to organize, to build a home, to sing, to dance, to tell the trouble on your hands. “Everthing in Winston Salem is aginst th’ law.”
14. Nina Simone – Backlash Blues
Written by Langston Hughes, “Backlash Blues” is, like many of his other poems, a criticism, a lament, both angry and sorrowful, a warning, and a message that change is coming. Nina Simone emotively expresses these feelings note for note.
At the Freedom Rider’s celebration, Eric Mingus (son of Charles Mingus), put on a record of the Langston Hughes poem, “I, Too”:
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–
I, too, am America.
15. Gil Scott-Heron – Whitey On The Moon
After the Langston Hughes poem finished, Eric Mingus recited the words to Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. That song did not make it into this mix because I am slightly obsessed with “Whitey on the Moon.” It is simply clever and clever in its simplicity. Line by line, Gil Scott-Heron describes his community’s impoverished condition in contrast with the fact that “whitey” can afford to be “on the moon.” His sister Nell gets bit by a rat (while Whitey’s on the moon), he can’t afford to pay the hospital bill (but Whitey’s on the moon), and by the end of the song, he decides to send the bill “Airmail special to Whitey on the moon.”
16. Barry McGuire – Eve Of Destruction
A bombastic warning that foretells our approaching nuclear doom. Vague. Barry McGuire, who did not write the song, became a born-again Christian, and now includes new material when he performs it live.
17. Malvina Reynolds – Little Boxes
A satirical protest song against the conformity of suburbia. Also, the only reason why the word ticky-tacky became a well-known word.