Do you believe in the persuasive power of music? Marketing Assistant, Emma Palmer, introduces artist Ruth Ewans’s interactive jukebox on display in Art Turning Left at Tate Liverpool, and invites you to add to her playlist of protest songs 

Emma Palmer Ruth Ewan's Jukebox in Art Turning Left at Tate Liverpool

Emma Palmer trying out Ruth Ewan’s A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World in Art Turning Left at Tate Liverpool

Across the centuries people have recognised the power of music and as a result, it has continually been used as a tool of propaganda. From the incendiary rhetoric of a marching band that urges you to join the forces, to the rallying chorus of a football crowd and the witty chants of a protest rally, songs have always provided a platform for people to share their concerns about pressing economic, social and political issues that are so often swept under the proverbial rug by those in power. Adding a melody, catchy riff and poetic verse to your message seems to give an argument the power to persuade the ears to stop and engage; to listen in, take in and consider.

Artist Ruth Ewan has been researching and archiving protest songs from around the globe since 2003 and uploading them into her artwork A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World. Ewan’s jukebox now finds itself surrounded by a whole host of politically influenced international artwork, and provides visitors to Art Turning Left a soundtrack to their visit.  Where else can you listen to Johnny Cash, Black Sabbath, The Pixies or Woody Guthrie whilst taking in Jeremy Deller, Guerrilla Girls and The Hackney Flashers? Inspired by Ewan’s merging of genres, I have compiled my own protest song playlist.

This is by no means a conclusive list of all protest songs, rather, it’s my selection of suggestions from Tate Liverpool staff and songs I believe have held a powerful resonance. I’ve tried to choose songs that span different decades and genres, exemplifying just how diverse the protest song is. I hope you like it, and please do feel free to contribute to this playlist in Tate’s Spotify or by leaving a comment below.

You can listen to the playlist here with a Spotify account

1. Woody Guthrie — This Land is your land

Guthrie’s critical response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America, which Guthrie considered unrealistic and complacent

‘In the squares of the city/In the shadow of the steeple/Near the relief office/I see my people/ And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’/If this land’s still made for you and me.’

2. Public Enemy — Fight the Power

Written for Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing, the 1989 hip-hop song Fight the Power orders the listener to fight authority and carries the message of empowering the black community in America

3. Tom Robinson Band — Glad to be Gay

An attack on British society’s attitude towards gay people, Robinson criticises the police and their attacks and raids on gay pubs once homosexuality had been decriminalized since the 1967 Sexual Offences Act. Originally written for a 1976 London gay pride parade, the song was banned by the BBC and drills home the insanity of the violence. 

4. Billy Bragg — Between the Wars

Working-class pacifism as an alternative to gung-ho militarism

5. Billie Holiday — Strange Fruit

Strange Fruit is a poem written by teacher Abel Meeropol, as a protest against the lynchings of African Americans in 1930s America. Originally performed by his wife and the singer Laura Duncan, as a protest song in New York, it is Billie Holiday’s version that brought it to prominence

‘Southern trees bear strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.’

6. Gil Scott Heron — The Revolution Will Not be Televised

The song’s title was originally a popular slogan among the 1960s Black Power movements in the United States

7. Sam Cooke — A Change is Gonna Come

Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind inspired Cooke to take action. A Change is Gonna Come came to exemplify the 1960s’ Civil Rights Movement.  It was even paraphrased by Barack Obama in his 2008 victory speech.

‘There have been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long/but now I think I’m able to carry on/It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come.’

8. Edwin Starr — War

Dramatic and intense, Starr’s War depicts the general anger and distaste the anti-war movement felt towards the war in Vietnam

‘War! It ain’t nothing but a heartbreaker/War! Friend only to the undertaker/War! It’s an enemy to all mankind/The thought of war blows my mind’

9. Robert Wyatt — Shipbuilding

Written by Elvis Costello and Clive Langer about the Falklands War

10. Echo and the Bunnymen — All that Jazz

‘No matter, how you shake your fist/ You know, you can’t resist it’

11. Rage Against the Machine — Killing in the Name

Perhaps Rage Against the Machine’s most well known politically charged song (of which they have many), Killing in the Name was written about the revolution against institutional racism and police brutality. More recently the song was the focus of a successful Facebook campaign to prevent The X Factor winner’s song from gaining the 2009 Christmas number one

‘Some of those that were forces are the same that bore crosses’

12.  Johnny Cash — San Quentin

‘San Quentin, you’ve been livin’ hell to me/ You’ve hosted me since nineteen sixty three/ I’ve seen ‘em come and go and I’ve seen them die/ And long ago I stopped askin’ why’

13. The Special AKA — Nelson Mandela

Released as part of the anti-apartheid movement

14. Stiff little fingers — Wasted Life

‘They ain’t blonde-haired or blue-eyed/ But they think that they’re the master race/ They’re nothing but blind fascists/ Brought up to hate and given lives to waste’

15. Steve Mason — Fight Them Back

‘A weapon has been drawn upon your face/ Since you were born’

16. Patti Smith — People Have the Power

‘The power to dream / to rule/ to wrestle the world from fools/it’s decreed the people rule/ it’s decreed the people rule/LISTEN

17. Bob Dylan — It’s Alright Ma (I’m only bleeding)

The lyrics express Dylan’s anger at hypocrisy, commercialism, consumerism, warmongers and contemporary American culture

Money doesn’t talk, it swears,’ ‘Although the masters make the rules, for the wisemen and the fools’ and ‘But even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.’

18. Nina Simone — I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free

Simone’s 1967 recording of Dick Dallas and Billy Taylor’s song quickly became the anthem for the civil-rights movement

19. John Lennon — Imagine

I just had to include a song from a native Liverpudlian, and Lennon’s Imagine continues to encourage generations to imagine a world at peace without the divisiveness and barriers of borders, religions and nationalities, and to consider the possibility that the focus of humanity should be living a life unattached to material possessions. 

“Imagine there’s no countries/It isn’t hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too/ Imagine all the people/Living life in peace”

20. Bob Marley — Redemption Song

‘Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.’

Listen to the Art Turning Left playlist on Spotify

Listen to the protest songs of Ruth Ewan’s ‘A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World’ on display in ‘Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789–2013‘ at Tate Liverpool, until 2 February 2014