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
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. Ewans 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 Ewans 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
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 Lees 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 societys 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 Holidays 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
Dylans 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, Starrs 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 Machines 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, youve been livin hell to me/ Youve hosted me since nineteen sixty three/ Ive seen em come and go and Ive 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 aint blonde-haired or blue-eyed/ But they think that theyre the master race/ Theyre 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 — Its Alright Ma (Im 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
Simones 1967 recording of Dick Dallas and Billy Taylors 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 Lennons 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 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