Given the obvious atmosphere permeating the world right now, let’s revisit some perhaps overlooked protest songs.

‘It is music and dancing that make me at peace with the world.’ – Nelson Mandela

Mississippi Goddamn – Nina Simone

A jaunty, biting show tune song, ‘but the show hasn’t been written for it yet’. Written about the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the 16th Street Baptist Church Klan-led bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four young black girls, the fact that the single release of ‘Mississippi Goddamn’ was Nina Simone’s Carnegie Hall performance, played to a majority-white audience, is no mistake. A torrent of condemnation for futile activism (her backing band’s chant of ‘too slow’ are deliberately louder than the instrumentation), Simone deliberately toys with her indifferent audience, before striking them down in utter righteous fury.

Let Robeson Sing – Manic Street Preachers

Appearing on the Manics’ underrated almost-masterpiece ‘Know Your Enemy’, ‘Let Robeson Sing’ is an honourable tribute to a truly honourable man, Paul Robeson. Not only an excellent sportsman who boasted one of the most powerful voices in history, Robeson was a staunch activist against imperialism, fascism, and for Civil Rights, using his concerts as tools to advocate the refugee cause in the Spanish Civil War, became a member of the Council of African Affairs, attacked President Truman for his lax stance on lynching, and proudly celebrated the Soviet Union. Ruthlessly attacked by the state, ‘Let Robeson Sing’ has the perfect chorus line of ‘A voice so pure / a vision so clear’. Also check out their performance of this song in Havana, Cuba, 2001.

The Ghost of Tom Joad – Bruce Springsteen

 

Originally released in 1995 as a sombre acoustic ballad on the album of the same name, this live version with Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine (who recorded their own studio cover) elevates ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ to a rousing hymn. Yet despite the Morello-led electric guitar solos, the live version still retains the Woody Guthrie-influenced Dust Bowl spirit of the original. Springsteen recalls the eponymous hero of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, whose poor family of farmers are driven out of their Oklahoma home by the economic hardships of the Great Depression. While the song’s visions of railroad tracks and campfires allude to the period, its mentions of ‘highway patrol choppers coming up over the ridge’ alludes that poverty is eternal under capitalism. A haunting offering of solidarity towards desperation in desperate times, ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ is for all the down-and-outs and losers who are lost in these bullshit times.

Africa Unite – Bob Marley & The Wailers

Released on the ‘Survival’ album a year before the independence of Zimbabwe, ‘Africa Unite’ is a proclamation of Pan-African solidarity. Followed by Kwame Nkrumah (first prime minister of Ghana), Thomas Sankara (who would become president of Burkina Faso), Frantz Fanon (author of The Wretched of the Earth), Marcus Garvey (founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League), among many others, Pan-Africanism calls for a mass bond between all people under the African diaspora, going back to the African slave trade towards the imperialist plunder of the African continent that still exists today. The ‘Survival’ album’s militaristic aesthetic was a response to people who felt Bob Marley’s previous ‘Exodus’ and ‘Kaya’ albums lacked the political awareness of his earlier work. Here, Marley’s resonance is not only timely, but timeless.

All You Fascists Are Bound to Lose – Woody Guthrie

Recorded for a radio broadcast in 1944, Woody Guthrie’s short, inspiring song is as simple as he could make it. Played on his guitar infamously marked with the inscription ‘This machine kills fascists’, Guthrie believed it his duty to write anti-fascist, pro-worker songs. Self-stylising his lifestyle under the conscious influence of the legendary Joe Hill, songwriter for the Industrial Workers in the World, not only have Guthrie’s timeless songs drifted along the American folk canon, he too has immortalised many of the works of Joe Hill. Not only was Guthrie one of America’s finest songwriters, he was also a damn good man.

(It’s worth noting that the Guthrie’s landlord was Donald Trump’s own father.)

About The Author

Lee Whear

Young punk full of love, hoping they've got enough tobacco left when the revolution comes. Canterbury Christchurch University graduate, previous work has appeared in thnksfrthrvrw, Hitsville U.K., Bearded Magazine, and God Is In The TV Zine.