Thursday, September 6, 2012

A Day of Protest

Protest Songs/Message Music: Part 1

Associated with a movement for social change, protests songs were often the soundtrack to the turbulent times of the 1960s. With the rise of the Civil Rights movement, the influence of counterculture groups (such as hippies), and the escalation of the Vietnam War, protest songs flourished, often promoting peace or revolution. So, looks like it's about time for a little 3-part series on this influential genre.

One of the key figures in the protest movement was Bob Dylan, who produced a number of landmark protest songs such as "Blowin' in the Wind" (featured here) and "The Times They Are A-Changin.'" While Dylan's era of protest music lasted for a short 20-month period (ending in 1964 when he changed his musical style from acoustic folk to an electrified, rock sound with personal, abstract lyrics), his prolific songbook about everyday injustices and tragedies was adopted by the Civil Rights and counterculture movements (not necessarily written for them). In 1963, Dylan and his then-singing partner Joan Baez had become prominent in the Civil Rights Movement, singing together at rallies including the March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. Written by Dylan in about 10 minutes (and inspired by a hotel check that refused to give him a room due to his unwashed appearance), here's Dylan and Baez performing "When the Ship Comes In" at that March on Washington, featuring other historic footage as well.
After hearing Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," R&B singer Sam Cooke was greatly moved that such a touching song about racism in America could have been written by someone who was not black. Written and recorded in 1963 (and released shortly after his death in late 1964), Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" became a sensation among the black community and became an anthem for ongoing civil rights protests. Although only a modest hit compared to usually light-hearted singles (like "Wonderful World" and "Another Saturday Night" both featured here), this song gained in popularity and critical acclaim over the decades, and is ranked #12 on Rolling Stones' "500 Greatest Songs of All Time." With a lush orchestration, here's the talented Sam Cooke reaching back to his gospel roots to sing the song with an intensity and passion never heard before on his pop recordings (no live footage, just audio with a photo montage).
A prolific protest songwriter in the 1960s (or "topical singer," as he preferred), Phil Ochs was known for being a harsh critic of the American military industrial complex and performed at many political events such as anti-war and civil rights rallies, student events, organized labor events, oh and Carnegie Hall. Released in 1965 on the album of the same name, "I Ain't Marching Anymore" is one of Ochs' best-known songs and was written as American involvement in the Vietnam War was beginning to grow. The song criticizes all of American military history from the perspective of a weary soldier who has been present at every single war since of the War of 1812. Bordering between "pacifism and treason" (according to Ochs), he performed this signature song during the protests outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention, inspiring hundreds of young men to burn their draft cards. Here's a rare instance where Phil Ochs actually performed this tune on live TV.

Originating in Berkley, California, Country Joe & the Fish was a rock band widely known for their musical protests against the Vietnam War from 1966 to 1971, and also regarded as influential on the psychedelic rock scene of San Francisco. Written by Country Joe McDonald in 1965, in supposedly less than 30 minutes, "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" (also known as "The Vietnam Song") was an anti-Vietnam protest song from the group's 1967 album of the same name. Beginning with the "Fish" Cheer, in which the band spells out 'F-I-S-H'  like cheerleaders at a football game (which you can imagine what other four-letter word this chant gave way to), the song's lyrics are a sarcastic invitation for young and able men to join in the Vietnam War. A ragtime-style tune similar to the 1920s "Muskrat Ramble", this song was never a big hit, but it was nevertheless well-known. Here's a live solo performance by Country Joe at Woodstock in 1969 (warning: the language is unedited in this clip). Not gonna lie, this catchy tune really gets stuck in your head!

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