Protesting through music has a long tradition in the United States. Many associate this type of protest with the baby boomers’ 1960s movement against the war in Vietnam. Songs like Country Joe and the Fish’s “Vietnam Song” called for a pullout of American troops from the “undeclared and illegal war” in Southeast Asia. Part of its sarcastic lyrics goes: “And you can be the first one in your block to have your boy come home in a box.” Blues rock and folk rock hit the charts in a big way during the turbulent 1960s, making huge stars out of singers such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, to name just a handful.
When it comes to the blues, however, we can trace protest songs all the way back to slavery days. A pre-Civil War standard was “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” a song whose lyrics explained how to escape from plantations by following the North Star. It later became an anthem in the 1960s civil rights marches by African Americans seeking equality. Antebellum songs of protest often evolved from prisons located mostly in the South.
“Prison laborers in the southern states, the majority of whom were African American and replaced slave labor after the Civil War, sang songs that complained about their plight. Work songs protesting prison conditions demonstrate the emergence of blues, such as ‘We Don’t Have No Payday Here,’ sung by a group of convicts at Raiford Penitentiary in Florida. In another recording of a work song sung by prisoners at the same penitentiary, ‘Take This Hammer,’ the first person character of the song not only complains about the work, but boldly says that he will flee. The ‘blues’ quality is especially strong in this song, though it retains the qualities of a work song. Huddie ‘Lead Belly’ Ledbetter later made a hit recording of a version of this song, which he had learned in prison,” claims “The Blues as Protest” article on the Library of Congress Website.
The same article says: “In addition to work songs with a blues sound, prisoners also sang and played blues songs not used for work. ‘I Don’t Do Nobody Nothin’,’ led by C.W. ‘Preacher’ Smith with unidentified singers at Cummins State Farm in Arkansas, has qualities of both spirituals and blues. The song’s complaint about being unfairly hated also seems to make it an ancestor of songs of the Civil Rights Movement. Another example is ‘I Heard What You Said About Me,’ sung and performed on guitar by Allen Reid and recorded in Raiford Penitentiary. The narrator in the songs complains of being falsely accused and of labor in dark mines, which were among the places with the worst working conditions for prison laborers.”
Perhaps the most famous example of these 1930s blues protest songs is Lead Belly’s “The Bourgeois Blues,” in which he sings (in prison):
“Home of the brave,
land of the free
I don’t wanna be mistreated by no bourgeois
Lord, in a bourgeois town
Yee, the bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
I’m gonna spread the news all around.”
It is no accident that protest songs evolved into the political arena. After all, the Great Depression was raging and millions of Americans were out of work. Many rode the rails as hobos headed for migrant jobs in California. It was from these nightly gatherings of displaced workers called “hobo jungles” that many protest songs emerged. One of the most famous migrant singers was Woody Guthrie (son is Arlo) from Oklahoma, who performed protest songs on KFVD in Los Angeles starting in 1937. Guthrie performed such songs as “Talking Dust Bowl Blues” and “Dust Bowl Refugees” but his audience was limited since the only available media then was radio, which was relatively new.
Television did not get started until after WWII. It played a leading role in the anti-war protests on the 1960s by bringing the war directly into the living rooms of every American. Protest singers in that era found they could reach much wider audiences through TV. One particular song adopted by marching African Americans then was “We Shall Overcome,” which derived from a still surviving center of 1930s radicalism, the Highlander Folk School in Grundy County, Tennessee.
“Despite the South’s reputation as a conservative region, both protest activities and protest music have flourished at various times in its history. Indeed, southerners have played vital roles in the shaping of the protest genre in this century,” concludes The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. And many of the contributions to this genre came from blues players, such as Lead Belly, Josh White and Vern Partlow.
Lead Belly sings “Bourgeois Blues”