David Byrne Curates a Playlist of Great Protest Songs Written Over the Past 60 Years: Stream Them Online

When you hear the words “protest song,” what do you see? Is it a folkie like Bob Dylan or Joan Baez delivering songs about injustice? Is it an earnest young thing with a guitar? Is it trapped in 1960s amber, while time has moved on to more ambiguity, more nihilism, more solipsism?

British writers–and may we add amateur folksingers–Jonathan Luxmoore and Christine Ellis made this lament over two years ago in the pages of The Guardian, in an opinion piece entitled, “Not talkin’ bout a revolution: where are all the protest songs?” Here they blame the immediacy of social media, the rise of aspirational hip hop, and the decline of radical politics. They end, presciently, with a Jeremy Corbyn-shaped hope for change. Well, look where we are now. Things developed rather quickly, did they not?

(And as a side note, I would suggest the 1980s as a way more protest-filled music decade than the 1960s. Because of the self-aggrandizement of 1960s curators, they claim more than they did. But nearly every pop, rock, r’n’b, and hip hop act of the ‘80s has at least one political song in its discography.)

Enter David Byrne, whose mission apart from his day job as a musician is to bring hope to the masses with a determined optimism. He’s here to say that the protest song never went away, only our definition of it. And he’s brought the receipts, or rather the playlist above, to prove his point:

…in fact, they now come from all directions in every possible genre—country songs, giant pop hits, hip hop, classic rock, indie and folk. Yes, maybe there weren’t many songs questioning the wisdom of invading Iraq, but almost every other issue has been addressed.

Stretching over six decades, the playlist demonstrates the various forms protest can take, from describing racial violence (Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout”) to bemoaning economic injustice (The Specials’ “Ghost Town”) and railing against war and conflict (U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, Edwin Starr’s “War”). Sometimes declaring the positive and gaining a voice is enough of a protest: you could argue that James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” did more for equality than any song about racism. Bikini Kills’ “Rebel Girl” does similar things for third-wave feminism.

But Byrne wisely gives voice to those who feel they’re swimming against any resistance tide:

I’ve even included a few songs that “protest the protests.” Buck Owens, the classic country artist from Bakersfield, for example, has two songs here. “Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer,” is a celebration of Americans who feel they are unnoticed, left behind. One might call it a populist anthem, but I think the reference to white socks is intentionally meant to be funny—in effect, it says: “we know who we are, we know how uncool white socks are.”

Look, it’s easy to believe that songs “changed the world” when they are easily accessible to hear decades later but the boots-on-the-ground marches and revolutionary acts from which they sprang are now just photographs, film reels, and foggy memories. But who can deny the gut punch of this year’s “This Is America” from Childish Gambino, the continued excellence of Killer Mike and/or Run the Jewels, and any number of songs that document our outrage? The songs of protest continue as long as there is injustice.

And in the case of David Byrne, covering a modern protest song and adding to its list of names, is what can keep an idea, a memory, and a feeling alive for a new audience. Here he is at the encore of his current tour, covering Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” a memorial to all the black lives killed by law enforcement.

“Here was a protest song that doesn’t hector or preach at us,” he said in an article for the Associated Press. “It simply asks us to remember and acknowledge these lives that have been lost, lives that were taken from us through injustice, though the song leaves that for the listener to put together. I love a drum line, so that aspect of the song sucked me in immediately as well. The song musically is a celebration and lyrically a eulogy. Beautiful.”

He also wisely asked permission to cover such a recent song, especially when it’s an older white man lending his voice to it. But Monae gave her blessing:

“I thought that was so kind of him and of course I said yes. The song’s message and names mentioned need to be heard by every audience.”

Related Content:

When South Africa Banned Pink Floyd’s The Wall After Students Chanted “We Don’t Need No Education” to Protest the Apartheid School System (1980)

Tom Waits Releases a Timely Cover of the Italian Anti-Fascist Anthem “Bella Ciao,” His First New Song in Two Years

Hear a 4 Hour Playlist of Great Protest Songs: Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Bob Marley, Public Enemy, Billy Bragg & More

David Byrne Creates a Playlist of Eclectic Music for the Holidays: Stream It Free Online

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (21)
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  • Gerald says:

    Not a fan for a few reasons. First, politicizing art tends to cheapen it. Second, pop songs are generally very simplistic and rely — as I suppose they must — on emotional appeals, rather than the complicated analysis that is actually needed to address difficult political problems.

  • Laura McShane says:

    Thank you for compiling this – sharing with Wonder Ground site for teachers – at Wonderopolis. Libraries in Cleveland, Ohio are working with curriculum developed by the Rock Hall – Fight the Power.

  • Jerry Dingus says:

    Rallying the people to the awareness of problems – a very noble cause – and to do it with song – wonderful.

  • John says:

    Art IS political. Always has been.

    One of the functions of art is to reflect life. Artists do not live in a vacuum. They as political. They have opinions.

    Quite frankly, Gerald, I consider your opinion facile.

    I suspect Beethoven, Picasso and Goya would too.

  • Catherine Schwalbe says:

    Rock on John.
    When one has the mic, one should use it.
    Artists of all kinds, reflect their world. It can change people, one human at a time.
    Art in the time of war, gives me hope, against all odds.

    Peace out people.

  • chance says:

    Which artist is that in the picture with the banjo?

  • Bodacious says:

    Completely disagree. Art has ALWAYS been political, and rather than cheapen it, history over the centuries has shown that it elevates art. To attempt to dismiss art by derisively calling them “pop songs” and suggesting they only rely on “emotional appeals”, betrays truly limited understanding.

  • Ilsa Hesse says:

    Art is at it’s best when it is in reference to social issues.
    where it be Francisco Goya’s 3rd of May 1808, or the photograph of John-John saluting his father’s casket, or even Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy”

  • Frankie D. says:

    The USA Singers have made the greatest protest album of all time. It’s called “The Orange Album”, and it is conceptual, satirical tour de force which tells the unsavory tale of Trump’s rise to the presidency using the diversity of American musical styles as the sonic backdrop to tell this sordid story.

    Here are the 1st 3 singles:

    My Casinos

    Bigly Hands

    Border Wall

  • Andri Sigurdsson says:

    Politics is life, how can you make are void of it? This is a neoliberal idea that we will look at in the future and laugh our asses off. More music, more politics, more justice.

  • Diane says:

    The artist is Kaia Kater.

  • Kevin Gwin says:

    Eye roll. Artists don’t have to, nor do they try, to solve political problems. Art is the recording of personal experience or perceptions. It does not have to be complex to convey a message, whether it’s anger, sadness or just experience, it is art, you don’t have to enjoy it, but many do.

  • Liz Larin says:

    Being an artist, is by itself, an act of rebellion. Being an artist is political first day, first step. Don’t get artists confused with entertainers. David Byrne is and has always been, an artist first.

  • Joy Dellas says:

    I might be overlooking something…but it would be great to see a list of the different artists. Is there one?

  • Claudia Dreifus says:

    Dear Open Culture Curators:

    I notice that on your list of great speeches, you include only one female voice–that of Toni Morrison. What gives? CLAUDIA DREIFUS

  • Rock Alien says:

    Where’s the list? Can’t I click on anyone I want? I’m confused.

  • Beryl Handler says:

    I sure hope you’ve got some of Phil Ochs powerful tunes included.

  • Donna Webb says:

    Scientists, politicians and those interested in social change often have reasonable and articulate ways of talking about issues and information. People are moved however by poetry, music, film, painting and sculpture and other arts. I love to see artists involved with great idea and many are.

  • Baptiste says:

    very inspiring, I think being an artist is a protest in general but songwriting can move people to the streets ! Here are a couple I have written myself


    Thank you for your good work open culture !

  • Vance Gillgren says:

    Every drop of rain contributes to the River of Life.

  • Stephen Hyder says:

    Bruce Hornsby and the Range, That’s Just the Way It Is.

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