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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