Protest Songs and Social Movements

(an undergraduate communications paper I wrote in June 1976)

Picture for a moment a city located in America's deep South. The day is hot and bright and the streets are filled with people. Black, whites, workers and students are massed together, arms linked, swaying back and forth together and chanting "We Shall Overcome...". Singing, almost breathing in total unity, they march through the city shouting protests for racial equality and freedom.

Does this scene sound familiar? If you watched television during the 1960's you would have seen this event repeated many times in many cities. It is a good illustrative example or the power of music and its use in a social movement.

That era was witness to the rise of turmoil and social change in the form of demonstrations for peace and freedom, in "doing your own thing" and in bucking the establishment. This turmoil was reflected in the music, developing into the protest song which "...became a means of expressing personal disdain for the events of the early 60's."1 The music took on many forms ranging from hard rock to folk music. It is this latter form that is the most interesting because it was used by both the civil rights and antiwar movements.

Folk music was by no means new to social movements, as witnessed by the songs of the labor and union movements during the 1920 and 1930's. During the 1960's it was utilized again to aid in creating unity and strength in the development of the civil rights cause. Folk protest songs were also used by anti-war activists in developing unity, although not as effectively as they were in the civil rights movement. The purpose of this paper is to explore the reasons behind the difference.

Several writers in this field believe that the music of protest "...solidified the chain of commitment among followers..." and was a "...source of strength, unification and expression... "2 By examining the goals and the types of protest songs, the truth of these statements will be seen.

I. Types of Protest Songs

R. Serge Denisoff, a professor in sociology, provides an excellent analysis of protest songs and their purposes. The protest-propaganda song of persuasion was used to express social and political ideological concepts. More often than not, the medium was folk music which allowed for a focus to be given to the words of a song, while the music took a secondary supportive role. The five primary goals of the propaganda song are:

  1. pointing to some problem in society, usually in emotional terms;
  2. presenting a solution to that problem in terms of action and a desired goal;
  3. reinforcing the value structure of individuals involved with the movement;
  4. attempting to recruit individuals by arousing outside sympathy and support; and
  5. creating moral unity and uniqueness in its world view.
The result of these characteristics was the development of two distinct types of protest-propaganda songs. One fulfills these goals while the other only partially achieves them.

The first of the two types of protest-propaganda songs is called 'magnetic'. The magnetic song is the category that incorporates all five goals. It uses a situation-remedy format as seen in these examples from the civil rights movement: "The Berlin Wall" and "We Shall Overcome". The first song is about a police barricade that was set up its Selma, Alabama to stop the freedom marchers in that city. The barricade was nicknamed the "Berlin Wall" which identified it as an obstacle and as a problem to be solved. The song goes on to describe the "Wall" and how it will be broken through these words:

"Hate is the thing that built that wall...
Love is the thing that will make it fall..."
These words are sung to the old spiritual tune of "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" which aided in learning the song, because just about every black person in the South knew the melody.

The second song "We Shall Overcome" has simple lyrics that are repeated several times:

"We shall overcome...
We'll walk hand in hand...
We are not alone..."

Most of the songs of the freedom movement fall into this category.

The second category of protest-propaganda song is the rhetorical song. The rhetorical type of song only fulfills part of the five primary goals by simply pointing out a problem without offering a solution or generating some form of unity. Even though this type of song doesn't fulfill these goals it still must be considered a protest-propaganda song because it is an attempt to change public opinion about some subject or current event. This type of song usually has a negative attitude towards a social condition and most often uses the word "I" to set the singer apart from the audience or uses "you" to critically point a finger. In either case unity is not sought nor achieved. Consider "Masters of War" by singer-songwriter Bob Dylan:

"Come you Masters of War
You that build all the guns...
You that never done nothin'
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it's your little toy."

How does the the 'magnetic' and 'rhetorical' song type relate to social movements? Charles Larson, in his book Persuasion: Reception and Responsibility, offers a few suggestions to answer this question. 5 Larson discusses the five stages that a campaign or movement go through and provides useful criteria for the examination of these movements. The five stages are:

  1. Identity;
  2. Legitimacy;
  3. Participation;
  4. Penetration and
  5. Distribution.

These stages describe the development of a movement from its beginnings in public recognition, through the achievement of power, encouragement of support, "reaching the people", and the final end with the fulfillment of campaign promises once the movement achieves its desired goals.

The first stage, Identity, is where the protest song makes its mark. During this stage the uninformed audience is given something by which it can identify the movement. 6 People come to know and identify certain songs or slogans with that particular movement. The civil rights movement had "We Shall Overcome" as an anthem which not only identified the movement but also described its objective and goal.

Before any conclusions can be reached relating protest songs to the identity stage of a movement, specific examples of songs have to be considered and analyzed to see how these songs were persuasive discourses. Again, Larson is an excellent source for techniques. 7

II. Elements of Persuasive Discourse

There are four elements common to all persuasive discourse. Once these have been identified some of the more popular and well-known protest songs of both the civil rights and anti-war movements can be analyzed to discover either the presence or absence of these persuasive elements.

The first and foremost on the list is called the "Assumption of Similitude".8 Larson describes this as the feeling that "Human beings like to believe that they are not alone." The effective persuasion song lets people know there are others who feel the same as they do.

Secondly, songs have to be analyzed for their dramatic appeal. There are several questions that aid in the study of this aspect. Among them are: Does the song present an episode of life? Does the song arouse interest through little scenarios?

The third element is the presence of a value system and how it relates to the accepted American values. Some of these are the value of challenge, wisdom of the rustic and the possibility of success.

Finally, the fourth element is the overall functional purpose of the lyrics. Is the song unifying or pragmatic? That is, is it an attempt to inspire people onward or an attempt to change public opinion?

These four elements form the basis for judging whether or not a song can be defined as good persuasive discourse. Now, songs from both movements can be critiqued.

III. Song Analysis

A. Civil Rights Songs

Some of the more popular titles from the civil rights movement are:

Just by looking at the titles there is the faint presence of similitude. Note the heavy use of the word "we" and the "everybody" idea. A closer look at the words of Free At Last shows the similitude and unifying elements.

Free At Last

Old Satan's mad because we're glad
Thank God Almighty, we're free at last
He missed a crowd he thought he had...

The dramatic appeal of these songs exist in their subtlety. For instance, the song "The Berlin Wall" uses key words to describe the drama. As mentioned earlier the word "Berlin Wall" was used to describe a blockade made by police in Selma, Alabama, which in the latter days of the Cold War had a negative feeling attached with the word. When this song was sung to the tune of "Joshua Fit The Battle of Jericho" the singer was caught up in visualizing the Hebrew army singing and shouting until the walls of Jericho fell. This inspired them to feel the same about the "Berlin Wall", not only giving the singers a goal but also a small drama with which to relate.

The idea of a goal to be accomplished flows right into the presence values in the songs. This particular one is the possibility of success, a value which not only plays an important part in directing an audience but also gives them something to accomplish. Related closely to this value is that of challenge. This value embodies the myth that wisdom can be gained through testing. "We Shall Overcome" again is a good example. Though the words "we shall overcome" are somewhat vague they still carry a sense of trial and tribulation, almost says saying "no matter what lies ahead, we shall overcome all our obstacles".

The last and most important value contained in the civil rights movement is the wisdom of the rustic. This value is the ''jes' plain folks" answer that will win out over the sophistication of the bureaucracy every time. Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" clearly illustrates this value. Several soul searching questions that summarized the confusion and injustice of America during the 60's are asked in this song:

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
How many years can some people exist
Before they're allowed to be free?
All of these questions are answered simply by, "The answer is blowin' in the wind" which implies that if people stop fighting and killing they could hear all these answers and more just by listening to the ever-present, all-knowing wind that rolls off the plains.

It can be seen that the protest songs of the civil rights movement contained the four essential elements of effective persuasive discourse. As a result of the use of these elements, civil rights songs were effective in creating unity and strength in that movement.

B. Anti-War Songs

The songs of the anti-war movement differ greatly from those of the civil rights movement. Although some of the elements of persuasive discourse are present, they are not present in the same manner nor to the same extent as those of the civil rights movement. Songs like "Masters of War", "Lyndon Johnson told the Nation", "Strontium 90" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" contain some but not many of the elements of good persuasive discourse.

The principle of similitude is not present at all in these types of songs. These songs are merely rhetorical and lack answers to the questions they pose. However, there is a strong use of the dramatic in the anti-war songs. This seems to be about the only element of good persuasive discourse they contain. "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" is a scenario of the cyclic nature of man's ignorance. First the girls pick the flowers, then they take husbands who put on uniforms, and in turn end up in graveyards, which give way to flowers, that are picked by other girls and so on. The message itself is clear: humanity should learn from its past mistakes or be doomed to repeat them.

The presence of values in the anti-war songs is difficult to determine, since most of the songs attack the value accepted by Americans: hard work, success, wisdom of the rustic and value of the individual. Barry McGuire sings about the inconsistency of the American values in the song "Eve of Destruction". The song's overall theme deals with impending global extinction through the misuse of the nuclear bomb, which was invented as a result of this nation's work ethic and emphasis on success.

"The pounding of the drums the pride and disgrace...
Hate your next-door neighbor
But don't forget to say grace..."

Finally, unlike the civil rights songs, the overall function of most of the anti-war protest songs was pragmatic. They were attempts at changing public opinion without the use of inspiring messages. Thomas Phillips, a writer for the New York Times wrote,

"The one thing that is missing (from the anti-war songs) a song that could serve as a theme for the movement...the people in this movement have no goal in mind as inspiring as the emancipation of the working man... or the end of war in the abstract. They just want to end a national disgrace."9

In summary, songs can be used to create unity, strength and identity for a movement and its participating members. By utilizing elements of effective persuasion, songs such as those used by the civil rights movement, are able to unify people. They accomplish unity by creating a `we' feeling that appeals to the psychological need for similarity to other humans and by well-placed embodiments of American values. Identity, which is crucial to the development of a movement, is thus created.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke about the power of the persuasive song, saying:

"They invigorate the movement in a most significant way...
these freedom songs serve to give unity to a movement."10
This sentiment is supported by Larson's and Denisoff's more pragmatic evaluations.

  1. Denisoff, R. Serge, "Protest Songs: Those on the Top Forty and Those of the Streets", pp. 4.
  2. Korall, Burt, "The Music of Protest", pp. 36-39.
  3. Glazer, Tom, Songs of Peace Freedom and Protest.
  4. Dylan, Bob, Writings and Drawings.
  5. Larson, Charles, Persuasion: Reception and Responsibility, Chapter 7.
  6. ibid., p. 167.
  7. ibid., chapters 4 & 6.
  8. ibid., p. 77.
  9. Phillips, Tom, "Viet Nam Blues", p. 12.
  10. "Protest Movements: Class Consciousness and the Propaganda Song", pp. 228-247.

  • "A Content Analysis of Popular Lyrics", American Behavioral Scientist vol 14, Jan-Feb, 1971, pp. 389-400.
  • "Popular Music Since The 1920's: The Significance of Shifting Taste", American Quarterly XX, vol. 1, Spring 1968, pp. 67-85.
  • "Protest Movements: Class Consciousness and the Propaganda Song", Sociological Quarterly, vol. 9, Spring 1968, pp. 228-247.
  • "Songs Of Freedom", Look vol. 29, November 16, 1965, pp. 83-89.
  • "The Times They Are A Changin' - The Music of Protest", Annals of the American Academy of Social Sciences, vol. 382, March 1969, pp. 131-134.
  • "They Hear America Singing", Time vol. 82, July 19, 1963, p. 53.
  • Denisoff, R. Serge, Song's of Protest, War and Peace - A Bibliography and discography, Rev. Ed,
  • _____, Great Day Coming: Folk Music and the American Left, Illinois press, Urbana, 1971.
  • _____, "Protest Songs: Those on the Top Forty and Those on the Streets", American in Quarterly XXII, Winter, 1970, p. 4.
  • _____, "Songs of Persuasion: A Sociological: A Sociological Analysis", Journal of American Folklore, vol. 79, October, 1968, pp. 581-584.
  • _____, "Folk Music and the American Left: A Generational Ideological Comparison", British Journal of Sociology, vol. 20, December, 1969, pp. 427-442.
  • _____, "Pop Protest Song: Case of Eve of Destruction", Public Opinion Quarterly vol. 35, Spring, 1971, pp. 117-122.
  • Dylan, Bob, Writings and Drawings, Knopf Publishing, New York, 1973.
  • Glazer, Tom, Song's of Peace, Freedom and Protest, McKay Co., Inc., New York, 1970.
  • Korall, Burt, "The Music of Protest", Illustrated Saturday Review, vol. 51, November 16, 1968, pp. 36-69.
  • Larson Charles, Persuasion: Deception and Responsibility, Wadsworth Publishing Co., Belmont California, 1973.
  • Maskin, Karen and Thomas Volgy, "Socio-Political Attitudes and Musical Preferences", Social Science Quarterly Vol. 56, No. 3, December 1975, pp. 450-459.
  • Phillips, Tom, "Viet Nam Blues", Illustrated N.Y. Times Magazine, Oct. 8, 1967, P.12.
  • Rodnitzki, J. L., "New Revivalism: American Protest Songs 1945-1968", South Atlantic Quarterly vol. 70, Winter 1971, pp. 13-21.

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