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We Protest: Boomers Knew Great Protest Songs

Recent protests around the world, coupled with the Occupy Wall Street actions cropping up around the country in the past few weeks, has triggered Mister Boomer’s memories of protest marches in the Boomer Age. One thing that appears to be missing from the current spate of demonstrations is music; in our boomer years, music and protests were inextricably linked. Music was written specifically to address issues of concern for protesters, or adopted for relevant content. All the major protestations of our time were included: the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Liberation Movement, Environmental Movement, and of course, the Vietnam War.

So, pick up your sign, pack your gas mask and acoustic guitar, hop on the bus and see how many of these protest songs — and songs picked up by protest groups — you can recall.

Civil Rights
We Shall Overcome: This song had its origins in gospel music, possibly dating as far back as 1901. Through the years, lyrics were adapted and altered, and mixed with the melody of another spiritual. As a result, We Will Overcome was first published in 1947 in a publication that was directed by Pete Seeger. He was taught the song, and, beginning in 1959, along with folk singer Joan Baez, helped make the version we know today the most well-known anthem of the Civil Rights Movement by singing it at rallies and demonstrations.

Blowin’ In the Wind: Written by Bob Dylan and first published in 1963, Mr. Zimmerman has said he adapted the melody from a Negro Spiritual called No More Auction Block, and the lyrics were inspired by a passage from Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory. Though considered a general peace and freedom song, it was most identified with the Civil Rights Movement.

A plethora of 60s musical stars recorded the song, starting with Peter, Paul and Mary. The Kingston Trio, The Hollies, Jackie DeShannon, The Seekers, Sam Cooke, Etta James, Elvis Presley, Bobby Darin and a host of others recorded the song. Stevie Wonder had a Top 10 hit with it in 1966.

Women’s Liberation Movement
I Am Woman: Co-written by Helen Reddy and Ray Burton, the song was first published in 1970. It became a number-one hit when Reddy recorded it in 1972, the same year Gloria Steinem published the first stand-alone issue of Ms. magazine. The song became a hit after Reddy had performed it on over a dozen TV variety shows. The National Organization for Women (NOW) picked up the song to play as the ending to their 1973 gala event in Washington, D.C. Betty Friedan reported that women got up and sang along, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Environmental Movement
Big Yellow Taxi: Written by Joni Mitchell, she recorded the song in 1970, which was the year of the first Earth Day. Lyrics from the song — like They paved paradise/And put up a parking lot and Hey farmer farmer/Put away the DDT now — hit home with environmentalists. The song was sung at rallies and made it to number 26 on the Billboard charts. Proof of the song’s staying power is that it is still being performed and recorded by musical artists today. Incidentally, DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972.

In the Year 2525: Written by Rick Evans and recorded by the duo, Zager and Evans, the song debuted on an independent label in 1968. It was picked up for national distribution by RCA Records in 1969 and hit Billboard’s number one spot for six weeks.

While some hate the song for its overly dramatic lyrics picturing a world doomed by mankind’s own hands, others saw it as prophetic verse in a time of change.

Don’t Go Near the Water: The Beach Boys got all topical and socially aware with this one in 1971. It was an especially poignant environmental message coming from The Beach Boys, since they had made a career out of fun, in-and-around-the-water music.

Whether these songs had assisted in raising awareness or not, the National Environmental Protection Agency was established in 1970 and President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Water Act in 1972.

Vietnam War
Fortunate Son: John Fogerty wrote this song in 1969 and it was recorded by Creedence Clearwater Revival that year. The lyrics tell the story of a man who is drafted, being that he is not the “fortunate son” of a politician or millionaire.

I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag: Anyone who has seen the film Woodstock knows Country Joe McDonald’s singing of this quintessential protest song of the Vietnam War in 1969. The song was first recorded in 1967 by Country Joe and the Fish. The band was booked alongside the biggest acts of the day, and also regularly performed at Vietnam War protests. Getting several hundred thousand people to chant, And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for? made the song the voice of a protest movement.

War: Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong in 1969, it was first recorded in 1970 by The Temptations for Motown and placed as an album track on Psychedelic Shack. After college students wrote to Motown requesting the song be released as a single, the company was worried that its lyrics — War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin’! — might offer more controversy for The Temptations than it would prefer. As a result, the song was re-released as a single with Edwin Starr singing vocals in 1970. As the War raged on and protests got more vocal, the song hit number one on the Billboard charts.

Give Peace a Chance: John Lennon composed and sang the song first at his honeymoon “Bed-In” in June of 1969. It was recorded and released by The Plastic Ono Band that same year. Sources state the song was sung by a half million demonstrators at the Vietnam Moratorium Day in Washington, D.C. on October 15, 1969. It became the most widely known song of the Vietnam War protests. It was simple to remember, simple to sing, and impossible to forget.

Protest songs all have timely, concise lyrics that relate directly to a cause in such a way that it resonates with listeners. They all have a catchy melody and a refrain that, in many cases, can be easily sung by a crowd. So, what is Mister Boomer’s choice for best protest song of all time? That belongs to Bob Dylan for The Times They Are A’Changin’. Mr. Zimmerman put our parents’ generation on notice as he threw down the gauntlet in no uncertain terms. Your old world is rapidly aging, is a phrase us oldsters should keep in mind these days, for it does appear the times are changing, once again.

Eve of Destruction? Back to the Garden? Ohio? Where Have All the Flowers Gone? There were a multitude of great protest songs from our generation. Which ones conjure memories of your boomer years?

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