The Value of Protest Music

Art activism is denoted generally as art and creativity through and for action, “addressing power structures directly rather than representing or describing them” (Tate Museum). Here, the chief power structures confronted are the British and American governments and their armed forces. Comparisons will be drawn between the protest music against the Vietnam War and the art of the Iraq War demonstrations. In the Vietnam era, artists, musicians and citizens opposed the US invasion of Vietnam through music. Protest songs were not as prominent in the anti-Iraq war movement; therefore, the main focus will be placed on the art performed at the protests.

Protest art is broadly defined as “art, literature or music that offers…critique of something wrong in the culture.” Protest music specifically is a “term which gained currency (first in USA) in the 1960s for songs which voiced feelings of protest about some social or political injustice” ( The decade was a creative era for musicians and activists, and although there are many other notable songs, the following have been selected as markers for the beginning, middle and end of the anti-Vietnam War movement. These songs are Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind, Country Joe’s -Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag and Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. In the following discussion, the role of activist art will be examined in its challenging of established perceptions about war.

Dylan’s folk hit Blowin’ in the Wind brought activist philosophies and meditations further into public perspective. Covered by Peter, Paul and Mary, it was a commercial success, charting at number two in the 1963 Billboard Charts.The song’s simple yet haunting lyrics and soul-searching rhetorical questions incites the listener to envisage answers to the unfathomable problems of humanity. Dylan was amongst the first voices for social consciousness and peace, contemplating “How many times must cannon balls fly/Before they’re forever banned?”. Elsewhere, the lyrics are not so directly aimed at the State, explaining its mainstream exposure, as overtly anti-establishment songs did not generally receive radio play and have subsequent commercial success. The song’s meaning does not centre exclusive on conflict, but wider issues of human oppression, adding relevance to movements broader than only peace activism. Among other questions, Dylan asks “How many years can some people exist/Before they’re allowed to be free?” These freedom-seeking sentiments also spoke to causes like racial equality, making the song a “civil rights anthem”; Dylan performing at the demonstration where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

While the song has a poignant beauty, its ambiguity allows for a number of different interpretations which could be perceived as a shortfall in its role as activist art. Because the lyrics are open to interpretation, the specific anti-war message might be diminished, or even lost completely, particularly upon the casual listener. However, equally, its versatility can serve as advantage, as its universal message can lend itself to various activist causes. Furthermore, many activists cite Bob Dylan as hugely influential, including activist Peter Yarrow, who feels the open-ended, inconclusive nature of the song is central to its wide appeal: “You can hear… a yearning and a hope…a sadness and sometimes a triumphal proclamation of determination”. Its power comes from the fact it has a different resonation with each listener, a reverberation within that something must change.

Unlike Dylan’s wistful and contemplative song, I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag was a darkly humorous and deeply angry satire of the war. It highlighted the foolishness and futility of the wasted young lives:

now come on mothers throughout the land, pack your boys off to Vietnam, come on fathers don’t hesitate, send your sons off before it’s too late, be the first one on your block, to have your boy come home in a box8

His lyrics bitterly highlight the fatal consequences of ignorance, “one, two, three, what are we fighting for/Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn/Next stop it’s Vietnam.” Its popularity grew with increasing conscription, public feeling had turned from disagreement to outrage. By 1969, public opposition to the war had grown to 55% of all Americans. (Gallup Poll)

Whereas Dylan’s song did not isolate specific culprits, McDonald directly condemned the economic beneficiaries of the war:

now come on Wall Street don’t be slow, why man this war a-go-go, there’s plenty good money to be made, supplyin’ the army with the tools of the trade, just hope and pray that when they drop the bomb, they drop it on the Vietcong.10

Die Rag’s exploration of motives fits the definition of “protest song” more closely than Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind in his open address of “power structures”. While the mainstream media appeared to remain silent about profits to the military industrial complex, McDonald sought to challenge the mass ignorance through his music.

The final protest song is Ohio, written by Neil Young and performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in 1963. The folk rock song protested the Kent State shootings, where guardsmen opened fire at a university protest, killing four students and injuring nine others. In 13 Seconds: A Look Back at the Kent State Shootings, author Caputo maintains that the “authorities had gotten away with murder”. The song describes the war “coming home” to the USA and the weapons not only at the Vietnamese people, but also their own American citizens.

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, We’re finally on our own. This summer I hear the drumming, Four dead in Ohio.

The song countered the Nixon government’s indifference to the shooting and formed part of a huge campaign. The president’s speechwriter attempted to rationalise the murders by ascribing military connotations to the unrest, saying it was like a “civil war” in an “armed camp”. This is despite the fact the students were completely unarmed. The Press Secretary seemed to shift blame onto the students themselves, saying “when dissent turns to violence, it invites tragedy”. His statement falsely suggests it was inevitable and unpreventable. Moreover, a Gallup poll taken at the time showed that 58% of those interviewed blamed the students while only 11% held the troops as responsible. The lyrics appeal to the public to have empathy for the loved ones by asking:

What if you knew her

And found her dead on the ground

How can you run when you know?

The song responds to the shocking reaction to the shootings and the public’s senselessness. However, Ohio struggled to counter such ignorance and the influence of the status quo was limited.

Both the Iraq and Vietnam Wars were hugely unpopular and pulled in protests in their hundreds of thousands. Although demonstrative protest might be seen as a display of public opinion, it can also be seen as artistic in itself. Reiss defines the protest march as an “organized and choreographed procession” in his book Street as Stage, suggesting an element of performance and display. This is particularly true of the Iraq war protests, where the news media, general public and their cameras were the protestors’ audience.

Martin Patrick identifies this change from the confrontational to the playful in modern day protest, in a transformation he calls the ‘choreographic turn’16. This is seen in the increasing presence of puppets and masks in the Iraq War protests, for example Ghandi, a figure of peace, unity and strength who successfully challenged the status quo. Activist Lydia Gans comments that “Huge caricatures of unpopular political figures add vigor to the marchers accompanying them. Puppets depicting people’s heroes, especially the symbolism of the giant Gandhi puppet, give power to the protesters for peace and justice.”

While theatrical, puppetry is certainly but not always comic or light-hearted. The Mourning Mothers , a group of activists from San Francisco, have performed street theatre at peace protests for two decades. In black robes, oversized masks and hijabs, the women depict bereaved Iraqi mothers performing a grieving ritual for their murdered children, laying their ragdoll babies on the American flag and inviting bystanders to lay tokens beside them.

Mary Bull described her experience at the Iraq war protest as a “poetic way of showing people the human cost of war… it strikes a very deep chord in many people. It reminds people why we’re out there, without a lot of blood and gore. Ragdoll babies and strange masks where the mask is so huge and the body is so tiny takes you into a different reality.” Activist Lydia Gans believes that the Mourning Mothers “move their audience more than the most passionate speeches.” Performer Sydney Carson describes how the raw “emotional power” of the performance moved her to tears. It challenges the mass desensitisation to war exacerbated by extensive news media coverage.

“It takes more than a lot of people making a lot of noise. In the end, the shouters go home and nothing much changes… Ultimately, the masses of people have to be moved to act for the cause — to refuse to fight, to go on strike, stage a sit-in, block a street, or whatever action might force those in power to change. It takes more than shouting. It takes drama. It takes engaging people’s minds and hearts.”

With the turn of the century, availability and advancements in printing technology meant protest art could have a slick and professional brand. David Gentleman was responsible for the Stop the War placard campaign that became iconic in the UK anti-war movement. This art is so renowned it can be now be found in the Museum of London’s collections. The placards read “No”, “Bliar” and “Troops Out” among other slogans, with blots of blood-like ink replacing vowel letters. Gentleman’s description of creating the pieces illuminates the message behind the art, “The blood splat was made with red watercolour dropped from a ruling pen held at shoulder height”. His use of “ruling pen” vividly suggests that, for politicians, war is simply signing through documents but the ink with which they are signing is effectively the blood of real people.

In conclusion, it might be argued that the movements failed: the change to status quo was not significant enough to end either the Vietnam or Iraq Wars. However, it is difficult to firstly, define activist art as one cannot isolate the artistic from the activist form; both work as a unified force. Secondly, it is impossible to determine whether art influenced the status quo, or whether it was a reflection of existing social attitudes against the war.

Nonetheless, art and music provides a direct and real historical account of public opinion. It can also be persuasive and work towards a shift in consciousness. Art curator Jack Rasmussen agrees that “Art cannot change [the war] but it can bear a testimony. When people stop talking about it, the art is still there. ” The mass media can ‘spin’ their account of the war, however art records and immortalises the public perception of the time. Like Gentleman’s placard held by hundreds of thousands, artivism acts as a snapshot of public opinion. The value of direct action cannot be understated: a country’s citizens demonstrating to another’s citizens that war is not in their name.