Where Have All the Protest Songs Gone?

How I rescued myself from personal and social powerlessness with a guitar and poetry in the 1970s

Being fourteen years old in any decade is just about criminal and seventh grade was my jail. Sentenced to an unforgiving maplewood chair and formica-top desk in an ancient three story brick behemoth dubbed ‘The Middle School,’ I sweated the small stuff during the day and tossed and turned over the big stuff at night. We were at war.

However, there was at least one event worth remember during my time in 7th grade. A midmorning interruption which crackled through the school’s round, tweed-covered public address speakers in each classroom (usually reserved for tornado warnings and fire drills) this historic announcement:

“Attention in the classroom. Attention, please. We’ve just been informed the Vietnam War has ended. Repeat, we’ve just been informed the Vietnam War is over!”

I remember the shouts of joy and relief, which were more than likely replicated up and down the hall in every classroom on every floor. I felt the rare prepubescent smile spread across my face, I was beaming at my teacher and she was smiling back, tears rolling down her cheeks. Perhaps, she had a brother or husband “over there” or she was as tortured as I was by the nightly war reports on the evening news.

The middle seventies found me awkward and pining for the overdue hormones, which would trigger the changes puberty promised to bring. Something to define me beyond the androgyny of childhood and the taunts hurled at me by my older sisters. Unick! Neuter! they’d tease, waiving a tampon under my nose. I’d swat the cotton bullet away secretly wishing for my first period. Like many situations in my life thereafter, I didn’t understand how infinitely fortunate I was to have such a reprieve at the time.

Though I wished in vain to see the first droplets of my own blood trickle into the toilet, I was assaulted nightly by accounts of bloody wounded soldiers and civilians, the body counts and the terrible scenes of war and destruction narrated in harrowing detail by a somber Walter Cronkite. It was a never-ending nightmare in baritone and technicolor I was not emotionally equipped to understand but, instinctively knew was all wrong. As it turns out, I wasn’t alone as an entire generation would never understand the reason for the Vietnam War and the sacrifice of their loved ones even decades later.

To a generation’s credit, they resisted the indefensible. With every attempt by the government to normalize and defend the war, many refused to accept the unacceptable and protested. There were marches and speeches, poetry and songs. The music had the power to unite the peacemakers and threaten the war machine with reason and compassion, resolve and commitment.

Poetry and music, now classic archetypes of resistance and vital to the war protest, was persuasive, ubiquitous and necessary to inform and unite a generation against the cavalier use of power, war and destruction over diplomacy and peaceful resolutions. Today, we live in a more dangerous, violent, and war-torn world than ever but, but popular music only seems to reflect a shallow, self-involvement meant for distraction and escape. So, I ask you, members of this generation, “Where are your protest songs?”

Today, we live in a more violent and war-torn world than ever but, popular music only seems to reflect a shallow, self involvement meant for distraction and escape. So, I ask you, members of this generation, “Where are your protest songs?”

Scanning the Billboard Top 100 I passed over a lot of, shall we say, shallow material, to get to the first possible “protest” song in slot #17 a few weeks ago. The song, Sign of the Times, (Harry Styles) is debatable as a classic protest song and feels more like a manifesto to surrender to me but, at least, here in Billboard entry #17 Harry is asking the right question:

“Will we ever learn?”
Sign of the Times 
Just stop your crying, it’s a sign of the times
Welcome to the final show
Hope you’re wearing your best clothes
You can’t bribe the door on your way to the sky

You look pretty good down here
But you ain’t really good
We never learn, we been here before
Why are we always stuck and running from
The bullets? The bullets?
We never learn, we been here before
Why are we always stuck and running from
The bullets? The bullets?

Following Sign of the Times in slot #20 is Believer (Imagine Dragons) a song that certainly could be construed as one of protestation, even as it’s more concerned with the individual resisting the classic rule of oppression and conformity through social domestication.

I’m not trying to boast for or belittle any one generation, but I couldn’t help noticing a stark difference between the more or less watered down versions of mainstream quasi-protest music and the unmistakeable resistance songs of the 1970’s. Number 17 and even number 20 on the current Billboard Top 100 seem a little flimsy given the dire conditions of our planet and its people.

I don’t think there has been a generation in history more in need of its musicians and poets to pick up the social and political protest banner than this one. We need their dedicated words and music to inspire us and foster a healthy resistance to the status quo, to instill a commitment toward change and to motivate constructive action in support of the planet and a peaceful coexistence between all living creatures.

Don’t simply accept my opinion on this matter, check out the powerhouse protest music of the decade known as “The Seventies” below and then decide. I think you may also find yourself asking “Where Have All The Protest Songs Gone?”

The 10 Best Political Protest Songs of the 70s

Of course, this is a matter of opinion but, here are four of my favorites from this list.

#1: What’s Going On — Marvin Gaye

#2: Working Class Hero — John Lennon

#5: Get Up Stand Up — The Wailers (with Bob Marley)

#6: Ohio — Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

S Lynn Knight, 2017
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