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The 200 best protest songs of all time

01/11/2016 12:16
Hisham Ibrahim via Getty Images

It's a totally misleading title of course. This post should really be called something like "A List Of 200 Protest Songs That I've Been Able To Put Together In The Time Available, But That Also Only Comprises Songs That I Actually Like As Opposed To Those That Can Be Shown To Have Had A Significant Socio-Political Impact".

But that ... wasn't very snappy. In the end, the thing about personally enjoying the songs is the most important aspect for me. Rummaging around in the recesses of my mind (and online and in the music files on my computer), I wanted to pick stuff I genuinely liked musically, not just chuck compositions onto the list because they're already revered or recognised as politically significant songs.

So if you scan my hastily-compiled list and don't see a specific favourite of your own, don't blame me! If could be that - banally enough - I just didn't think of that particular song when bashing out this list.

Or, as I say, I might well have considered it but still left it out because it's just not my kind of thing, eg Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive: never have liked that one. Similarly, I just don't enjoy hearing Bob Marley & The Wailers' (overplayed) Get Up, Stand Up. Another song that people often mention is the Tom Robinson Band's Glad To Be Gay. I totally accept that issuing a pro-gay rights song during the height of the (quite macho) punk/new wave scene in 1978 was a brave and significant move. I even recall a teenage friend having a "TRB" lapel badge and thinking "What's he got that badge for? Is he gay or something?" (Needless to say, any whiff of non-straight sexuality was taboo at my school back in the late 70s). But no, courageous and politically important though it was, I never could get into this as music.

Like most lists, this top 200 is highly subjective. It's not even put together for any special reason. Someone in my office (at Amnesty) sent out an appeal for suggestions for a playlist for an event. (I may have got carried away). Anyway, subjective and arbitrary though it undoubtedly is, this list is still packed with amazing and deeply moving music.

I should also add: a few of these songs I've only just heard for the first time while hunting around online for extra candidates. But I'm quite often like that with music - connecting with stuff first time around. On the other hand, many of these songs have played a big part in my musical life for years. In fact, for decades.

Another thing: I've only included three songs from any one artist. Some musicians have devoted almost all of their time to the music (and activity) of protest. With the anarcho-punk band Crass, for example, you could make a case for just about every one of their fiercely oppositional offerings as key protest songs of their era. Their entire output is basically one long howl (and militaristic drum beat) of bilious protestation. So yes, I could have filled the entire list with their (amazing) Rimbaud/Ignorant compositions. (Maybe I will another time). Similarly, there are dozens of possibilities from the other well known "political" performers like Billy Bragg, Fela Kuti, Nina Simone and Woody Guthrie. But rules are rules: they only get three.

And what about reggae? Here again, vast amounts of "roots" reggae from the 1970s and early 1980s is concerned with politics and social injustice - in Jamaica, in Africa, in the entire Babylon-ridden world. Some of this music is undoubtedly one of the all-time high points in the history of protest music (not to mention music constituting some of the most sublime art of the 20th century), but filling up the list with classic reggae cuts would have been ... well, a different thing. I've just included a selection of my favourites. (And ditto the blues: a lot of it is protest music, overt or sublimated, but again I've included just a few examples).

And a quick word about the animal rights songs (Consolidated, Flux Of Pink Indians, The Smiths, Robert Wyatt, are there any other good ones I've missed?): to me it's a key part of political activism, every bit as valid as environmentalism or social injustices affecting human beings. More music for animals, I say ...

But who cares about all these (mostly) old songs about past injustices and long-ago historic events? Well, presumably most people wouldn't wish to be so dismissive of powerful music from 50 (or a hundred) years ago, but let me put it this way. When you hear the Delta blues musicians from the thirties singing about loss and sorrow, it's not much of a stretch to connect the pain of those songs with the (generationally-remembered) pain of US slavery from the mid-nineteenth century. It's an amazing, emotionally-charged oral history. Or, to project things forwards, when I hear those incredibly raw prison work songs that the US musicologist Alan Lomax recorded at places like Parchman Farm in Mississippi (aka Mississippi State Penitentiary), I very quickly link that to the suffering of people like Albert Woodfox and Robert King who spent decades in solitary confinement in Louisiana's Angola prison, partly because of a deeply racist prison system. One form of cruelty replacing another.

So yes - these songs might be railing against Ronald Reagan or an Elizabethan-era colonial plunderer and slave trader (the Billy Childish song), but they're relatively timeless.

And if you don't like any of them, or just don't like my list (or just generally dislike everything about this post), then ... fine. That's your right. You could even complain. Post a comment. Send me a grumpy email. Write a few words of protest. Set them to music ...

Here's the list:

The Abyssinians, Black Man's Strain

The Abyssinians, Declaration Of Rights

The Adverts, Gary Gilmore's Eyes

Laurel Aitken, Skinheads Are Wrecking The Town

The Almanac Singers, I Don't Want Your Millions Mister

The Almanac Singers, Which Side Are You On

Akala, Bullshit

Anti-Pasti, No Government

Yasiin Bey, Don't Like

Yasiin Bey, Niggas In Poorest

Bob Andy, My Time

Bob Andy, War In City

The Angelic Upstarts, The Murder Of Liddle Towers

Attila The Stockbroker, The Diggers Song

Sister Audrey, Children Of The Ghetto

The Beatles, Revolution

Bad Breeding, Burn This Flag

Gary Bartz, Uhuru Sasa

Bikini Kill, Suck My Left One

Big Bill Broonzy, Baby Please Don't Go

James Brown, Say It Loud, I'm Black And I'm Proud

Roy Brown, Hard Luck Blues

Billy Bragg, Levi Stubbs' Tears

Billy Bragg, There Is Power In A Union

Billy Bragg, The World Turned Upside Down

Buffalo Springfield, For What It's Worth

King Burnett & The Upsetters, I Man Free

Burning Spear, Marcus Garvey

Captain Ska, Liar Liar (Election Mix)

Johnny Cash, Folsom Prison Blues

Wild Billy Childish & The Musicians Of The British Empire, Joe Strummer's Grave

Wild Billy Childish & The Spartan Dreggs, Sir John Hawkins Memorial Car Park

Johnny Clarke, Stop Tribal War

The Clash, I Fought The Law

The Clash, Straight To Hell

The Clash, The Guns Of Brixton

Jimmy Collier & The Movement Singers, Will The Circle Be Unbroken

Congo Natty, Revolution

Consolidated, Meat Kills

Sam Cooke, A Change Is Gonna Come

Crass, Bloody Revolutions

Crass, Nagasaki Nightmare

Crass, Walls Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young, Ohio

Cow Cow Davenport, Jim Crow Blues

The Dead Kennedys, California Über Alles

The Dead Kennedys, Holiday In Cambodia

The Dead Kennedys, Nazi Punks Fuck Off

Junior Delgardo, Poverty

Delta 5, You

Tom Dickson, Labor Blues

Dizzee Rascal, Sirens

Roy Dobson, Jah Children Rising

Donovan, Universal Soldier

Errol Dunkley, Little Way Different

Ian Dury & The Blockheads, Spasticus Autisticus

Bob Dylan, Blowin' In The Wind

Bob Dylan, Hurricane

Steve Earle, The Revolution Starts Now

Duke Ellington/Mahalia Jackson, Come Sunday

Fist Of Fury, Fuck The System

Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Jordan, Stone Cold Dead In The Market

Flux Of Pink Indians, Sick Butchers

Freedom Singers, We Shall Overcome

The Fugs, CIA Man

The Fugs, Kill For Peace

Fun Boy Three, The Lunatics Have a Taken Over The Asylum

Gang Of Four, Armalite Rifle

Ghetts, Rebel

Golden Gospel Singers, Oh Freedom!

Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, The Message

Woody Guthrie, All You Fascists Bound To Lose

Woody Guthrie, Better World A Comin'

Woody Guthrie, This Land Is Your Land

PJ Harvey, The Words That Maketh Murder

PJ Harvey, Written On The Forehead

Heaven 17, (We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thang

Herman Düne, No Master

Billie Holliday, Strange Fruit

Prince Irey, Freedom Of Speech

Lightnin' Hopkins, Penitentiary Blues

Son House, I Shall Not Be Moved

Son House, Levee Camp Moan

Huggy Bear, Her Jazz

Gregory Isaacs, Black A Kill Black

Gregory Isaacs, Babylon Is Too Tough

Carol Kalphat, African Land

Fela Kuti & Egypt 80, Original Sufferhead

Fela Kuti & Africa 70, Sorrow Tears And Blood

Fela Kuti & Africa 70, Zombie

J Herman E Johnson, Depression Blues

John Jackson, John Henry

John Lee Hooker, Hobo Blues

John Lee Hooker, House Rent Boogie

Jennifer Lara, A Change Gonna Come

The Last Poets, Before The White Man Came

The Last Poets, Blessed Are Those Who Struggle

The Last Poets, Niggers Are Scared Of Revolution

Leadbelly, Jim Crow Blues

Leadbelly, The Bourgeois Blues

John Lennon, Imagine

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, Give Peace A Chance

John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Happy Xmas (War Is Over)

Barrington Levy, Murderer

Jeffrey Lewis & The Rain, What Would Pussy Riot Do?

Hugh Masekela, Mandela (Bring Him Back Home)

Country Joe McDonald, Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die Rag

Mississippi Fred McDowell, When I Lay My Burden Down

MC5, Motor City Is Burning

Barry McGuire, Eve Of Destruction

King Medious & The Upsetters, This World

Charles Mingus, Original Fables Of Faubus

Sugar Minott, Give The People What They Want

Misty In Roots, Poor And Needy

Hugh Mundell, Africa Must Be Free By 1983

Junior Murvin, Police And Thieves

Negative Vibes, Oppression Olympics

Phil Ochs, What Are You Fighting For?

Niney The Observer & The Heptones, Keep On Pushin'

Not Right, Intersectionality Song

Not Right, My Body

Odetta, Oh Freedom

Tristan Palma, How Can A Man Be Happy

Pere Ubu, 30 Seconds Over Tokyo

The Pop Group, How Much Longer

The Pop Group, Justice

Public Enemy, Don't Believe The Hype

Public Enemy, Fight The Power

Ras Midas, Let The People Go

Freda Payne, Bring The Boys Home

The Raincoats, No One's Little Girl

The Redskins, Unionise

Junior Reid, One Blood

Max Roach, Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace

Paul Robeson, Go Down Moses

Paul Robeson, No More Auction Block

Paul Robeson, Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child

The Rolling Stones, Gimme Shelter

The Rudies, Train To Vietnam

Scars, Your Attention Please

Scientist & Roots Radics, Caring For My Sister

Gil Scott-Heron, Johannesburg

Gil Scott-Heron, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Gil Scott-Heron, Winter In America

Pete Seeger, Last Train To Nuremberg

Pete Seeger, Solidarity Forever

Pete Seeger, We Shall Overcome

Prince Far I, No More War

The Sex Pistols, Anarchy In The UK

The Sex Pistols, God Save The Queen

Sham 69, If The Kids Are United

Pete Shelley, Homosapien

Nina Simone, Mississippi Goddam

Nina Simone, To Be Young, Gifted And Black

Nina Simone, Why? (The King Of Love Is Dead)

Skepta, It Ain't Safe

The Skull, Black Slavery Days

The Slits, Love Und Romance

The Slits, Typical Girl

Leroy Smart, How Long They Keep I Down

Smiley Culture, Police Officer

CW 'Preacher' Smith, I Don't Do Nobody Nothin'

The Smiths, Meat Is Murder

Sonic Youth, Youth Against Facism

The Special AKA, Free Nelson Mandela

The Special AKA, Racist Friend

The Special AKA, War Crimes

The Specials, Ghost Town

The Specials, Maggie's Farm

Spiral Tribe, Tekno Is Free So Are We

Bruce Springsteen, The Ghost Of Tom Joad

Stanley Brinks, Another Land

Stanley Brinks & The Kaniks, This World Is Too Small

The Staple Singers, Respect Yourself

Edwin Starr, War

Mark Stewart, As The Veneer Of Democracy Starts To Fade

Stiff Little Fingers, Alternative Ulster

The Supremes, Stoned Love

Tackhead, Hard Left

Texas Prison Camp Workers, Go Down Old Hannah

Tyrone Taylor, Sufferation

Timmy Thomas, Why Can't We Live Together

Tony Tuff, No Warrior

UB40, King

UB40, One In Ten

UK Subs, Warhead

The Violent Femmes, Old Mother Reagan

Bukka White, Parchman Farm Blues

Josh White, Jim Crow Train

The White Stripes, The Big Three Killed My Baby

Big Joe Williams, Chain Gang Blues

Willie Williams, Armagideon Time

Willie Williams, Freedom Time

Willie Williams, One Love

Delroy Wilson, Better Must Come

Robert Wyatt, Pigs

Robert Wyatt, Shipbuilding

Neil Young, Alabama

Neil Young, Southern Man

Neil Young, Vampire Blues

Zounds, War-Subvert

Tappa Zukie, Everyone Have Their Works

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