We are at a crossroads, one the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades. Some of you may be old enough to remember the LA Riots when a country was brought to face the inequities of a decision that found police officers who beat a man senseless on video cameras, judged innocent. But as a nation and as a planet, history is forced to repeat itself when the uninformed and disinterested wield the power.
We also have a history of resistance and strength in protest. The Retro Set always finds comfort in looking at the past and realizing we were not the first to face our demons, and sadly, we will not be the last. But our better angels have brought voice and music in trying times to help ease our pain and shine a light on the truth, and perhaps, some answers.
Over the next ten days, the Retro Set will post a protest song; each a frozen moment in time. These may not be the “top ten” or the “most popular,” but they each tell a story, and collectively, remind us all that our past is alive, if we only choose to listen.
Day 10: Gold record crooner Sam Cooke wanted to make a difference. He started out as a gospel singer with the Soul Stirrers before gaining world wide recognition with hits like “You Send Me,” and “Twisting the Night Away.” His music broke all color barriers, but when he and his band were turned away at a whites only hotel while on tour, he felt compelled to write a song that reflected the struggle of black Americans all around him. Combined with his love of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and apathy towards the pop singles he was churning out, Cooke wanted a song that furthered the message of Dylan while uniting people anguishing during the Civil Rights movement.
The result was A CHANGE IS GONNA COME, considered one of the greatest, most poignant and beautiful of protest songs, it’s been covered by everyone from Otis Redding to Beyonce. Cooke wouldn’t live to see the legacy he birthed, as he was gunned down just 2 weeks before its release in 1964. It seems a fitting end to our celebration of great protest songs, and perhaps the first step in a much needed, International conversation.
DAY 9: FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH, better known as “Stop Now What’s That Sound,” was written by Stephen Stills as a reaction to the 1966 Sunset Strip protests. Business owners and residents of the area surrounding the famed hot spot felt the youth and “hippies” were clogging up the busy boulevard, as it was a hub of great music venues. The police enacted a 10 PM curfew which the young people considered an affront to their rights. For two nights they clashed with police.
Although it has taken on the heft of an anti-war song, and has since been used as such, it was initially a reaction to civil unrest at a local level. Stills was a member of Buffalo Springfield, then house-band at the Whiskey a Go Go, so he and the other members (including Neil Young) were able to see firsthand, the brutality taking place at their doorstep.
DAY 8: Written and famously performed by Nina Simone, one of the most talented and polarizing of performers, MISSISSIPPI GODDAM was her self proclaimed “first Civil Rights song,” and it wouldn’t be her last. Famous up til 1964 as a jazz, R&B and show tune impresario, she would shift directions and pen this powerful piece after the murder of Medgar Evans and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama which killed four children.
The piece opens jauntily enough, as if Ms Simone is going to break into one of her better known show tunes or Rhythm and Blues standards like , “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” but the lyrics are the antithesis of such lightness. “Alabama’s got me so upset, Tennessee’s made me lose my rest, and everybody knows about Mississippi goddam.” Her first public performance was for the Carnegie Hall record release, and from there she became world renowned for her political stance and incredible talent. The lyrics continue, becoming more and more militant, “Keep on sayin’ ‘go slow’…to do things gradually would bring more tragedy. Why don’t you see it? Why don’t you feel it? I don’t know, I don’t know. You don’t have to live next to me, just give me my equality!”
The artist herself was fascinating, and anyone who wants to know more about this important 20th Century artist and activist should check out the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?”
Check out the link to watch her perform MISSISSIPPI GODDAM with the passion and anger of a true revolutionary.
DAY 7: Six weeks in the number ten spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 cemented James Brown’s SAY IT LOUD – I’M BLACK AND I’M PROUD in the fall of 1968. Race relations were at an all time low, as this was also a fertile period for black musicians and poets addressing head on the issues that were fomenting in the streets.
Brown brought in 30 children from Watts and Compton to respond to his call out: “Say it Loud,” as they shouted back, “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Another important fact – up until that point, the Black community referred to themselves as “negroes.” From then on, they were “Black and Proud.”
DAY 6: In 1988, filmmaker Spike Lee approached Chuck D of Public Enemy, requesting he create a song that could be a used as a “leitmotif” throughout his upcoming film about racial tensions in a Brooklyn neighborhood. He wanted ti to be “defiant, angry and rhythmic.” Chuck D thought about the Isley Brothers’ 1975 protest song “Fight the Power” and patterned its message similarly, however he wanted the lyrics to be set, “in the immediate future tense, a condition of permanently impending insurrection.”
FIGHT THE POWER transcended its filmic origins, and reached number one on the Hip-Hop charts and in 2001 RIAA and the NEA listed it as number 288 for songs of the century. Its force still resonates.
DAY 5: The Isley Brothers were already an established R&B group with hits like “Twist & Shout” and “Shout,” but by 1975 as an exhausted nation reeling from the end of the Vietnam War, record inflation and festering race relations, even these hitmakers felt it was time to lay their true feelings down on vinyl.
While FIGHT THE POWER. may be one of the most angry and resolute protest songs, it is also undeniably the funkiest. Even with its utterance of the word “Bullshit,” the record’s dance groove received radio airplay and could be heard in discos around the world.
The lyrics scream out for justice. “When I rolled with the punches, I got knocked to the ground with all this bullshit going down.” In fact, the song was such a call to action that 15 year old Carlton Ridenhour changed his trajectory, becoming Public Enemy’s Chuck D and would eventually revamp FIGHT THE POWER into a hip-hop anthem, used to great effect in Spike Lee’s seminal “Do the Right Thing.”
DAY 4: Considered the “archetypal Protest song,” Bob Dylan penned THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGING in 1963, wanting to create an anthem of change, influenced by Irish and Scottish ballads, thus the “a” in the title, much like, “A-Hunting We will Go,” and “Here We Come a-Wassailing.” Dylan wanted to ride upon the unvoiced sentiment of a mass public, focused on social injustice and the government’s negligence in affecting change. It was only a month after Dylan wrote the song that President Kennedy was assassinated. A Nation was in mourning, and the song seemed more prescient than ever. Until now.
THE TIMES THEY ARE-A CHANGING has been recorded over 400 times by different artists in different countries and languages. Jennifer Hudson performed it live in 2018 to close out the March on Our Lives in Washington, DC. She was led by a choir of teenage survivors of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida. Seeing the images of peaceful protestors being tear gassed for the Impeached President’s photo op holding a bible at a church makes the lyrics even more prophetic.
DAY 3: After seeing photographs of the Ohio National Guard shootings of peaceful war protesters at Kent State in 1970, Neil Young was motivated to write OHIO. He said it was the “biggest lesson ever at a place of learning.” He and his bandmates, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash rushed into the recording studio and got it done in only a few takes. The single was out in a couple weeks following the tragedy, with the underrated FIND THE COST OF FREEDOM on the flip-side, also definitely worth a listen. Today, OHIO is considered one of the most important protest songs every written.
DAY 2: “How long must I protest the same thing?” Bob Marley, the iconic pioneer of reggae and a Rastafarian legend, asked in 1978 about the song he made famous with the Wailers. Marley wrote GET UP STAND UP while touring Haiti, deeply moved by its poverty. It has since endured as an International Human Rights anthem. The fact that it still needs to be performed at all speaks to the persistence of oppression and human rights violations in all forms throughout the world. It feels as prescient today as it did in 1973.
DAY 1: One of the most powerful songs to come out of the Big Band era, Billie Holiday’s version of STRANGE FRUIT cast a stark, powerful image based on the poem “Bitter Fruit” about lynched African Americans hanging from trees.
In 1939 Holiday was performing at New York’s first integrated nightclub, Cafe Society, and introduced to the song by her show director Robert Gordon. At first she was anxious, concerned of retaliation, but over the years she came to think of her father and the challenges he faced in the South whenever she performed it.
Holiday’s fears were not unwarranted. She was burdened with legal troubles all her life, partly due to her resolve to perform STRANGE FRUIT consistently throughout her career.
The song was always the closing number. The waiters in the club would suspend service during it, and a single spotlight would illuminate Holiday as she stood for several seconds, eyes closed before she began
STRANGE FRUIT became Holliday’s biggest seller. When taking into consideration how polarizing and powerful a topic like the torture and murder of black lives were in 1939, it makes one realize what a risk Billie Holiday took, and what a hero she is to this day.