At various points in the chequered history of humanity, music has gone above and beyond its normal call of duty: it has spurred fighters to action, dignified the helpless, symbolised spiritual resistance and provided catharsis in the face of some truly horrifying events.
Here are just ten of the most powerful examples of protest songs.
Best protest songs
Abel Meeropol: Strange Fruit
This song about the racist lynchings in the US shocked audiences when Billie Holiday first sang it in a New York night club in 1939. All these years later it still stands out as one of the most famous, most explicit and most powerful protest songs ever written, with Holiday’s version named by Time Magazine as ‘song of the century.’
It was written by the Jewish communist Abel Meeropol, who drew his lyrics from a poem he had penned in 1937, comparing the victims of the Black American lynchings to the fruit of trees. He cited as his inspiration a grotesque 1930 photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. Although lynchings were by then on the decline, it would take more than three more decades for them to come to an end.
With its stark melody and starker lyrics (‘Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze’), ‘Strange Fruit’ became an anthem of the anti-lynching movement and the first important song of the nascent Civil Rights Movement. [‘Strange Fruit’] is about the ugliest song I have ever heard,’ Nina Simone once said. ‘Ugly in the sense that it is violent and tears at the guts of what white people have done to my people in this country.’
Ethel Smyth: March of the Women
Written by Ethel Smyth in 1910, March of the Women was widely acclaimed as the anthem of the women’s suffrage movement, sung by activists both on rallies and in prison, while they were on hunger strikes. Its most famous performance, however, took place in 1912 in Holloway Prison, where, according to accounts by the conductor Thomas Beecham, activists lustily sang their war-chant ‘while the composer, beaming approbation from an overlooking upper window, beat time in almost Bacchic frenzy with a toothbrush.’
Ludwig van Beethoven: Ode to Joy
This song Ode to Joy has a complicated history: Hitler had it played on birthdays and included it in Nazi propaganda films. But it was also played in opposition to him by orchestras of prisoners in concentration camps; in 2000, the Vienna Philharmonic performed it at Mauthausen, a Nazi concentration camp, for an audience of survivors. It currently serves as the anthem of the European Union. Beethoven himself wrote it as a call for brotherhood and egalitarianism, choosing as his text Friedrich Schiller’s ‘An die Freude’, a poem written in 1785 on the brink of the French Revolution.
Jean Sibelius: Finlandia
Sibelius originally wrote this piece in 1899, as a patriotic protest against increasing censorship from the Russians, at a time when in his home country of Finland was still part of the Russian empire. Many years later, in 1941, he turned its central section into a hymn, with words by Finnish poet Koskenniemi; ‘Oh, Finland, behold your day is dawning.’ It has since become one of Finland’s most important national songs.
Nina Simone: Mississippi Goddam
Considered by Nina Simone to be her first civil rights song, ‘Mississippi Goddam’ was the singer’s response to the racially motivated murders of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers in Mississippi in 1964, and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Alabama, in which four black children were killed.
More like this
Composed in under an hour, it’s a deeply unsettling song, whose jaunty tune contrasts sharply with its content: ‘Alabama’s got me so upset, Tennessee’s made me lose my rest, and everybody knows about Mississippi goddam’. On the recording Simone sarcastically announces the song as ‘a show tune, but the show isn’t written for it yet.’ It remains one of her most famous self-written songs.
Cornelius Cardew: Smash the Social Contract
A member of the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist) from the 1970s, the experimental British composer Cardew was known for channelling his political beliefs into his music. This song is a good example, written in 1977 as a protest against the recent deal (‘the Social Contract’) struck between union leaders and the Labour government to restrict pay demands. Though rhythmically on the tricky side, it is a far cry from his most experimental works, revealing Cardew’s ability to switch between idioms when the message of his music called for it.
Marta Kubisová: Modlitba pro Martu (A prayer for Marta)
This song, which speaks of a country’s lost governance of affairs returning to its people, is indelibly associated with two moments in Czech history. The first was the Prague Spring of 1968 – a 4-month period of liberalisation in socialist Czechoslovakia, when the Czech people attempted to regain some control over their own lives and remould the Communist system into ‘Socialism with a human face’. With the ensuing clampdown, when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague to reassert dominance, ‘Modlitba pro Martu’ came to be seen as a symbol of national resistance.
The song was banned by the Communists. As for Kubisová: blacklisted by the music industry, she was forced to support herself with a menial job in a toy factory. Václav Havel – a family friend who would eventually become president of Czechoslovakia later said: ‘she wouldn’t sing if it meant making compromises.’
But Kubisová’s moment came again, twenty years later, during the 1989 Velvet Revolution which brought freedom to the nation: thousands gathered to watch her sing ‘Modlitba pro Martu’ from a balcony above Wenceslas Square. In an interview with Prague Radio, the singer later said: I didn’t cry, I was overcome by the sheer sight of the whole square jammed with people. I said to myself, no singer ever had a comeback like this! Foreign film crews told me people were in tears and when they asked what are you crying for, they said, ‘it’s that woman.”’ In a 2018 poll, ‘Modlitba pro Martu’ was voted as Czech Radio’s Hit of the Century.
Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle: La Marseillaise
Now the national anthem of France, La Marseillaise was written in 1792 by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle in Strasbourg as a call to arms against an Austrian invasion. The amateur musician composed the song in a single night, giving it the title of “Chant de guerre de l’armée du Rhin” (‘Battle Hymn of the Army of the Rhine’).
Although Roughet de Lisle himself supported the monarchy, the song was harnessed by the revolutionaries, and has been somewhat mired in controversy since then, banned in 1815 under King Louis XVIII, and again during the rule of Napoleon III, from 1852 to 1870.
It was only in the First World War, when it was used to rally the people, that it regained its original symbolism of national unity – a symbolism that acquired even more significance during the Second World War, when it was sung by the resistance, after being banned by the Vichy government. Still, notwithstanding the stirring quality of the music, some of the lyrics remain problematic, not least the climax of the chorus: ‘That their impure blood should water our fields.’
Hugh Masekela: Soweto Blues
Written by the South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, ‘Soweto Blues’ is about the Soweto uprising: a protest that took place in 1976 against a decision by the apartheid government of South Africa to make Afrikaans a medium of instruction in all schools.
The song’s lyrics bring home the horror of the massacre that followed the uprising: ’The children got a letter from the master/It said no more Xhosa, Sotho, no more Zulu/Refusing to comply they sent an answer/That’s when the policemen came to the rescue/Well children were flying, bullets, dying/Oh the mothers screaming and crying.’
Released in 1977, it was performed by the singer Miriam Makeba, becoming a staple at her live concerts. It still stands as one of the most famous and striking songs of the anti-apartheid movement.
Hirsch Glick: Zog Nit Keinmol
Inspired by the violence of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but also the courage of those massacred in it, this Yiddish song is a frank statement about Jewish suffering and the importance of continuing to fight for survival – even against all the odds.
It was written in 1943 by the young Vilna poet Hirsh Glik, based on a pre-existing melody by the Soviet-Jewish composer Dimitri Pokrass.
Glik himself was a partisan, who fled Vilna Ghetto when it was liquidated in 1943; he was later captured and executed by the Nazis. But the song lived on, adopted by Jewish partisan groups across Eastern Europe, as well as those incarcerated in various ghettos and concentration camps, who were spurred on by its message of defiant optimism: ‘never say that you are walking the final road /Though leaden skies obscure blue days /The hour we have been longing for will still come – Our steps will drum – we are here!’
It is now remembered as one of the most powerful symbols of resistance against Nazi Germany’s persecution of the Jews during the Holocaust.