Welcome to Peace News, the newspaper for the UK grassroots peace and justice movement. We seek to oppose all forms of violence, and to create positive change based on cooperation and responsibility. See more

"Peace News has compiled an exemplary record... its tasks have never been more critically important than they are today." Noam Chomsky

  • facebook
  • rss
  • twitter

Hardeep Phull, 'Story Behind the Protest Song: A Reference Guide to the 50 Songs That Changed the 20th Century'

Greenwood Press, 2008; ISBN 978 0 313341 41 0; 304pp; £37.95

There’s no doubt that protest songs can change thinking, raise awareness, help people feel they’re not alone and plot political and social shifts in time. Music has the power to inspire, agitate, energise and increase knowledge.

This book is a reference guide to 50 songs which have influenced protest in the 20th century, including an anti-press song by a cynical goth icon, an anti-religion song by immigrant labourers, an anti-police song by enraged West Coast rappers and even a song against protest songs! Hardeep Phull proves that popular culture can provide historical insight.

The book contains nine chapters and an epilogue. The first song featured is “We shall overcome”, first published in 1901 by Rev Charles Tindley, a Philadelphia preacher born of slave parents who was inspired by a Bible verse which encourages believers not to tire in their good deeds, for they will eventually reap rewards.

The book bounds through the 20th century visiting the great protest songs of the 1960s inspired by the Vietnam war and the civil rights movement. It crashes through the ’70s with bands such as Black Sabbath and the song “War Pigs”; chronicles the Falklands war in 1982 with Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding”; and doesn’t forget to cover class tourism in Pulp’s 1995 hit “Common People”.

The book finally ends with “BYOB (Bring Your Own Bomb)” by Armenian-American rock band System of a Down, who attack army recruitment during the “war on terror”.

Each entry is very well-researched and considered, with an overview of each song, what inspired the artist, how the message is delivered and the legacy it has left – a stunning documentation of how varied, imaginative and touching protest songs have been.

I was reminded just how many major artists have at some point written a protest song; The Beatles, The Smiths, The Prodigy and Michael Jackson (!) all feature.

With references in every chapter and a comprehensive index this book is an absolute must for music-loving activists. Although Billy Bragg and Seize the Day don’t feature, and it’s rather US-orientated, this guide is truly bible-esque in stature. I only wish there was a CD to accompany it.

Topics: Culture