Oct 7, 2019
by Darryl Lorenzo WELLINGTON
A light-hearted lyricist wrote that “Love and marriage/Go together like a horse and carriage.” So (too) do songs, jingles and social activism.
Protest songs can inspire commitment with a powerful line, or a clever turn-of-phrase. The transformational message is accompanied by the melodic music. If you google “Best protest songs in history” you will pull up such notable classics as “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie, “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday, and “Free Nelson Mandela” by the ska-group, The Specials. Each song was connected to a cause, with lyrics tied to a statement that elevated public awareness.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane. There are some readers old enough to remember the rousing spiritual power of hearing “Free Nelson Mandela” when it was sung and broadcast back in the decades before the great South African leader was set free. The song became an international sensation. The anthem spread a message that finally won the day. The refrain went:
“Twenty years of captivity
Are you so blind that you cannot see!
Are you so deaf that you cannot hear!
Free Nelson Mandela!”
Protest songs and socially conscious ballads take many different forms, appearing in many (if not all) musical traditions. There are protest songs that make the point so explicit that nobody can miss it. In 17th century England, the peasants known as “The Diggers” staged a revolt against the landowners, while singing “All Gentry must come down/ and poor shall wear the crown/ Stand up, Diggers, now!” Protest songs may be satirical, often humorously parodying an old standard. A 1795 protest song in England “Rights of Woman” preached feminism and women’s liberation by rewriting the words to “God Save the Queen!”
Other protest songs carry coded messages. Their resonance depends on special knowledge, or the context of the times to fully appreciate the meaning. African American Gospel spirituals carried coded anti-slavery messages when they were sung by free blacks and slaves. The original 1964 recording of “Dancing in the Street” by the Motown group, Martha and the Vandellas, was a praise song to black liberation, although words such as “black revolution” don’t appear in the song. Yet the spirit of the 1960’s, and the changes that were coming cued listeners that “dancing” was a metaphor for the celebration after justice was restored!
Of course, the most renown protest song in American history is “We Shall Overcome” which was the premier anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. The song itself has a lengthy history as a protest song even before then. The modern version was first sung in 1945 by tobacco workers who were mostly black women during a Cigar Workers Strike in Charleston, South Carolina. The song was later picked up by the Highlanders Folk school, an institution which trained Union organizers and movement leaders, leading to its adoption by Civil Rights activists in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
There is no doubt what makes a protest song. It’s the life-affirming message. Every song that speaks to uplifting the powerless and restoring justice to the people is a life-affirming song. That’s why our conNECKtedTOO jingle is “Bet on YOU” written by Kurtis Lamkin which begins:
“bet on your tiny tiny castles
bet on your tiny tiny dreams
bet on your tiny tiny business
bet on bet on bet on bet on you
bet on bet on bet on bet on you
why you bet on strangers, strangers pass on thru
you should bet on neighbors, neighbors bet on you”
It’s a song that conveys the message that neighbors are friends,
TINY businesses deserve support, and THE TINY IS POWERFUL!