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Music and Protest


With Green Day’s “21st Century Breakdown” having all the hallmarks of a protest album dated before its release, and with critics writing drivel like “If it is out of step today we may surely need it tomorrow,” I thought I would take a quick moment and think about protest music.

Way back, in the 16th Century, the man behind the man paid the man to write sings about the
great war like deads of The Man (usually The King) and the other men, you and I, well we didn’t get our say. Political music not protest msuic.

But by the American War of Independence the question as to who the man was became somewhat blurry and protest music began in the (soon to be) States proper.

Fast forward to the Civil War and black spirituals were the soundtrack to the breaking of the shackles of slavery.

Then the Mountain folks and the labor unions got together and wrote their way through to the great depression and the folkies from the great depression, Woody Guthrie and his lot, began playing em as well as their own songs and by the 60s the folkie movement featuring Joan baez, Bob Dylan, Tim Buckley, Phil Ochs, were covering Woody in full swing.

But Bob Dylan saw that topical political music had an exceedingly short shelf life and turned his attention to personal politics and the folk movement died to be taken over by the Feminist, youth and black movements.

By the mid-70s everyone, kids and stars alike, we’re overwhelmed by cynicism, as the record companies sold protest back to the kids.

It took New York in the mid-70s and the rise of the punk for rock and protest to meet again and meet they did from “Anarchy In the UK” on one hand to “Blitzkriek Bop” the truth was only known by guttersnipes.

Early 80s Grandmaster flash was recording “The Message” and the promise of hip hop as a serious reaction to the black struggle seemed like a promise in the air but even Public Enemy couldn’t fulfill the promise and the anger of NWA was becoming a quest for personal fulfillment.

If there was a protest edge to grunge it was because of form and not because of content: “oh well, whatever, nevermind” was such an oblique howl of rebellion (suicide maybe less so).

And a coupla weeks ago Pete Seeger, that old commie, celebrated his 90th birthday last year. Does anybody think that sort of protest music still survives? Does Green Day? Or will people like me be just waiting to stomp on em?

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