Pete Seeger has proclaimed that so-called “protest” music has deep roots in world culture, roots extending well beyond the protest era of the 1960s. By way of example, he points to the nursery rhymes of Elizabethan England, demonstrating the manner in which they were sometimes veiled criticisms of King and Crown. Music, he insists, has long been a vehicle for social commentary and has a special relationship with the human need to “speak out.” This chapter approaches the protest era of the 60s as a kind of highwater mark in the history of that protest tradition to which Seeger points, and also traces the tradition’s legacy.
Along with Seeger, other key players in this chapter include Bob Dylan, Harry Belafonte, and Joan Baez. But, as the lessons demonstrate, one can’t fully grasp the character and meaning of their contributions without looking at who and what they learned from, whether Woody Guthrie or the Gospel music of the American South. Similarly, one has to explore what came in the wake of Seeger, Dylan, Baez, and company, whether Punk Rock, Reggae, or Hip Hop.
In what follows, teachers will find some of the most concrete examples of music’s engagement with the socio-political arena. From the antiwar demonstrations of the 60s to Civil Rights, anti-nuclear and anti-apartheid activism, music has been at the heart of social and political resistance. When jailed for their activist work, the Freedom Riders responded with song. When they were told that they would lose their bedding if they continued singing, they carried on, using one thing that could never be taken away, the human voice. At the heart of the protest era is just this timeless lesson.