Joan Baez and Bob Dylan singing together at Washington civil rights march, August 1963

Protest songs. Which are the best?

09 Nov 2017
Protest songs stir our hearts, emotions and actions. But which are the best? Oliver Bennett asks prominent people to share the music that moved them most.

Campaigning takes many forms – but protest songs have often formed a focal point for different parties to come together. And they endure.

See Friends of the Earth's protest history

"Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" - Pete Seeger (1955)

Chosen by Michael Morpurgo, author of Didn’t We Have a Lovely Time (Walker Books) and many others.

 

“… it was the great peace song of our youth and is sadly needed as much now as it was then.”  Michael Morpurgo

"Blowin’ In The Wind" - Bob Dylan (1962)

Chosen by Satish Kumar, Editor of Resurgence

 

“I like this song because it has vigour, vision and passion and yet no fixed answers. Sometimes we radical activists get fixed in our ‘answers’ and ‘solutions’ whereas Bob Dylan’s song asks us to remain open and always ready to accept new answers.”  Satish Kumar

"Imagine" - John Lennon (1971)

Chosen by Anupama Kundoo, architect, and Sarah Butler-Sloss, founder director of Ashden

 

“Like this song, I believe in the positive power of imagining the ideal scenario. I prefer a ‘call to action’ rather than reacting to others actions and shortcomings, especially when existing images of hate, violence and war are so commonplace. Imagining is the first step towards realisation, and universal ideas imagined collectively are the most powerful protest of all.”  Anupama Kundoo

“I choose this song, simply because there really is no bigger dream than all the world living life in peace.”  Sarah Butler-Sloss

"A Change Is Gonna Come" - Sam Cooke (1964)

Chosen by Juliet Haygarth, CEO of ad agency BMB

 

“Ultimately a message of hope and positivity – not always the case with the protest song – "A Change is Gonna Come"… trod the tightrope between popular success (it reached number 2 in the charts) and being packed with meaning. I love the myth behind it too, that Cooke was motivated by Bob Dylan’s "Blowin’ in the Wind". As Peter Guralnick wrote in 2005’s "Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke", when Cooke first heard that song, he "was so carried away with the message, and the fact that a white boy had written it, that . . . he was almost ashamed not to have written something like that himself".”  Juliet Haygarth

"Mississippi Goddam" - Nina Simone (1964)

Chosen by Dorian Lynskey, author of "33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs" (Faber)

 

“This is the most visceral protest song I know. She wrote it in one hour, in a boiling rage about the Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing, and you can feel that urgency — the dangerous thrill of letting out everything she couldn’t say before about being black in America. There’s no studio recording, only live versions, so it always feels like something raw and in the moment. It’s a show-tune, a furious unburdening and an ultimatum. It’s the sound of someone who isn’t going to put up with injustice for one second longer.”  Dorian Lynskey

"Diamonds and Rust" - Joan Baez (1974)

Chosen by Dr Jeremy Leggett, director of Solarcentury and chair of SolarAid

 

“...a perfectly pitched protest song about Bob Dylan’s treatment of her. Baez sings that he was ‘good with words’, especially vague ones. But to be awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature? Perleeease. I protest.”  Dr Jeremy Leggett

"Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves" - Annie Lennox/Eurythmics with Aretha Franklin (1985)

Chosen by Juliet Davenport, CEO of Good Energy 

 

“I don’t believe we should sit back and watch things happen, but rather we should stand up and fight for the change we want to see. To me, this song encourages women and girls not to hang around and wait for the invitation to become leaders.”  Juliet Davenport

"Big Yellow Taxi" - Joni Mitchell (1970)

Chosen by Alistair Barr, Barr Gazetas architects

“This is an early environmental protest song [Mitchell began writing it in 1967]. ‘They paved paradise and put up a parking lot. With a pink hotel, a boutique and a swinging hot spot’. Green belt protectors are still fighting to stop ‘paving paradise’, but fortunately, another line had greater success. ‘Hey farmer, farmer put away that DDT now. Give me spots on my apples but leave me the birds and the bees.’ DDT was banned in the USA 5 years after she wrote this song.”  Alistair Barr

"Jerusalem" - words William Blake/music Hubert Parry (1804/1916)

Chosen by Jonathon Porritt, founder director of Forum for the Future    

 

“It encourages me to go on fighting against ‘the dark satanic mills’ in our environment and in our minds – and because most people belting it out don't have the first clue as to just how radical its message is.”  Jonathon Porritt   

"Strange Fruit" - Billie Holiday (1939) 

Chosen by Sunand Prasad, Penoyre & Prasad architects

"Shipbuilding" - Elvis Costello (1982)

Chosen by Sunand Prasad, Penoyre & Prasad architects

 

“It’s hard to choose between Abel Meeropol’s "Strange Fruit", about the lynching of black people in the American South and made famous by Billie Holiday's 1939 recording; or Elvis Costello’s "Shipbuilding" written during the Falklands War to a melody by Clive Langer [also sung by Robert Wyatt].

"The tremendous power of both songs derives from the subtle and oblique way they start talking about the issues, so that the enormity of what is being described is magnified by the surprise when it hits you. If I had to choose it would be "Shipbuilding" for putting across a penetrating and complex idea with heart-aching simplicity.”  Sunand Prasad

"A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall" - Bob Dylan (1963)

Chosen by Sir Tim Smit, co-founder of the Eden Project

 

“…. partly because it was presciently anti-nuclear but mostly because – with time – it has become an increasingly powerful metaphor for a gamut of social and environmental damage. His Nobel Prize seems somehow fitting, if one of the criteria is that your words remain contemporary with the passing years. A genius of our time and a voice that hints at both the desolation and the better angels of our heart.”  Sir Tim Smit

"With God On Our Side" - Bob Dylan (1963)

Chosen by Tom Shutes, entrepreneur and philanthropist  

 

“The song is a hymn to the reasons we find for justifying conflict of any kind and was aimed at the Vietnam War. It could be just as relevant today, for any number of other issues in the world.” Tom Shutes  

"Walls Come Tumbling Down!" - The Style Council (1985)

Chosen by Daniel Rachel, author of "Walls Come Tumbling Down: the music and politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge" (Picador)

 

"Paul Weller bought the class war of Thatcher’s Britain into the Top 10 with an irresistible melody, proving that pop music could be both educational and get you on the dancefloor.”  Daniel Rachel

Ball of Confusion - The Temptations (1970)

Chosen by Marc Lucero, comedian and filmmaker

 

“We were all into ska and Tamla Motown at the time and when it played in the clubs it blew our minds, and coincided with youth cultural changes in the UK.”  Marc Lucero

See Friends of the Earth's protest history