It's all in how one points the finger, sings the lyric, builds the music with honesty, clarity, complexity, irony and, most often, cut-to-the-chase power.
We asked the DJs of 88.1 KDHX to weigh in with their all-time favorite protest songs. Here's 40 of them. Raise your voice in the comments and add your own picks.
And join your friends at KDHX on Thursday, April 11 at 7 p.m. for a special event at the Missouri History Museum: "All the News That's Fit to Sing: The State of Protest Music in 1968." The band Rough Shop will perform and KDHX DJ John Wendland will discuss socially conscious music from this pivotal year.
"A Change Is Gonna Come" by Sam Cooke Protest music often emphasizes the words over the music. This track shows that if you have an achingly beautiful musical backdrop it can create something that's even more memorable. Rich Reese, "Pop! The Beat Bubble Burst"
Sadly released posthumously. An almost battle-weary vocal by Sam Cooke belies a quietly powerful song which epitomized the ongoing civil rights movement. Dr. Jeff, "The Big Bang!"
"Ballad of Accounting" by Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger Written in the early '60s, Kirsty MacColl's dad and step-mom deliver a scathing attack on the class system. "Were you the maker or the tool?" English bands like the Kinks and the Subhumans have continued to take on this subject of cradle to the grave existence and opportunity under the ruling class. "Did they teach you how to question when you were at the school? / Did the factory help you, were you the maker or the tool? / Did the place where you were living enrich your life and then / Did you reach some understanding of all your fellow men, / all your fellow men, all your fellow men?" bobEE Sweet, "Uncontrollable Urge"
"Bid 'Em In" by Oscar Brown, Jr. In auction tone and style, Oscar Brown, Jr. puts the slave trade in your face with the selling of people like machines and livestock. On this track from 1960 he focuses on how women were sold, their attributes as sex slaves, breeders for more slaves, as well as field and house work. bobEE Sweet, "Uncontrollable Urge"
"Clampdown" by the Clash Oppression can takes many forms, and governments do not hold a monopoly on tyranny. Ideas crush people, breaking their wills as easily as truncheon-wielding thugs break bones, none more odious than the idea that things have to be this way, that we're powerless to change them, or worse, that nothing needs to changed. Apathy is the enemy. No one ever kicked the status quo so squarely in the balls as the Clash, or looked cooler doing it. Keith Dudding, "Down Yonder"
"Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival Unlike protest songs such as "Ohio," "Fortunate Son" can be applied directly to today's situation. The song asks: Is it children of privilege or the disenfranchised that fight these wars? Rich Reese, "Pop! The Beat Bubble Burst"
"Get Up, Stand Up" by Bob Marley and the Wailers The sentiment of this song is universal. It's about taking action to avoid oppression. Protestors around the world have found solidarity in its simplicity both musically and lyrically. It was also the last song Marley ever performed. Mr. Roots, "The Night Shift"
"Hallelujah! I'm A Bum" by Harry "Haywire Mac" McClintock Best known today for his excellent "Big Rock Candy Mountain" after it's appearance in the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," Wobbly singer Utah Phillips says this one is his all-time favorite song. A celebration of drop-out/alternative culture that rejects capitalism as neither logical, fair, sane nor just. This recording is from 1928 (look for an also out-of-print Rounder Records LP by the same name containing 16 of his recordings). It was first published in the IWW Bulletin of April 4, 1908, and many claim it dates from around eight to 13 years prior to that. He wrote the lyrics, but the tune is from the Salvation Army's "Revive Us Again," a pattern many of the tramp and Wobbly songs followed in the early 20th century, turning those pious songs on their heads. (Bonus: An awesome version by Svend Asmussen.) bobEE Sweet, "Uncontrollable Urge"
"I Ain't Marchin Anymore" by Phil Ochs Open the Phil Ochs songbook to any page, and chances are you'll have your finger on a protest song of passion and power. In this one, perhaps his most famous, Ochs walks us through our nation's bloody history from the Battle of New Orleans to the bombing of Nagasaki. Never one to obscure his message under poetry lest his point should be missed, Ochs puts it right there in the refrain so it will be repeated, and everyone can sing along. Keith Dudding, "Down Yonder"
"Inner City Blues" by Marvin Gaye The entire "What's Going On" album is a protest masterpiece, and possibly the greatest album of all time. War, drugs, poverty: Think about it...a song about the mental state of people in inner city America with Detroit as the basis and written over 40 years ago. It's still chilling. Doug McKay, "The Juke Joint"
"Kill the Poor" by Dead Kennedys By using sarcastic language the DKs made it clear what the neutron bomb was about: the ability to wipe out our enemies without destroying valuable property and resources and the potential that this could be used on your own people. "No sense in war, but perfect sense at home." Most people got the message, but a few thought they really believed in killing the poor. bobEE Sweet, "Uncontrollable Urge"
"Legalise It" by Peter Tosh Tosh opened up the world's eyes and ears in a meditation towards the benefits of marijuana use, while contradicting those members of society who are staunch opponents in front of the camera, while off camera they are the same ones smoking a joint. Ital-K, "Ital Rhythms"
"The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" by Bob Dylan In the course of the 5 minutes and 45 seconds of this song, I feel sad helplessness, righteous rage and deep despair for the woman who did nothing except her job and got murdered in the process. I wish this song wasn't still relevant, and I grieve for every innocent life offered up to the altar of wealth, power and corruption to this day. Cat Pick, "Emotional Rescue"
Still devastating after all these years. John Wendland, "Memphis to Manchester"
"Louder Than a Bomb" by Public Enemy The rhythm is the rebel. Another album to get your resistance on to. "A bit of the song so you can never be wrong/Just a bit of advice, 'cause we be payin' the price/'Cause every brother mans life/Is like swingin' the dice, right?" bobEE Sweet, "Uncontrollable Urge"
"March to the Witch's Castle" by Funkadelic Depicts the return home from Vietnam that many soldiers faced after combat. While there were specifics to that situation, it certainly applies to current veterans as well as those throughout history. And all with heavy, dark, slow bluesy guitar, George Clinton must have met some soldiers coming out of or going into a dark place: "They know not who or what they were fighting for." bobEE Sweet, "Uncontrollable Urge"
"The Marines Have Landed on the Shores of Santo Domingo" by Phil Ochs This song paints an amazing picture of what it looks like when soldiers arrive. It's one of my favorite Phil Ochs' songs: "A bullet cracks the sound, the army hit the ground/The sniper is callin'/So they open their guns, a thousand to one/no sense in stalling/He clutches at his head and totters on the edge/Look how he's falling." bobEE Sweet, "Uncontrollable Urge"
"Mississippi Goddamn" by Nina Simone The live version starts as a jaunty "show tune," but then, dead seriously, Simone says, "and I mean every word of it." Her phrasing makes you listen very carefully to the lyrics about the treatment of blacks in the South, and she makes a great statement by shooting down the refrain of "go slow" with her piano playing that speeds up throughout the song. Andrea, "Radio Rio"
"My Uncle" by the Flying Burrito Brothers There are a million war protest songs, but this tune by Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons was personal, first heard as I sat in my college dorm awaiting the draft lottery. One of many great, catchy songs by the way too short-lived, classic Hillman and Parsons Burrito Brothers. Ed Becker, "Songwriters Showcase"
"My Youngest Son Came Home Today" by Billy Bragg Another sad and beautiful song which conveys the agony of war. From 1990's "The Internationale." Rich Reese, "Pop! The Beat Bubble Burst"
"Ohio" by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young This song is seared into the memories of all who witnessed the outrage of the Kent State shootings. Protest music very often can be applied to similar circumstances, but this one is locked in to the early '70s. Rich Reese, "Pop! The Beat Bubble Burst"
"Persons Unknown" by Poison Girls A split 7" release along with Crass' "Bloody Revolutions," a great little protest package, that helped fund the Autonomy Center in London. The song makes a list of all the "Persons Unknown": "Hey there Mr. Average, you don't exist you never did/Hiding in shadows, Persons unknown/Habits of hiding soon will be the death of us/Dying in secret from poisons unknown." There was a trial in 1979 charging Iris Mills, Ronan Bennett, Vince Stevenson, Trevor Dawton, Dafydd Ladd and Stewart Carr for conspiring with "persons unknown" to cause explosions. They were acquitted. The song takes these persons unknown as a starting point for listing who it/we could be, from housewives to truants, rastas to bikers, astronauts to DJs. bobEE Sweet, "Uncontrollable Urge"
"Power to the People" by John Lennon Most of John Lennon's politically charged protest music funneled creativity away from the music and redirected it to the lyrics. This one manages to retain a pulsating beat and catchy saxophone hook. Rich Reese, "Pop! The Beat Bubble Burst"
"Rappaport's Testament: I Never Gave Up" by Chumbawamba The band's fourth full-length studio album "Slap!" took it further away from the anarcho/peace-punk sound of the early '80s and is full of terrific pop songs from personal perspectives: stories about Ulrike Meinhof (Baader-Meinhof gang), author Zora Neale Hurston's explanation for running a red light (the green light is for whites, so the red light must be for me), Tiananmen Square, and the toppling of Stalin's Statue. "Rappaport's Testament" turns the true story of Leon Rappaport (from Primo Levy's book "Moments of Reprieve," about the people he met in the Auschwitz concentration camp) into a song of resistance. A man who refused to let Hitler "get the better of him" despite his living conditions and certain fate. Ted Leo often covers this song in concert. (Bonus: Chumbawamba has so many great socially conscious songs, I could have made a list dedicated solely to that band. "Jacob's Ladder" is another classic.) bobEE Sweet, "Uncontrollable Urge"
"Redemption Song" by Bob Marley and the Wailers This song was released as Marley's last single before his death, and it sums up his life and what he stood for in his songs: freedom and redemption. One of Marley's most beautiful songs, it gave hope to the downtrodden around the world. It's a powerful piece of both music and poetry. Mr. Roots, "The Night Shift"
"Revolution" by the Beatles John Lennon wasn't calling for a revolt -- unless it was with flowers -- but the song was still very polarizing when it came out in 1968. Check out Nina Simone's version for a very different, more direct take. But, man, the song rocks. Rich Reese, "Pop! The Beat Bubble Burst"
Revolution" by Dennis Brown The opening verse asks a pivotal question of mankind: "Do you know what it means to have a revolution? What it takes to make a solution? Fighting against oppression (ooh yeah), battering down repression." It's something to think about as Brown harmonizes away. Ital-K, "Ital Rhythms"
"Shame on You" by the Indigo Girls Amy Ray was inspired to write this song (originally released on 1997's "Shaming of the Sun") by David Zeiger's documentary "Displaced in the New South," examining the life of Vietnamese and Mexican immigrants in Atlanta. The revelatory tone of the music sharply contrasts the themes of xenophobia and racial profiling in the lyrics. Caron House, "Wax Lyrical"
"Signs" by Five Man Electrical Band This tune was easy for me to understand; it got to the point. As a 12-year-old kid at the time, I especially liked this part: "And the sign said, 'Long-haired freaky people need not apply'/So I tucked my hair up under my hat and I went in to ask him why/He said, 'You look like a fine upstanding young man, I think you'll do'/So I took off my hat, I said, 'Imagine that. Huh! Me workin' for you!'" Power to the counter culture! Carlos, "Latin Hemispheres"
"The Sins of a Family" by P.F. Sloan The prolific P.F. Sloan is best known for writing Barry McGuire's mega-hit protest song "Eve Of Destruction." I really like this tune he wrote about child abuse and judging people because of where they come from. The duet version with the addition of Lucinda Williams' road-weary vocals is especially chilling. Ed Becker, "Songwriters Showcase"
"Strange Fruit" by Billie Holiday and Nina Simone Both versions are amazingly powerful because they really make you listen to the lyrics. My mom listened to a lot of the great jazz vocalists when I was young and I used to try and learn all the words and sing along. I clearly remember realizing that "Strange Fruit" was not necessarily a "sing-along" song because of the graphic and powerful lyrics about lynching. Andrea, "Radio Rio"
Written by Lewis Allen (aka Abel Meeropol). Billie Holiday's label, Columbia, wouldn't release her recording of "Strange Fruit" due to the content of the song, lynching, so she took it to Commodore. The powerful song became her closing number during performances. I suppose you could have this on as background and think it's a torch song, but that would be hard to do; while full of metaphor it's also pretty straightforward. bobEE Sweet, "Uncontrollable Urge"
"Street Fighting Man" by the Rolling Stones This track caught the essence of the growing anti-war sentiment developing at the time of the song's release, the summer of 1968, as reflected by the opening verse which set the revolutionary: "Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy / 'Cause summer's here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy." Dr. Jeff, "The Big Bang!"
"This Ain't No Picnic" by Minutemen More poetic and stripped down than many anti-work songs, "This Ain't No Picnic" punctuates the lyrics as the band does so well by punching up the music, in a great, three-piece, bouncing, frantic, time-shifting way: "I should go pitch a tent but our land isn't free/So I'll work my youth away in the place of a machine/I refuse to be a slave." bobEE Sweet, "Uncontrollable Urge"
"This Is Not a song, It's an Outburst, or the Establishment Blues" by Rodriguez This one is kind of personal. Being from South Africa, the recent rockumentary "Searching for Sugar Man" shed a lot of light on the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and how Rodriguez inspired many of the indigenous artists I grew up with, and influenced their music in such a way, that it is unconceivable I missed the link. The only problem was, I had no idea that few people in America knew about Rodriguez. The man taught South Africans that it is OK to question their government and voice their unhappiness about inequalities. I grew up with his records, and frankly, I did not know that I knew people that did not know him. Amy Caby, "Velvet Punch"
"Trouble Every Day" by Frank Zappa This song was originally released on "Freak Out" in 1966. A much more audience friendly version can be found on the 1974 release "Roxy and Elsewhere." "Trouble Every Day," written while watching the news reports of the Watts riots, offers gripping social commentary on the state of America during the height of racial and socioeconomic unrest in the '60s, and it's a damn fine tune to boot. Dan Kinney, "The Smoking Lounge"
"Vietnam" by Jimmy Cliff This is one of my favorite and most powerful protest songs of all time. Bob Dylan called it "the best protest song I've ever heard." What more needs to be said? Professor Skank, "Positive Vibrations"
"War" by Bob Marley and the Wailers Actual words taken from Haile Selassie's 1936 speech to the United Nations addressing human rights. Issues we're still confronted with today. Ital-K, "Ital Rhythms"
"War" by Edwin Starr Classic. The ultimate anti-war song. Says it all: "War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!" Plus you can groove to it. Covered by D.O.A. and Bruce Springsteen among others. bobEE Sweet, "Uncontrollable Urge"
"We Can't Make It Here Anymore" by James McMurtry Like many of the greatest protest songs, McMurtry's jeremiad challenges not just the powerful but the listener, you and me. The song draws connections -- between violence, class, war and poverty -- and in a flood of imagery, demands that we not look away. Roy Kasten, "Feel Like Going Home"
"What the World Needs Now Is Love (Remix)" by Jackie DeShannon and Tom Clay A DJ in Detroit named Tom Clay made a remix of the 1965 hit "What the World Needs Now Is Love" in 1971 with added commentary and sound bites. It had a major impact for me. I memorized it and would recite it, letting folks know that we still need love! Carlos, "Latin Hemispheres"
"Where Next Columbus?" by Crass Another band whose entire canon could be in such a list. In 1981, Crass did its feminist album (if you get this on CD, get 2010's remastered "Crassical Collection" version) with Eve Libertine and Joy De Vivre singing all the songs. This one has a great bass line, and questions at least a major part of the totality of modern life and oppression brought about by leaders and followers, the other and the self: "Who's your leader, which is your flock, who do you watch?" bobEE Sweet, "Uncontrollable Urge"
"Whitey on the Moon" by Gil Scott-Heron "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" is probably Scott-Heron's greatest protest song, but this one's fun too. He wanted to give credit where due, so since he was inspired by whitey on the moon, he named the song after it. His argument is people are suffering from poverty, disease and war, and whitey (aka the powers that be) is up there playing around on the moon: "A rat done bit my sister Nell / And whitey's on the moon." bobEE Sweet, "Uncontrollable Urge"