September-October 2008

When Woody Guthrie shipped out in the Merchant Marines in 1942, he hung one of those signs on his guitar. He was on three different ships, two of which got torpedoed. It was hard to get a crew for that third ship, for his reputation was such that it was said that if Woody was on a ship, it was sure to get hit. But the troops loved his music--he and his friend Cisco Houston entertained them throughout the war.

Woody also sang for the war effort at home. One evening, he, and two great Black folk singers, Leadbelly and Josh White, were invited to perform at a fundraiser for the war effort. After the performance Woody was asked to dinner. When Woody realized that Leadbelly and Josh White had not been asked to join him, the host told him: "You have to understand, Mr. Guthrie, your friends are black." Thereupon, Woody turned the banquet-laden table upside down, sending all the food to the ground, telling his host: "This fight against fascism has got to start right here at home."

Woody felt his music was also an essential part of the war effort. He made up songs about the heroes who died on board The Good Reuben James, the first American battleship sunk during the war, and about the Merchant Marines, and the sailors he came to know during the time he spent overseas.

He kept the sign on his guitar when he came back home after the war was over. To Woody, a song wasn't just a pretty melody that helped you forget your troubles--it was a weapon in the struggle for social justice and progress. It helped inspire people and make them feel that they were a part of something larger than themselves. During the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and the peace movement, songs were sung on the picket lines, in the churches, in the jails, on the highways from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, and on the Greyhound buses during the 1960 Freedom Rides. In short, wherever there are protests, there are protest songs.

Songs have given courage, comfort and hope to those whose lives were endangered in the struggle against racial prejudice, economic injustice, and The Masters of War, as Bob Dylan called them.

In the face of such powerful enemies, a song may seem a slender weapon indeed. And yet corporate networks have been afraid to send them over the airwaves. Songs have given Black people in the South the courage to face police dogs and fire hoses, and inspired oppressed people as far away as Tian An Men Square to believe that they too can become free, that they too "shall overcome."

But songs can do more than inspire. They can help us to understand our troubles--they can teach and inform. The purpose of "the little red songbook," first put out by the Wobblies in 1909, was stated with blunt eloquence: "To Fan the Flames of Discontent." They educated the downtrodden, the working stiffs, the unskilled workers--men, women and children--who were left out of the trade unions represented by the A.F. of L. And songs did it with a sense of humor, optimism, and joie de vivre:


Are you cold, forlorn and hungry?

Are there lots of things you lack?

Is your life made up of misery?

Then dump the bosses off your back.

All the agonies you suffer

You could end with one good whack.

Stiffen up, you ornery duffer,

And dump the bosses off your back!


Many of their songs were parodies of old hymns:

Praise boss when morning work bells chime;

Praise him for bits of overtime.

Praise him whose wars we love to fight;

Praise him, fat leech and parasite



One song in particular came to embody the aspirations of women who worked in the mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts, and who went out on strike in January of 1912. They demanded not only safer working conditions and a ten-hour day, they marched for "Bread and Roses," roses symbolizing time for culture, for education, for developing their minds:


Small art and love and beauty

Their drudging spirits knew.

Oh, yes, it's bread we fight for,

But we fight for roses, too.

(Words by James Oppenheim; music by Caroline Kohlsaat)


Songs like Bread and Roses articulated a vision of a better society, and a means to bring it about. Long after many of these early labor battles were fought and won, the songs remain as a part of the record of the American Revolution, which did not end in 1783--but continues as an unfolding story.

A new chapter was added during the Great Depression. In 1937 the workers at the GM plant in Flint, Michigan, employed a heretofore untried strike tactic. Instead of going out on strike, the auto workers sat down, and occupied the plant until the company agreed to recognize the United Auto Workers. The theme song of that strike was doubly significant in the history of music and social progress. Called Sit Down, it was written by a young attorney who represented the strikers, Maurice Sugar, who a few years earlier had written the classic soupline song called simply, The Soup Song:


I'm spending my nights in the flophouse;

I'm spending my days on the street.

I'm looking for work and I find none;

I wish I had something to eat.

Soo-ooop, soo-ooop,

They give me a bowl of soup.

Soo-ooop, soo-ooop,

They give me a bowl of soup

(Tune: My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean)


In 1937, Maurice Sugar also helped band together a disparate group of left-wing lawyers who were involved in labor and civil rights cases across the country into The National Lawyers Guild. As both a lawyer and people's songwriter, Sugar saw that radical attorneys could be more effective if they were organized along the same lines as workers--so it is no surprise that the organization he founded should have first provided a forum for this essay on the stories behind ten of America's greatest protest songs.*

Not "Top Ten" or "Best Loved"--most of America's greatest protest songs have never appeared on the hit parade. Malvina Reynolds said that she would rather hear her songs sung on the picket line than on the Billboard pop charts. These are the songs that have become a part of American history--not just musical history, but the history of struggle to fulfill the promises made in the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. These are the songs that are literally part of the life blood of our nation. They have given people courage to face the southern sheriffs and Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s, to confront the hired deputy gun thugs in the coalfields of the 1930s, and to refuse to be frightened by the captains of industry and their threats, intimidation and even murder to prevent labor from organizing.


There wasn't much poetry in those old protest songs.

Nothing was blowing in the wind;

No one wondered where the flowers had gone.


They pulled no punches--they told the truth

Of the terrible things they had seen;

They were hard-hitting songs for hard-hit people

Who say what they mean.

Truth came out swinging

When those old troubadours played;

Aunt Molly Jackson

Never made the Hit Parade.

Aunt Molly Jackson, By Ross Altman (c) 1994 Grey Goose Music


The stories behind these songs are as revealing as the songs themselves about the kind of people who challenged the system, who changed the status quo, and who took democracy out of the civics class and 4th of July parades and into the streets. Their story is the story of America, at our worst and best. Here, then, are my picks for the ten greatest protest songs-ten songs that, with apologies to John Reed, shook the world.


10) Which Side Are You On: The Difference Between Folk and Labor Songs

Choosing America's greatest labor song is easy, once you get past Solidarity Forever. Solidarity Forever stands there like the Praetorian Guard, protecting the idea of the union. It is the one indisputable Wobbly classic not written by Joe Hill. It was written by portrait painter and organizer Ralph Chaplin, and became the unofficial anthem of the labor movement in America and as such it is no longer really a song, but rather a ceremony; like singing the Star-Spangled Banner before a baseball game, it is used to formally open or close a union meeting.

Folklore, from John Henry to Davy Crockett, celebrates the individual, the larger-than-life hero who challenges the system--in John Henry's case the industrial machine and in Davy Crockett's the unknown, the "wild frontier"--and either wins or dies trying. John Henry, of course, did both. He beat the steam drill, but at the cost of his life. Solidarity Forever defines the basic philosophy of the labor movement: That it is not the one larger-than-life hero that we need to depend on, but rather "the union" that "makes us strong."

No one put the idea more dramatically and defiantly than Florence Reece, who wrote her classic labor song, Which Side Are You On? in Harlan County, Kentucky, in 1931, during the height of the coalfield wars. Florence Reece was the wife of a mine worker and union organizer, Sam Reece. On the day she wrote her famous song she wasn't sitting calmly at her desk, rhyming dictionary to her left and a cup of coffee to her right, the way we might imagine a songwriter at work. She wasn't concerned about her neighbor's stereo being too loud to concentrate. She wouldn't have been able to hear the stereo over the gunfire that was coming directly into her house--aimed at her husband, Sam, who was a declared enemy of the company bosses and their agent, Sheriff J.H. Blair.

Apparently negotiations had broken down and Sheriff Blair had decided to resort to his fallback position--hired gun thugs. As the bullets were ricocheting off the walls, Florence Reece became so angry that she ripped her calendar off the kitchen wall and penned the words that defined the essence of those early labor struggles: Which side are you on?


They say in Harlan County

There are no neutrals there.

You'll either be a union man

Or a thug for J.H. Blair.


O workers, can you stand it?

O tell me how you can.

Will you be a lousy scab

Or will you be a man?

Don't listen to the bosses;

Don't listen to their lies

'Cause poor folks haven't got a chance

Unless we organize--

Which side are you on?

Which side are you on?


Years later, Bob Dylan, in Desolation Row, wrote:


Praise be to Nero's Neptune

the Titanic sails at dawn

Everyone is shouting

'Which side are you on?'


Even though he uses the line ironically, it's one of only three times in all of his recorded work where he directly quotes another songwriter. To a member of the folk/rock generation that's better than being in Bartlett's.


9) Waist Deep in CBS

The man who popularized, if he did not coin, the word, "hootenanny," Pete Seeger was never invited to appear on the short-lived and squeamish commercial "folk music" program of the same name, hosted by Jack Linkletter on ABC in the early 1960s. Blacklisted since his appearance and refusal to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, Pete had to wait until 1967 before the Cold War had thawed sufficiently for him to be invited to appear on network T.V. The network that finally broke the ice was not ABC, "where more Americans get their news than from any other source"--but CBS. CBS permitted the Smothers Brothers to invite Seeger on their program, but they weren't about to let him sing the most powerful anti-Vietnam War song Pete or anyone else had written: Waist Deep in the Big Muddy. No, Pete arrived in the studios and was flat out told that he would have to sing his gently plaintive, lovely but unthreatening anti-war song for all occasions: Where Have All the Flowers Gone? Better than nothing at all, so Pete, gentleman that he was and is, obliged.

To their everlasting credit, the Smothers Brothers went to bat for Pete and finally prevailed on the network to invite him back to sing the song he wanted to sing.

Pete never sounded better, as this World War II veteran spoke loud and clear to Lyndon Baines Johnson and the kids who were now being asked to shed their blood for our least noble of wars:


It was back in 1942;

I was a member of a good platoon.

We were on maneuvers in Louisiana

One night by the light of the moon.

The captain told us to ford a river;

That's how it all begun.

We were knee-deep in the Big Muddy;

The big fool says to push on.

Well, the sergeant said, 'Sir, are you sure

This is the best way back to the base?'

"Sergeant, go on. I forded this river

'Bout a mile above this place.

It'll be a little soggy, but just keep sloggin';

We'll soon be on dry ground.

We were waist deep in the Big Muddy

And the big fool says to push on.

Well, the sergeant said, 'Sir, with all this equipment

No man will be able to swim.'

'Sergeant, don't be a nervous Nellie,'

The captain said to him.

"All we need is a little determination.

Men, follow me--I'll lead on."

We were neck deep in the Big Muddy

And the big fool says to push on.


He showed that a folk singer has the same obligation which H.L. Mencken ascribed to the journalist: "To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." As Pete said recently, looking back on that episode in a PBS interview with Bill Moyers, "I'm not the only one who believes that songs can make a difference--evidently the censors believe it, too, or they wouldn't have kept me off the air."

8) "The Bourgeois Blues and the King of the 12-String Guitar

Pete Seeger learned from the best, and one of the people he learned most from was Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, the self-proclaimed "King of the 12-String Guitar." Leadbelly came out of the Louisiana swamplands, born on the same day as Dr. Martin Luther King, January 15 (approx. 1888). For many years, no one knew when Leadbelly was born, since census takers in the 1880s didn't keep records of black people's births and deaths. By the time he died, though, of Lou Gehrig's disease at the age of 61, he was famous, and the date was duly noted: December 6, 1949. Six months after his death, after a life filled with frustration and punishing reminders of racism at every turn, Leadbelly's theme song, Goodnight Irene, was at the top of the hit parade, recorded by the Weavers, the pioneer folk quartet founded by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays in 1949. Goodnight Irene that stayed on top of the hit parade for 13 weeks, setting a record that lasted a quarter century, until 1975. Neither Elvis nor the Beatles had a number one song at the top of the charts longer than the Weavers, and it was Leadbelly who put them there.

Nonetheless, it is not for "Goodnight Irene" activists celebrate Leadbelly, but for a song that endures as the classic outcry against the Jim Crow laws that defined the society in which Leadbelly lived until a modern Joshua--Mrs. Rosa Parks--began the battle in which those walls came tumbling down. That song, "The Bourgeois Blues," came about as the result of the invitation Leadbelly received from John and Alan Lomax to record for the newly formed folk music archives at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Leadbelly, the man who had sung his way out of the notorious Sugarland Prison in Texas--with the help of the Lomaxes--was good enough to record for the government in Washington, D.C., but in 1935 he couldn't find a hotel that would accept him as a guest while he was recording. He complained to Alan Lomax--the left-wing son of the conservative Texan John Lomax--who had made his reputation as a collector of cowboy songs. Alan told Leadbelly: "Don't be upset--Washington ain't nothing but a bourgeois town anyway." Leadbelly described his D.C. experience in a song made all the more powerful by the driving bass runs of his 12-string guitar:


Me and my wife went all over town;

Everywhere we'd go the people turned us down.

Me and Martha were standing upstairs;

I heard a white man say, 'I don't want no n-----s there.'

White folks in Washington, they know how

Throw a colored man a nickel just to see him bow.

Home of the brave, land of the free;

Don't want to be mistreated by no bourgeoisie.

It's a bourgeois town;

It's a bourgeois town.

I got the bourgeois blues,

And I'm gonna spread the news around."

7) Not All Protest Songs are Angry--"What Have They Done to the Rain?"

Like Florence Reece, Malvina Reynolds was a housewife, but not by choice. With a Ph.D. in English, she had trained for a teaching career and had been accepted for a teaching position at U.C. Berkeley, long before Berkeley became identified with the Free Speech Movement and 1960s radicalism. A condition of employment, however, was that she (like all state employees) sign a loyalty oath, which she refused to do. Needing to contribute to her family's income, Malvina fell back on the least likely source of funds imaginable--writing protest songs.

She started sending songs back East, to Pete Seeger's fledgling organization "People's Songs," hoping to get some published and perhaps recorded. Pete, acknowledging that he did not transcend the male chauvinism of his time, figured she was one more housewife and weekend artist. But Malvina didn't send one or two songs and get discouraged--every week's mail brought a new batch of songs from "this Berkeley housewife." Finally, Pete concluded that she was "a female Woody Guthrie," who turned out a ballad or two before breakfast every morning. A socialist before she was a feminist and a feminist before Betty Friedan had published The Feminine Mystique, one of her early songs was called, We Don't Need the Men, based on a Coronet magazine article:


It says in Coronet magazine--

June, 1956, page 10--

That married women are not as happy

As women who have no men.

Married women are cranky,

Frustrated and disgusted,

While single women are happy and free,

Creative and well adjusted.

We don't need the men;

We don't need the men.

We don't need to have them around,

Except for now and then...

She earned the most royalties for songs like Turn Around, recorded by Harry Belafonte, and Little Boxes, recorded by Pete Seeger. But for those in the peace movement, the song that still says it best is the one that Joan Baez called "the gentlest protest song I know," What Have They Done to the Rain?

Just a little rain, falling all around;

The grass lifts its head to the heavenly sound.

Just a little rain, just a little rain--

What have they done to the rain?


Just a little boy, standing in the rain--

The gentle rain that falls for years.

The grass is gone, the boy disappears,

And rain keeps falling like helpless tears.

What have they done to the rain?"


Thirty years after the fallout from nuclear testing that inspired the song, it is now sung as an environmental song apropos of the acid rain that plagues the northeast, the sad legacy of the pollution that comes from as far away as the coal mines of West Virginia and Kentucky.

6) "The Power and the Glory": The Only Phil Ochs Song That Anita Bryant Ever Recorded

Phil Ochs was sitting on his bed at his sister Sonny's house in Far Rockaway, New York, when she heard him playing the same passage over and over on his old Sunburst Gibson, the same kind of guitar that Woody Guthrie decorated with his battle cry (taken directly from a California defense plant), "This Machine Kills Fascists." Sonny came into his room and asked him, "Phil, what are you doing?"

"I've just written my greatest song," he replied. "What's it called?" "I don't know yet. I haven't written the words."

That's a chastening story to songwriters with a message, for whom the music is often incidental to the song's social purpose, whatever it might be. And it is a revealing answer to the question must often asked of songwriters: which comes first, the words or the music?

Like switch-hitting Mickey Mantle, it can go either way. Pete Seeger and Lee Hays wrote the words to If I Had a Hammer before Pete set it to music. W.S. Gilbert wrote the words before he gave them to Arthur Sullivan. Not so with George Gershwin, who usually presented his brother Ira with the music first. But what happens when Rogers and Hammerstein are not two persons with distinctly assigned tasks, but one flesh, one mind and one guitar?

According to Phil Ochs, the music led him to the apex of his creative life. His "greatest song," for which he had not written the words, turned out to be "The Power and the Glory," one of the most moving patriotic anthems of our times. Is it a protest song? Well, that depends on your idea of patriotism:


Here is a land full of power and glory,

Beauty that words cannot recall.

Her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom;

Glory shall rest on us all.

But she's only as rich as the poorest of the poor,

Only as free as a padlocked prison door,

Only as strong as our love for this land,

Only as tall as we stand.


Not your typical patriotic song, and certainly not your typical "Anita Bryant song," but she, along with countless others, did indeed record it.

And, by the way, where did Phil Ochs learn his radicalism and suspicion of the military? Where did the man who wrote, I Ain't Marching Any More learn to march? Why, in a Virginia military academy, where else?

The End of Part 1

Ross Altman has a Ph.D. in English. Before becoming a full-time folk singer he taught college English and Speech. He now sings around California for libraries, unions, schools, political groups and folk festivals. You can reach Ross at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


All Columns by Ross Altman