Early American protest music

Early American protest music

What’s a protest song? According to musicologist David King Dunaway, a protest song functions more as a mode for a message, rather than a distinct art form itself.  “It is not popular music… it is not per se folk music…the field of political music includes everything from an electoral song of the 1730s to a punk-rock protest of the 1980s,” he observed in 1987. That means there are a lot of different songs that qualify as protest songs, and we’ll take a brief look at some of the very earliest American protest songs ever written.

Yankee Doodle

Spirit of ’76, painted by Archibald Willard (1836-1918). Public domain

Written around 1755 by a British doctor, Richard Schuckburgh, “Yankee Doodle” has a rather interesting and perhaps unintentionally hilarious history. Although an author is listed for the song, no definitive version of the song exists, with revised lyrics published throughout the late 18th and early 19th century. Further, the song isn’t a work of praise, but an insult.  Queer theorist Henry Abelove connects the song’s title with descriptions of sexual behavior cast in a negative light.  He also explains that the song was originally sung by the British during what we call the French and Indian War to drive down the emotions of the American rebels by describing them as foolish, effeminate, and low-class individuals.  Yet by the Revolution, the Americans began to adopt the song on their own, singing it during victories as a taunt against the British.  By 1794, “Yankee Doodle” was already associated with American identity in a general sense, a sentiment which only grew throughout the 19th century as new lyrics to the song were written and published in line with current events of the time. This folk process of writing new lyrics to old melodies to suit current conditions was the predominant form of protest music composition well into the early 20th century. 

The Preacher and the Slave

Joe Hill. Public domain

Joe Hill was born Joel Hagglund in Sweden in 1879 and immigrated to the US in October 1902. He traveled throughout the U.S. from the time he arrived until his death in 1915, in his role as an activist and union organizer for the International Workers of the World.  While his grisly death by firing squad for a murder he almost certainly did not commit gets attention, he is best known for his songs, which were first published in the Little Red Songbook beginning in 1911.  Like many union-oriented songwriters of the time, he set his lyrics to popular tunes, whether they be hymns, patriotic songs or old folksongs, primarily so that they would be sung by others, particularly those who may not have spoken English as a first language or boasted little education. As he stated in 1914, “A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once. But a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over. If a person can put a few cold, common sense facts into a song and dress them up in a cloak of humor to take the dryness off of them, he will succeed in reaching a great number of workers who are too unintelligent or too indifferent to read a pamphlet or an editorial in economic science.”  Hill wrote “The Preacher and the Slave” in 1911 as a protest against people who believed the only reward for a worker is in heaven.  The chorus – “You will eat, by and by/In that glorious land in the sky/work all day, live on hay/You’ll get pie in the sky when you die (that’s a lie!)” highlighted the starvation wages that many laborers received and the relative inaction of charities and organizations that claimed to help the poor. It is a protest song of labor and social conditions, one that has proven influential enough that “pie in the sky” has made its way into the English language as a phrase of its own.

Lift Every Voice and Sing

James Weldon Johnson, by Carl Van Vechten, ca. 1932. Public domain

When Harry Pace established Black Swan, the first Black-owned record label, in 1921, he also sought to involve as many Black leaders as possible, including some of the most respected names in America at that time.  On his board of directors was W.E.B. Dubois and his talent pool included James Weldon Johnson, a songwriter, former attorney and music instructor who wrote one of the most enduring civil rights anthems of the 20th century.  “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” co-written with his brother John Rosamond Johnson, was initially written in 1900 as part of a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s life.  It was distributed primarily through word of mouth, but became well-known enough that in 1919, the NAACP declared it “the Negro National Anthem.”  The Johnson Brothers recorded their version for Black Swan Records and released it in August 1923. This was the second recording of this song, however – the first is by the Manhattan Harmony Four, which was released only a few months earlier in April 1923. By 1938, “Lift Every Voice” had become known in popular culture as a song performed in place of older tunes that reflected negative stereotypes, and today, covers abound, with versions by BeBe Winans, Beyonce and Aretha Franklin.  The National Football League featured a version by Alicia Keys in September 2020.

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