Writing Protest Songs

“Even protest songs are love songs,” said P.F. Sloan.

[caption id="attachment_206708" align="aligncenter" width="900"] Woody Guthrie, in 1943, with his Gibson L-00 guitar. Public domain[/caption] “Nobody wants to be preached to,” said Paul Simon, in regard to writing what are considered “protest songs,” which means any songs that carry a heavy message. Though people certainly love songs of substance, and those that relate directly to modern times, any message deemed too pointedly political or sanctimonious can diminish the power of the song. Since the goal is to create something timeless, how to do that with timely content remains a significant challenge. But one that songwriters have approached with a singular tool: song craft. Message alone does not make a song great. Even with perfect lyrics, songs need compelling melodies. Woody Guthrie’s belief in the power of song to effect change was exemplified in the sign he attached to his guitar: “This machine kills Fascists.” He’d famously page through the newspaper every morning and immediately write songs based on the news. His greatest songs are the ones that succeeded in transforming those timely specifics into universal song. “This Land Is Your Land” expressed a message fundamental to Woody and the American spirit, that all people are equal: “This land is made…

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