Writing Protest Songs

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

Woody Guthrie, in 1943, with his Gibson L-00 guitar. Public domain

“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 for you and me.” It’s the same message, and one that remains relevant to this day, in his song “Deportees,” which decries the injustice of allowing undocumented workers to come over our border to work in farms and orchards, only to ultimately deport them. It’s an issue that rings true now more than ever, and the song has risen to prominence again.

But the fact remains both of these songs share an important ingredient: great song craft. Each has a lovely melody. Woody knew that without a strong tune, nobody will remember your song. For “Deportees,” instead of writing a new tune, he adapted a beautiful waltz-time melody by Martin Hoffman. To this he wed words of simplicity and poetry, and hung the whole song on the title, thus focusing on the inherent injustice of its meaning: “But you won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane/ All they will call you will be ‘Deportees.’”  

Woody solved the preaching problem not by pontificating on why this is wrong, but simply by presenting the sad irony to the listener, and allowing them to make their own judgment. That tactic, in accord with an appealing melody gracing rhymed lines in meter, creates a song that doesn’t speak down to the listener, but invites them instead to participate.

Bob Dylan, who became known as the greatest of all protest songwriters, also followed in Woody’s footprints. To focus on the irony of justifying war for humanitarian reasons, in “With God On Our Side,” he also wed a lovely ¾ time melody with lyrics that do not comment on the irony as much as present it for the listener to judge. Addressing the genocide of Native Americans, he sings, “The cavalry charged/ The Indians died/ Oh the country was young/ With God on its side.”

It’s a method employed by many since who have written what can be considered protest songs. Present your point with a good catchy tune and lyrics that allow the listener to get the message without hammering it too bluntly. Subtlety and irony go farther in song than anything too overt.

Springsteen used the same tactic, most famously, in “Born In The USA.” He drove home the irony of national pride in the wake of Vietnam. In the voice of a man broken by battle, rather than tell us this story, he goes right inside it. The anthemic chorus drives home the words of the title only, “born in the USA,” with an intensity bordering on desperation, like a drowning man clinging to the one thing that can save him.

Famously, that irony was missed entirely by Ronald Reagan, who heard it as perfect theme song for his 1980 presidential campaign. Yet its message was hardly cloaked. From a “dead man’s town,” in the first verse, he describes himself ”like a dog that’s been beat too much,” and leads us through the horror of Vietnam, ending with a shadow of a man, unemployed, abandoned and broken by virtue of being born in this country.

That Reagan heard only the words of the chorus, and none of the story spelled out in the verses, points to the fact that Springsteen did a good job. The song is not intended as parody. It’s the character’s authentic expression, which points to despair beyond words. Springsteen created that chorus to reveal the depth and intensity of that despair.

In all of these examples, and other famous ones such as Neil Young’s “Ohio,” Stephen Stills’  “For What It’s Worth,” and Dylan’s “Hurricane,” each song shares that same quality that enriches all songs and gives them sustaining power. That is great song craft, merging lyrics which show rather than tell the story, with melodies as beautiful as the greatest songs. P.F. Sloan, who wrote “Eve of Destruction,” always said that melody was as romantic as a melody for a love song. Even protest songs, he said, are love songs. Love songs for humanity.