Songwriter U: On the Quandary of Writing Protest Songs

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

How song craft matters in protest songs as much as in Pop.

“Nobody wants to be preached to in songs,” said Paul Simon, in regard to writing what are considered protest songs. These are songs which express pointed messages about problems in our country or all countries with the aim of promoting social justice. They’re about giving voice to the voiceless, and presenting perspectives on our moment in history, and ways in which we can unify to effect real change which can benefit our nation, and all people. To champion the understanding that despite our borders, all people are one, and can be reminded of our bonds of common humanity by the power of song. 

All of which is admirably ambitious in theory. But how does one do that with song in a way the message is clearly articulated while still creating a compelling song? Regardless of the message, if the song fails as an essential song – that crucial merger of language and music – it ultimately fails.

Even if a song expresses exactly that message which you deem the most important, if it’s done in a dull, dry or ponderous way, it will be a song few will ever hear, or want to hear again.

People certainly appreciate and even love songs of substance, and songs that relate directly to modern times, yet any message deemed too pointedly political or sanctimonious can diminish the essential power of the song.

The aim, after all, is to create something timeless, a song which resonates now but will continue to, beyond our current moment. How to create what is timeless with timely content remains a significant challenge. The only real way to do this is by relying on the songwriter’s singular tool: song craft. Message alone does not make a song great. 

It starts with a recognition that songs can have a power that transcends pop entertainment to create something more meaningful in our lives, something lasting. 

Bob Dylan, most famous for what were called his protest songs in the early sixties, followed the tradition of his heroes who had gone there before. There was Pete Seeger, who Dylan called a “living saint.” And there was Pete’s good pal, who was also Dylan’s hero, Woody Guthrie. 

“See, to Woody Guthrie,” Dylan said, “the airwaves were sacred.” To write a song that goes out on radio, where all people can receive it, to Woody and Pete and those in their wake, was an issue of national trust.

Woody cared about the people he wrote about in his songs, those without a voice to be heard, or any power to make a change. His belief in the power of song to effect genuine social change was exemplified in the sign he attached to his guitar: “This machine kills Fascists.”

Woody Guthrie, in 1943, with his “machine that kills fascists.”

Woody would 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. With good reason. Not only is the content of injustice sadly applicable to now, but the timeless way in which Woody tells this timely story in song exemplfies the solution. As important as the message is in a song, if it is not a great song, that message won’t go far.

“Deportees” works because of the intention of its author, and his mastery of great song craft. It’s got a lovely melody. Woody knew that without a strong tune, nobody will want to listen to your song more than once, and certain not remember it. Yet the goal is to create something memorable; a goal he achieved, as evidenced by the power and presence of his songs even now, headlong into this 21st century.

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 in waltz time, gracing rhymed lines in cascading meter, creates a song that doesn’t speak down to the listener, but invites them instead to participate.

Words by Woody Guthrie
Music by Martin Hoffman

The crops are all in and the peaches are rott’ning,
The oranges piled in their creosote dump
They’re flying ’em back to the Mexican border
To pay all their money to wade back again

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be deportees

My father’s own father, he waded that river,
They took all the money he made in his life
My brothers and sisters they working the old church,
They rode the big truck still laydown and died

The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, “They are just deportees”

Arlo Guthrie, son of Woody, singing his father’s song “Deportees.”

Bob Dylan learned how to write songs – and specifically these kind of songs – by studying all aspects of Woody’s work. The way the timely facts of the day were transformed by the songwriter with inspired poetic language, and a melody as beautiful as any love song, was a pathway Woody walked and Dylan followed.

So to focus on the irony of justifying war for humanitarian reasons, Dylan, in “With God On Our Side,” 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.”

Bob Dylan, “With God On Our Side,” 1965.

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.

Our late great friend P.F. Sloan, who wrote “Eve of Destruction,” always said that the melody of that song was as romantic as a melody for a love song. Pete Seeger said the same thing: All protest songs are essentially love songs. Love songs for humanity.

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