Great Songs Can Change the World

By Rob Patterson

In the wake of my dire prognosis on the state of political music in 2009 in my year-end wrap-up, two kind readers wrote and sent me samples of their work. Loath as I am to discourage anyone’s well-intentioned efforts to create songs that address the state of the nation and the world and the many problems that plague us as well as criticize sincere efforts to create politically aware and astute music, their offerings provided a good starting place to look at what makes for effective musical agitprop.

Frank Southworth sent a song and some lyrics from his work, which can be heard at his Songs of the People website ( Matt Olive mailed lyrics for which he would like to find a musical collaborator, and writes how he doesn’t understand what the roadblocks are for songwriters. Both of them offer highly cogent and well-informed political thinking and analysis. Yes, that is an essential element within great political songwriting. But it’s not the vital initial aspects that make a topical song work, alas.

First and foremost, for a song to have any large-scale or even midsized political impact, it has to work as a song. And in a way, even as a pop tune. Let’s look at some of the best and most enduring ones to delve further into that notion.

One of the most enduring populist statements in song is Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” And at the core of it is a fairly basic sing along chorus. The same can be said of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” or “Street Fighting Man” by The Rolling Stones. Neil Young’s hit with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young that responded to the 1970 Kent State shootings, “Ohio,” distills it to the essence with its four-word chorus: “Four dead in Ohio” (with its syllabic singing of O-hi-o being a key element).

Songs that truly work and have lasting and wide impact all but invariably have what they call in the pop songwriting game “the hook” — usually a relatively simple chorus that sticks to the brain like glue if not welded into the consciousness. This is a fundamental rule of songwriting (even if, yes, rules are meant to be broken when it makes sense).

As well — and again, alas — the devil is almost always in the details when it comes to the verses and the overall lyrical structure. Yes, a great political song must have a strong and accurate story and point of view. But specifics are the tricky part that must be finessed. What both Southworth and Olive sent me are smart in their knowledge and analysis. But let’s remember: this isn’t journalism and reporting or any form of political essay. It’s songwriting above and beyond anything else.

And sometimes ambiguity is the most effective approach. That’s at the very heart of one song by the master of agitprop songwriting, Bob Dylan, is his classic “Blowin’ In The Wind.” In fact it just asks simple questions and offers the ambiguous answer that doesn’t answer in its chorus. But as a song it provokes the listener to think. (The Dylan website,, has all his lyrics posted and is the best first place to go as a resource on political songs and simply songwriting in general.)

Another instructive Dylan number is “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” The “rain” could be nuclear fallout, acid rain, a rain of bombs, missiles or bullets or any metaphorical rain. It says much even as it says something simple. I also marvel at how “Masters of War” continues to say what needs to be said on that topic. Though written at the dawn of the Vietnam War, it speaks to any and all wars. And again, it’s simple if also poetically and even historically cogent.

A great political song has to be a song with mass appeal, which isn’t to say that something with more narrow appeal can’t be a good political song. The tried and true rules of the popular song all but must be met for greatness to be achieved. The effective topical song is one that can be sung together by thousands marching in the streets and rallying together, and that speaks plainly to issues and emotions.

And then artists with broad appeal must sing, record and release such songs and get them to the public. I say this not to discourage any and all efforts at any and all levels by musical artists and composers. Bottom-up efforts like what Southworth and Olive are trying to do is part of the equation to bring political songs back to the fore, as any effective movement needs to disseminate at all levels from the local to global. But my lament last year and in previous ones is the lack of top-down music from stars that will reach the masses and not just preach to the choir. It needs to have the power to reach, affect and motivate the apathetic, the distracted and even the opposed. What we need are songs that people want to hear again and again and sing along with that can also change the people, the nation and the world.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2010

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