Searching for Disappearing American Protest Song


Like the rest of the activist music-minded clergy in my ecumenical study group, my first time through Canadian-born singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn’s caustic 1984 album “Stealing Fire” was troubling.

Even though we and our Reagan-era churches were flirting with the Sanctuary Movement – the liberation theology-fueled political sheltering of Central American refugees unfairly targeted for deportment – we were concerned but idle.

But for the six of us that languished existence was rocked as we delved deeper into Cockburn’s album and it’s graphic, first-person account of US-sanctioned black ops, child soldiers and piles of civilian corpses.

With a single collection of songs, Cockburn had flummoxed our North American-bracketed, pacifist-leaning sensibilities with stark, searing lyrics that reached their harsh zenith with the single phrase, “If I had a rocket launcher some son of a bitch would die.”

Yet for all its mordant tone, “Stealing Fire” became for a season our common if often mournful call to action; prodding us to address as we could the virulent Central American civil wars and our country’s roles therein.

But thirty years after the release of “Stealing Fire” there is a dangerous dearth of musical calls to action. The American protest song has all but disappeared save for the notable exceptions of activist rappers and world beat artists.

And yet musical activism may be among Gen Y’s most underutilized tools for progressive change.

In an April 2012 post from Georgia Political Review, blogger Emily Kopp explains as she vehemently rejects tea party-tinged explanations citing the decline in protest songs as further evidence her Millennial generation has no more major wrongs left to right.

For Kopp it’s about her age cohort’s paucity of the righteous indignation that fuels musical activism and builds sustainable solidarity.

In between the lines she’s asking how a generation rages against a machine it doesn’t even see:

“In 2003, President Bush took the ill–informed and ethically questionable step of devoting the United States to an invasion of Iraq, initiating the most widely despised conflict since the Vietnam War. Yet the punk gods left their satirical combat boots at home. The great thinkers of folk remained hushed.

In 2007, poor economic policy paired with unbridled greed in the financial sector brought the economy to the brink of crumbling in collapse, but the hip hop dons, champions of the disenfranchised, kept silent.

In 2011, an unforeseeable wave of democratization swept the Middle East. Democracy blossomed in some countries, while others witnessed a violent and bloody reassertion of authoritarianism. American songwriters failed to seize this unprecedented period of widespread political change to inform and inspire their lyrics …”

Kopp rightly places responsibility for the disappearing protest song with songwriters; not songs. With would-be builders of a just world; not the ready tools at their disposal.

There is an old union saying: “When in doubt, pray. When in trouble, sing.”

The American protest song has long been a populist voice of the people in times of trouble – an ardent, artistic witness to their underdog experience and the forces that conspire against them.

The musical realists in my own generation have made peace with the reality that protest songs like Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” will remain rare anomalies. What we can’t yet abide is the distinct possibility those songs never get written.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Tarpon Springs, Fla. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2014

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