Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

5 rock songs quoted by the Supreme Court

April 28, 2011 by Ralph Young


Someone recently said that rock and roll was the social network of its era.  (The current generation, of course, expresses political and social views via Facebook.)

Rocker Niel Young. Photo from Wikipedia.

Clearly, the music of the late 1960s and early 1970s was indispensable to communicating the political, social, and cultural views of the counterculture.  The mainstream media of the time rarely deviated from the officially sanctioned version of events.  But rock and roll, folk, and folk-rock was the baby boom generation’s way of offering and disseminating a dissenting vision.

Folk music, in fact, has long been a vehicle of social protest.  Irish partisans pushing for home rule, American revolutionaries denouncing George III, enslaved African Americans yearning for freedom, factory workers demanding the right to organize, coal miners denouncing the “company store,” Joe Hill and Woody Guthrie condemning bankers and industrialists….  The list goes on.  Long before the Civil Rights and anti-war movements of the twentieth century, the power of music was formidable.

Teacher's corner

Some argue that hip hop and rap produce modern-day protests songs that portray social, political, and economic messages. Furthermore, this genre also serves as a barometer that measures the temperature of the streets. That is, hip hop and rap convey the feelings of a marginalized people in society. Do you think this argument is valid?

For more information, browse National Geographic's Hip Hop Planet

The power of song has so pervaded our society that now it seems that even Supreme Court justices quote lines from protest songs in their decisions.  In 2008, Chief Justice Roberts (loosely) quoted Bob Dylan when he wrote “when you got nothing you got nothing to lose” in one decision, and more recently Justice Scalia quoted Dylan’s the “times they are a-changing” in a 2010 decision.

In fact, Dylan especially, as well as many other songwriters, have often been quoted in court cases by judges, attorneys, and prosecutors.  Perhaps court officials feel an affinity for protest music because the songs tend to be rather judgmental (from Joe Hill’s “The Preacher and the Slave Girl” to Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” from Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee” to Neil Young’s “Ohio,” from Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” to The Doors’ “The Unknown Soldier”).

Of course, I doubt that many of those justices who have quoted from protest songs share the political views of the songwriters.  In a sense, it simply reveals how even the most controversial points-of-view have subliminally infiltrated our consciousness.

Ralph Young is a Professor Department of History at Temple University and author of Dissent in America. Young was also a panelist during last month's "Civility and Democracy" conference at the National Constitution Center.

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