Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

The top 10 protest songs of all time

April 18, 2011 by Brian Hussey


With the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts enlivening the cultural scene in our hometown, the National Constitution Center felt a civic obligation to participate.  After all, one thing PIFA represents is freedom of expression, a value at the heart of our Constitution.

Freedom of expression, of course, is not just for artists. It has been used by ordinary Americans throughout the nation’s history, who have grabbed a marker, drawn a poster or written a song to express their political views.

Teacher's corner

Do any of the songs below resonate with students today? Can students add to this list? What would be the criteria when selecting a song to add?

Some of this democratic ferment has produced tremendous art: the poetry of Langston Hughes, the music of Woody Guthrie, and the essays of Henry David Thoreau are but a few of the vast contributions made by American artists with a political message. Often that message is one of dissent, which got us thinking: What are the greatest protest songs of all time?

We Shall Overcome, Mahalia Jackson: The anthem of the Civil Rights movement, this song became the standard for change in the 1950s and 60s.

Strange Fruit, Billie Holliday: The haunting rendition by Billie Holliday is a chilling reminder of the innumerable struggles that African Americans faced in the years following Reconstruction.

War, Edwin Star- This Mo-own anti-Vietnam War song remains one of the catchiest protest songs in history.

This Land is Your Land: We all sang this song as kids in school, but how many of us realized that we were singing a response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”? Written from his travels around the country, “This Land is your Land” became an iconic song of protest music.

Fight the Power, Public Enemy: While there are a myriad of rap and hip hop songs that demonstrate protest, “Fight the Power” remains iconic for its message against corporate exploitation and expression of class and race discontent. [Note: the video above is the clean version of the song].

What’s Going On, Marvin Gay: This 1971 protest song is yet another product of the turbulent atmosphere protesting the Vietnam War and grappling with the issues of urban decay, police brutality, and an unpopular war.

Born in the USA, Bruce Springsteen: An anti-war song from the perspective of the soldiers who sacrifice, “Born in the USA” gained new notoriety when conservative George Will thought it the perfect track for Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign.  The Boss, however, didn’t agree with Will or Reagan and rejected the idea.

Which Side are You On?, Pete Seeger: A song that has its roots in the American labor movement, Seeger’s rendition is one of many celebrating the rights of workers to labor, unite, and protest.

Revolution 1, The Beatles: Although the group from Liverpool bends our rules of American protest songs, the song’s resonance in America following 1968 makes it a classic of protest composition.

Okie From Muskogee, Merle Haggard: Haggard’s 1969 anthem he wrote after serving a sentence in San Quentin Prison provides important balance to the protest music canon. Not all people joined the protest and counterculture of the 1960s, and Haggard’s song is a pointed rebuke of the self indulgence of the era.

Coming up with a list of the Top 10 wasn’t easy. After spending long hours hotly debating each song, we could only agree on thing: Top 10 lists of protest music generate a lot of protest! Inevitably, cuts were made that did not satisfy everyone.  However, in the spirit of compromise we present this list of protest songs and invite you to vote for your favorite, post a comment on how wrong we are, or come to the museum and vent your frustrations to anyone who will listen.


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