Hive Five: Modern Protest Songs That Actually Work

Tom Waits at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, New York City. Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

There’s no getting around it – the more agitation in the air, the better the chances of stirring up some powerful, politically charged music. Think about it; the outrage over the Vietnam War era birthed countless cutting, classic musical statements. As the current furor of Occupy Wall Street being ratcheted up to an almost ‘60s-like degree of activist intensity, we could be on the verge of a bumper crop of protest songs.

Some heavy hitters from the music world have already been drawn in by the Wall Street protests’ gravitational pull — Jeff Mangum played an ad hoc solo set of Neutral Milk Hotel faves, both Kanye West and Talib Kweli came down to show support and some enterprising prankster drew even more attention to Zucotti Park by spreading a false rumor that Radiohead would be playing a free set there. Hell, Miami up-and-comers Young Circles even had the presence of mind to record one of the movement’s first commercially available anthems, “Ninety-Nine Percent.” But while we’re waiting for that next wave of socially relevant rock & roll to come washing over us, let’s look back at some of the most effective protest tunes of recent times.

1. Tom Waits, “Hoist That Rag” (2004)

Recorded at the height of the Afghanistan War’s Taliban insurgency, when U.S. troops were dropping like flies, Real Gone was an unprecedentedly political album for Tom Waits. While the very specific letter-from-a-soldier ballad “The Day After Tomorrow” earned lots of attention, the ragged rumba “Hoist That Rag” [i.e. “Raise That Flag”] was a more volatile, visceral warning about the wages of war. With our continued military presence in the Middle East today, it seems like not enough has changed, but then, warmongers were never exactly the niche market for Waits’ work, were they? [Listen here.]

2. The Legendary K.O., “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People” (2005)

Possibly the most widely publicized song never to be made commercially available, Houston hip-hop duo the Legendary K.O.’s Bush-bashing broadside took a post-Katrina Red Cross PSA speech by the typically outspoken Kanye West (the origin of the track’s title), and ran with it. Lacing excerpts of the speech into West’s “Gold Digger,” with a new, Katrina-centric rap on top, the tune laid into W for his disappointing disaster response. It illuminated the already unseemly amount of egg on the President’s face, but what did he care? He couldn’t run for a third term anyway. [Listen here.]

3. James McMurtry, “We Can’t Make It Here” (2005)

Roots-rock songsmith James McMurtry didn’t have any kind of crystal ball when he penned his piercing anti-anthem about the American economy and political process three years before the recession began and six before Capitol Hill cracked right through the center. He just took a good look around at what was already obvious and anchored his observations to a gritty, Neil Young-flavored guitar grind. In retrospect, some of today’s Wall St. protesters were surely paying heed to McMurtry’s dirt-road dudgeon. [Listen here.]

4. Steve Earle, “The Gulf of Mexico” (2011)

Steve Earle has never exactly been one to keep his opinions to himself. The alt-country icon has spent years putting the “active” into “activist,” raising consciousness about a plethora of progressive causes. In the wake of the 2010 BP oil spill, Earle dependably stepped up with a curiously Celtic-tinged but lyrically lacerating ballad about three generations of Gulf workers. The album, I’ll Never Get Out This World Alive, was released in April 2011, a year after the spill, but with oil-stained dolphins still washing up dead on the Gulf Coast, the song remains regretfully relevant. [Listen here.]

5. Merle Haggard, “What I Hate” (2011)

If Steve Earle is the big daddy of controversy-courting country songwriters, Merle Haggard is the grizzled grandpappy. He began speaking his mind in song before it was the thing to do, and unlike many of his musician brethren, he hasn’t always come down on the liberal side of the fence. Merle’s still cranky after all these years, and on the 74-year-old singer’s new album, Working in Tennessee, “What I Hate” rails against political apathy, insincere statesmen, and a nation divided. And while we don’t know Haggard’s opinion about OWS, he sure sounds like he still believes in the potential for progress when he ends the song with “We can’t change the whole wide world, maybe we can change our neighborhood.” [Listen here.]

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