For What It’s Worth – My Top Five Protest Songs

Simply because the idea struck a minute ago, and because my brain needs a rest, I thought I’d while away a few minutes listing my Top Five protest songs of all time. Like I said, don’t ask where the idea came from. Mostly I was humming Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” in my brain as I was doing other things, and I got thinking about it…and, well, here it is.

“What’s Going On” has always been an interesting song for me.

It’s too smooth to be a protest song, right? I mean…it’s not harsh or cutting in any way.

And, yet.

From my list, you can tell I’m a person of a certain age. Some are really great music, others are there for reasons more eclectic that musical. “Alice’s Restaurant,” for example, is on my honorable mentions because it makes me smile. I’m not trying to make any points with this collection of thoughts so much as I’m just thinking about Marvin Gaye and the time period “What’s Going On” came into the world.

Your list (if for any reason you ever chose to put one together), would be different, of course. But what the heck.

Anyway, here are my semi-off-the-cuff Top 5, with a bit of justification…

5 – With God On Our Side (Bob Dylan).

I had a bunch of options with Dylan, of course. And he’ll make the honorable mention another time or two. But I picked “With God On Our Side” because it’s so straight forward and clear about who we are. Obviously it’s an anti-war song, but it’s not really couched that way. Not directly. Instead, it’s pointed straight at the ideas behind what the country has been and how it is. We do, of course, have God on our side, right?

Just like everyone else.

4 – “Born in the USA” (Bruce Springsteen)

Bruce gets bonus points for writing such a powerful hook in his chorus, that it still gets a certain set of folks (including old Ronald Reagan himself … or at least his staff) singing along in the belief that it’s a glorification of the country when really it’s a danged bleak song. Like “With God On Our Side,” it’s an anti-war protest simply by how it paints the caustic ramifications of sending our boys off to fight, but gives us the mirrored side of how we seem infinitely capable of justifying it simply because we are who we are.

Amazing song, really.

3 – Fortunate Son (Creedence Clearwater Revival)

Pretty much the poster-boy, must-include piece in any Vietnam movie, right? Great sound. Direct lyrics with a clear message the shows us who really fights and who doesn’t. I’m old enough to have felt the heat of the draft, but young enough to have barely missed it. Kids of this era can empathize, of course, but I’ m not sure they can full sense what the draft meant to working-class families with boys of a certain age.

2 – What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye)

The song that started the list!

Beyond just being a sublime sound, I like “What’s Going On” for it’s different take on what a protest song is. Rather than commenting directly on a situation and calling for action, Gaye steps back in something I’ll call confusion, and looks us in the eye as he asks us to think about whether the things happening today are really what we think should be happening. We’re all in this together, Brother, Brother (which I know isn’t exactly the lyric, but I like it here). Did we really mean for all this to happen?


Aren’t we better than this?

Not Ant-war so much as Anti-What’s Going On.

1 – Waist Deep in the Big Muddy (Pete Seeger)

There’s a reasonable chance you’ve never heard this one. But it’s an amazing, gutsy song to have been written in the late 60s, with a great back-story. Seeger, of course, was seen as a subversive member of the counter-culture. I put this #1 because it is interesting itself, but its back-story includes being banned from being played on the Smothers Brothers television show until pressure on CBS changed their minds.

Here’s the song on YouTube from that performance, once it happened:

Finally, here’s my quick list of honorable mentions:

7 O’Clock News/Silent Night (Simon & Garfunkle)
I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag (Country Joe and the Fish)
Masters of War (Bob Dylan)
Blowin’ in the Wind (Bob Dylan)
Sunday Bloody Sunday (U2)
Unknown Soldier (The Doors)
Alice’s Restaurant (Arlo Guthrie)
Gimme Shelter (Rolling Stones)
For What it’s Worth (Buffalo Springfield)

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