This week in one of my literature classes we were discussing irony, and the teacher played a song that has long been one of my favorites: Outside of a Small Circle of Friends by Phil Ochs. It’s an older song, a pretty obscure song, so it didn’t surprise me that I was the only one who sang along.
It’s a classic that I fell in love in high school when I went through a phase where I absolutely adored folk music, especially protest songs. I think this interest developed out of my love of the Beatles and John Lennon. His later works of music were very much in response to the Viet Nam war and were very politically charged. John was very much the folk singer of the bunch, where Paul was much more of a pop songwriter. And these protest songs of John Lennon (“All you Need is Love”, “Revolution”, “Give Peace a Chance”), led me to Bob Dylan and his protest songs, which led me to Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, Arlo and Woody Guthrie.
A lot of this folk music I also picked up from my mother, who introduced me to the folk music of Peter Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio and others. Both of these interests, combined with the fact that I was just discovering the internet and the possibilities that it opened up. I found new artists and new songs. For some reason I have been drawn to protest songs, or as Phil Ochs described it, topical songs. Yeah, there is a lot of fun in ‘silly love songs’, but there’s something about a song that has a real meaning behind it. It was fascinating to me to learn history through the eyes of these protest singer/songwriters. I did not live through the 1960’s and ’70’s, but that has been the music that I have been drawn to. I have loved to see and learn the history of this era through the music that they produced.
And protest songs are doubly fascinating as they reflect the opinions as well as the facts of the history they portray. They show emotion, and strong emotions, and are just that much more fascinating to listen to. What I find interesting, though, as well, is the lack of protest songs in the last 20 years. Granted, the Viet Nam War was a unique war in American history, but there were as many dissenters of the Iraq War, or the Gulf War. Where were all of the musical protests against these conflicts? In doing a little quick Google research, I found that there were actually quite a few songs mostly written by obscure, not-so-famous bands. Maybe the protest songs of the ’60s and ’70s were just as obscure in their own time, but have become famous as the years have gone on. Maybe we’ll find in 20 years that the lesser-known protest songs of today will be famous? Or maybe these songs of today are lesser known because there is so much more music being made that is so much more easily accessible with modern technology. Any Joe with a Macbook and GarageBand can record a song and post it on YouTube.
What is interesting to note about recent protest songs is the distinct shift in genre. In the 60’s and 70’s protest singers were folk singers, but the more recent protest singers and bands seem to be in the punk or alternative genre. It’s not just a guy with a guitar and harmonica anymore, it’s angry young men with electric guitars and heavy drums. And I suppose that shift began happening in the late 70’s and early 80’s as the Clash started to become big. They were pretty much the forerunners of the Punk movement, but their songs were very much political. As newer bands sought to be like the Clash, they too wrote politically charged songs and emulated the punk style.