Andrew J. Young;Julian Bond

If you work or reside anywhere near downtown Durham, chances are you’ve either seen, heard, or participated in recent protests against racial profiling by the police and broader issues such as the prison-industrial complex and police brutality. You may have been held up in traffic and forced to listen to protestors passionately chanting “Black Lives Matter” to the beat of drums as they disrupted the day-to-day functionality of streets and highways to get their message heard by the people of Durham. You may have passed by the 200+ people gathered near Major the Bull in the CCB Plaza to participate in a guerilla art cypher last November and heard the poetic voices of Durham rhyming over locally-produced beats. You may have even participated in one of the many demonstrations in solidarity with the people of Ferguson and found that while you chanted/shouted/sang with the people around you, a fierce energy bubbled up within and around you. I was part of these demonstrations, and I felt the heartbeat of the collective as we moved toward our destinations. The heartbeat I heard was an organic polyphony of percussion, claps, marching footsteps, slightly unsynchronized but beautiful chanting, singing and shouting. I left each demonstration feeling closer and closer to the community around me and with an even stronger drive to create change through direct action.

I’ve also been fascinated with how interconnected music and protest are. Music has been involved in some form or fashion in every protest I’ve ever been a part of. As a DJ, I seek to incorporate more protest music into my club sets. As a producer, I want to remix protest music for other DJs to drop in the club. As a listener, I want to hear more political music on the radio and I want to show more support for local musicians performing protest music. And as a writer and total nerd, I want investigate protest music and take you all on this journey with me.

Since protest music is such a rich topic, I will be splitting this exploration up into more than one piece for Clarion Content. In future posts, I will examine what protest music looks like today and the prolific protest music coming out of our very own Durham. But first, let’s look back at the history of US protest music.

Slave Improvisation and Spirituals

Today’s protest music in the US has deep ties to slave spirituals. In a time where they were meant to be completely powerless, slaves cultivated energy, information and ideas through music, using complex African rhythms that have since heavily influenced American music.

Slaves used music to communicate coded messages to each other. Some of the most widely known slave spirituals had the appearance of assimilation with white Christian religion, while in actuality they were protest songs in disguise. Using coded drumming patterns, call-and-response field hollers and song lyrics, slaves were able to share grievances, build hope, and relay escape plans with one another. For example, it is widely suspected that the popular spiritual, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” written by Wallis Willis, was coded by slaves as a message indicating that the conductor of the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, was near. In fact, some slaves would replace the word “chariot” in the song with “Harriet.”

Slaves were able to build energy through their music, an energy so powerful that white slave-owners began to fear revolt. In fact, after the Stono Rebellion, South Carolina prohibited drumming among slaves out of this very fear. When forbidden to own musical instruments, slaves improvised by using their body as an instrument, by  “patting juba,” or hand clapping with rhythmical complexity (also known as “hambone”). They also used the natural resources around them to create their own instruments, such as transforming gourds into drums, banjos, and shakers.

Danny ‘Slapjazz’ Barber and Sekani Thomas discussing the history behind “patting juba.”

Many slave spirituals have made it into black churches of the 20th century and are still being sung by gospel choirs today, and as you’ll see below, several spirituals have been adopted by activists and turned into protest songs.

Music of the labor movement

The rise of American protest music in the 20th century began with the growing labor movement, particularly among the International Workers of the World (IWW). This turn of the century labor movement sought fair wages, reasonable working hours and union rights for industrial workers. So many songs were created around this movement that an entire songbook was created for use during rallies and union strikes.

iww songbook

First published in 1909, there are now 38 editions of this little revolutionary songbook. These protest songs were frequently set to the tune of existing music so that learning the songs on the fly was easier for demonstrators.

One especially noteworthy songwriter in this book is Joe Hill, a member of the IWW who wrote and performed songs such as “There is Power in a Union,” “Rebel Girl,” and perhaps most famously, “The Preacher and the Slave (Pie in the Sky).”

Ani DiFranco and Utah Phillips covering ‘The Preacher and the Slave (Pie in the Sky)’


Another prominent protest song from this era was “Bread and Roses,” written by James Oppenheim and Caroline Kohlsaat and adopted by organizers of the Lawrence Textile Strike of 1912 as their unofficial anthem. Known as the “Bread and Roses Strike,” factory workers in Lawrence, MA protested poor working conditions and pay cuts brought on by a shortened workweek (but with the same amount of expected production).  “Bread and Roses” has since been rewritten to music by Mimi Fariña and covered by Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Ani DiFranco, Utah Phillips, and John Denver.

“Joan Baez covering ‘Bread and Roses’”


The Blues

Derived from both slave spirituals and labor songs, the blues became a popular musical form in the early-to-mid 20th century. While commonly thought of as music of personal despair, many blues songs also brought social injustices to light. A popular example of this is “Strange Fruit,” written by Lewis Allen and performed by Billie Holiday. Others include “Take this Hammer,” originally created by prisoners at Raiford Penitentiary and re-recorded by Huddie William Ledbetter (aka Lead Belly), “I Don’t Do Nobody Nothin’” by Rev. Nathaniel Hawkins (aka C.W. “Preacher” Smith), Buster Brown’s “War Song,” and the entire Southern Exposure: An Album of Jim Crow Blues album sung by Josh White. In fact, Josh White in particular greatly influenced future protest singer-songwriters such as Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Bob Dylan. For an in-depth story of Josh White’s life, see Elijah Wald’s detailed biography.


“Defense Factory Blues” by Josh White

1940’s and 50’s

In the 1940’s, a group of musician/activists in NYC moved in together and began performing at protest events as the Almanac Singers. This group included Bess Lomax Hawes (sister of folk song curator Alan Lomax, renowned folk singers Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and others. Woody Guthrie produced one of the most recognized folk songs in American history, “This Land Is Your Land” in 1940. He would sometimes throw in overtly political lines into the song, although these versions never made it into the mainstream. Guthrie was a great influence on folk singers of the 1960’s, as was Pete Seeger. Pete Seeger, who passed away last year at the age of 94, was responsible for bringing several protest songs into widespread popularity. He, along with other members of The Almanac Singers, wrote the song “Talking Union” to be, literally, instructions on how build a union.  Another staple song of Seeger’s is “If I Had a Hammer,” which was later picked up and performed by Peter, Paul & Mary at the March on Washington.

Music of the Civil Rights Movement

Perhaps the most widely known and recognized protest songs in the US are the Freedom Songs of the Civil Rights Movement. Drawing largely from slave spirituals and songs from the labor movement, protesters used the same call-and-response pattern to communicate with each other and build energy in the fight for civil rights.

voices of the civil rights movement

“We Shall Overcome” is one example of a Civil Rights Movement anthem that is still referenced at protests today. Influenced by early 20th century gospel music, this song was first developed into what we know it as today by Zilphia Horton, a union organizer who turned several hymns into protest songs used by the Civil Rights Movement. After hearing this song originally during a Charleston strike in 1945, she taught it to Pete Seeger, who then changed a few of the words and performed it in front of Martin Luther King, Jr. Over 50,000 people sang “We Shall Overcome” in unison at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral after, just days earlier, he had recited the words in his final sermon.

Slave spirituals greatly influenced the creation of the Freedom Songs during the Civil Rights Movement. In addition to “We Shall Overcome,” (which was originally a slave spiritual entitled “I Will Overcome”), Fannie Lou Hamer and Zilpia Horton revived “This Little Light of Mine,” Peter, Paul & Mary rewrote “Go Tell It On The Mountain” to apply to the Civil Rights Movement, and protesters sang “Wade in the Water,” leaving the words completely unchanged from its original version as a coded slave spiritual. “Wade in the Water” is often associated with the wade-in demonstrations.

Odetta Holmes, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan were three notable folk singer-songwriters in the 1960’s who supported the Civil Rights movement and wrote songs about racial injustice. Odetta, in particular, made her mark in history as “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement” and Martin Luther King, Jr. dubbed her the “Queen of America’s Folk Music.” In fact, according to The New York Times, when Rosa Parks asked which freedom songs meant the most to her, she replied, “All of the songs Odetta sings.” Odetta revived the spirituals “Take This Hammer,” “I’m On My Way (to Freedom Land),” “Glory, Glory,” “Oh Freedom,” and several others. Odetta greatly influenced Baez and Dylan. In fact, the spiritual “Oh Freedom” Baez memorably performed at the March on Washington appeared years before in Odetta’s “Spiritual Trilogy” on Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues.

Along with “Oh Freedom,” Baez sang “We Shall Overcome” (Pete Seeger’s version) during the March on Washington. This performance is perhaps her most notorious one.

Joan Baez performing “We Shall Overcome”

Baez performed several other songs based on spirituals, including “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Marching to Freedom Land.”

Bob Dylan’s song, “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” exposed how the murder of NAACP civil rights leader Medgar Evers and similar murders were sparked and supported by racist, white supremacist politicians and government officials.

Bob Dylan performing “Only a Pawn in Their Game” at the 1963 March on Washington, D.C.

1960’s and 70’s Anti-War Music

Many folk singers also created music to protest the war in Vietnam. In addition to Bob Dylan, who produced anti-war songs such as “The Times They Are A-Changin” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and Joan Baez, who was repeatedly arrested during Vietnam protests, Phil Ochs was particularly outspoken about the war. Phil Ochs was known specifically as a protest musician with a witty style and both Baez and Dylan performed his songs. His popular tunes include “Draft Dodger Rag,” “There But For Fortune,” and “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.” He was a fixture at anti-war rallies across the US and has a very compelling life story that PBS documented a few years ago: Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune.


Next up….

Stay tuned in to Clarion Content for future installments on protest music investigating corridos of the Chicano Movement, late 1970’s feminist and black revolutionary soul music, political hip hop of the 1980’s and early 90’s,  the 90’s riot grrrl movement, the turn of this century’s protest music revival against the Iraq war, protest music today, and of course, protest music here in Durham.

As you can see, America has an extremely rich, interconnected history of protest music. While keeping this timeline as straightforward as possible,  I have curated countless links for you to follow for more in-depth material on the musicians and historical events I have mentioned. There are links to historical articles, music videos, and even a full-length documentary.  Have fun!

Jess Dilday is Clarion Content's current Editor-in-Chief and regular contributor. Jess originally moved to Durham to be a part of vibrant communities centered on music, art, and activism. Jess sees Durham as a place where people don’t just sit at a bar and talk about great ideas and rad projects - we put them into action. Their other alias is DJ and producer, PlayPlay. PlayPlay is in a constant musical conversation with the public, speaking across generation, race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality to create an all-inclusive dance floor. PlayPlay has opened for Big Freedia, MC Lyte, TT the Artist, Dai Burger, Double Duchess, Le1f, Jubilee, MikeQ, Cakes Da Killa and others. They are also one of the organizers and resident DJs behind Party Illegal (a monthly dance party in Durham) as well as the creator and organizer of several themed parties at the Pinhook, including the Dreaming of the 90's and Dark Entries parties.


  • Reply February 18, 2015

    Ginna P

    Thanks for this article, Jess. I appreciate the depth and quality of your research and its presentation. Looking forward to reading more!

  • Reply May 19, 2016


    Nice post. Thanks!!

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