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7 Greatest Protest Songs of the 1960s

7 Greatest Protest Songs of the 1960s

No other decade churned out protest songs like the 1960s. After all, it was a time of upheaval and unrest. 

From the Vietnam War to racial division, the American public had a lot to be angry about. And music is a great way to communicate your stance and disapproval. 

Today, we’re digging up the greatest songs of dissent from the 60s.

Let’s hit it!

About 1960s Protest Songs

The 1960s were ripe with social change. From the civil rights movement to anti-war activism, people were fed up with the status quo and determined to enact change. 

Demonstrations included sit-ins, marches, strikes, and more. Enigmatic speakers spoke to lively crowds and encouraged on-lookers to fight for what’s right. 

However, music became one of the most enduring forms of dissent, with many anthems still riding the airwaves today. Here are seven of the best 1960s protest songs that make us want to stand together in solidarity.

A woman at an outdoor protest holds a protest sign. The 1960s brought some of the greatest protest songs
The 60s brought some of the greatest protest songs

#1 Only a Pawn in Their Game

When a sniper gunned down civil rights activist Medgar Evers in his driveway, Bob Dylan decided to write about it. In a surprising twist, the musician chose not to disparage the shooter’s name, who acted out of racial motivation. Instead, he called out the powers that be who supported segregation and encouraged racial division. 

Only a Pawn in Their Game tells the story of Evers’ death. It also acknowledges the plight of poor, Southern White people. In the end, everyone is a victim of a corrupt system. 

Greatest Lyric:

The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid
And the marshals and cops get the same
But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool

#2 A Change Is Gonna Come

This 1960s protest song is another written in support of the civil rights movement. Sam Cooke penned the hit after hearing Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind and wanted to create a meaningful masterpiece of his own. 

Of course, as a Black man, he’d dealt with his share of racial injustices. A Change Is Gonna Come laments those struggles and nods to his roots as a gospel singer. 

Greatest Lyric:

It's been too hard livin'
But I'm afraid to die
'Cause I don't know what's up there
Beyond the sky

#3 Respect

Otis Redding originally wrote Respect in 1965, but Aretha Franklin turned it into an anthem of female empowerment. She added the chorus and bridge, and her soulful voice sent it over the top.

Franklin recorded the most famous version at a studio in New York City with the help of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. 

While some folks think her enthusiasm came in response to a recently dissolved marriage, we can’t confirm that. But we can say that this 1960s protest song would go on to survive the test of time. 

Greatest Lyric:

What you want, baby, I got it
What you need, do you know I got it?
All I'm askin' is for a little respect when you come home

We’ve got the details on Otis Redding’s most enduring hit: Where Is The Dock of the Bay?

#4 Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud

James Brown wrote this iconic 1960s protest song after witnessing a group of Black men fighting each other in Los Angeles. He was so eager to get the words out that he penned the lyrics on a napkin in his hotel room immediately following the incident. 

The singer asserted that Black people had lost their pride. Decades later, his response would become a critical sample in hip-hop songs. Artists from Gucci Mane to Chuck D have lifted portions of this beloved tune. 

Greatest Lyric:

Now we demand a chance to do things for ourselves
We're tired of beating our head against the wall
And working for someone else
Say it loud: I'm black and I'm proud!

#5 Fortunate Son

Creedence Clearwater Revival’s anti-establishment protest song Fortunate Son spoke to the ills of international battles and class warfare taking hold in the 1960s. During this time, young men were drafted into wars they didn’t necessarily believe in. 

Frontman John Fogerty felt those with money and privilege could avoid combat while blue-collar workers took the brunt. 

Of course, CCR didn’t take issue with these soldiers but with the establishment that put them in such a predicament. The song is from the perspective of a working-class man drafted against his will. 

Greatest Lyric:

Some folks are born made to wave the flag
Ooh, they're red, white and blue
And when the band plays "Hail to the Chief"
Ooh, they point the cannon at you, Lord

Dig deeper into the song: Is Fortunate Son an Anti-War Song?

#6 Eve of Destruction

The controversial 1960s protest song Eve of Destruction made waves in the United States. P.F. Sloan, who was only 19 years old, wrote the lyrics. Barry McGuire recorded and performed it. 

Banned from the radio because of its anti-war stance, officials worried it would spark an uprising. However, we all know that making something off-limits only increases its appeal. It ultimately reached the #1 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100. 

Greatest Lyric:

Don't you understand what I'm tryin' to say?
And can't you feel the fears I'm feelin' today?
If the button is pushed, there's no runnin' away
There'll be no one to save with the world in a grave

#7 The Fish Cheer/ I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag

Country Joe & The Fish released this satirical 1960s protest song in response to the Vietnam War. They were tired of the government’s insistence on sending young men to fight nonsensical battles and expecting no resistance in return. 

Much like CCR’s take on enlistment, Country Joe didn’t blame those drafted. He saw them as pawns of the machine and some of the war’s biggest victims. 

Their performance at Woodstock was their most famous. Unfortunately, many venues blacklisted them following the concert. 

Greatest Lyric:

And it's 1, 2, 3
What are we fighting for?
Don't ask me, I don't give a damn
Next stop is Vietnam

In the mood for some retro hits? Check out The 60s In Song – Great Protest Songs.

The Spirit of 1960s Protest Songs Live On

Protest songs form the backbone of much of the music of the 1960s. After all, it was a time of great turmoil, and artistic expression was one of the most effective ways to spread ideals and beliefs. 

The general consensus was that the establishment sowed racial division and encouraged violence in the name of the almighty dollar. Some musicians had no choice but to buck the system.

Did we miss your favorite call to action from the 60s? If so, we’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Captain Quirk

Monday 2nd of October 2023

"For What it's Worth (Stop, hey what's that sound)" by Buffalo Springfield, 1966. Written by Stephen Stills.

"There's battle lines being drawn "Nobody's right if everybody's wrong "Young people speaking their minds "Getting so much resistance from behind..."