Protest songs were as much a part of 1970s music as love, sex, and drugs were. The decade exploded historically and culturally in all directions.
Sure, we had the sexual revolution and the hippies smoking us out of every room. But rock music was the voice of many frustrated citizens who wanted a better world.
We’re taking a look back at the 70s to discover what made these songs so great.
Let’s hit it!
Protest Songs of the Politically Powerful 1970s
The most popular subject of any song is love and heartache. However, those two feelings aren’t confined to romantic relationships. You can love humanity and long for peace and a healthy planet.
Musicians have been the voice of the streets for decades. Especially in the 60s and 70s, when electric guitars were new and powerful tools of expression. In many ways, 70s culture was a result of the civil unrest of the 60s.
After World War II, the initial constriction of the 50s backfired. Americans wanted change. The 60s civil rights movement grew to abolish legal segregation, and activism to stop polluting the planet ramped up. Counterculture, or anti-establishment movements, became a global phenomenon, and women demanded a seat at the table.
By the 70s, it was impossible to ignore demands for a different way of life. Television helped broadcast strife more than any other time before it. Our ten years in Vietnam became the first television war. And when leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy were assassinated, millions knew instantly. Broadcast news also made taking quick action much easier.
But the voice of the people demanding change came through the music. Every cause needs an anthem. And the protest songs of the 1970s became more daring and provocative with each turn of events. Questioning authority moved through the folk and rock genres and eventually gave birth to punk.
From the civil rights movement to feminism to wealth inequality and anti-war protests, the 70s responded to the 60s call for justice. And one of the biggest game-changers was music.
5 1970s Protest Songs
The list of great 70s protest songs could keep your Spotify going for hours. But we think these five are the best representation of the times. Check it out.
#1 What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye
About the Song: This melancholic song about Vietnam questions the war and why police at home violently attacked peaceful protesters. Marvin Gaye’s brother returned from Vietnam shellshocked. And co-writer Renaldo Benson couldn’t understand why so much violence was happening at home when all people were asking for was peace.
Together, Gaye and Benson wrote one of the most loving 1970s protest songs ever made.
Father, father We don't need to escalate You see, war is not the answer For only love can conquer hate
First Appearance: What’s Going On is the title track for Gay’s 1971 album by the same name. Tamla Records released the single in January, five months before the full album release.
#2 (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais by The Clash
About the Song: While the U.S. was boiling over in 1970s civil unrest, the U.K. was experiencing a similar crisis. England had encouraged Jamaican migrants to come over and work low-wage jobs in the 50s.
When Britain’s economy began to tank in the 60s, some white working-class blamed their Black neighbors, further fueling increasing racism. The Clash’s lyrics aimed to call out racism and demand change.
(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais is an anti-violence protest song against racism, wealth inequality, and poser punks. Singer Joe Strummer demanded more from punk music than mohawks and spikey dog collars.
White youth, black youth Better find another solution Why not phone up robin hood And ask him for some wealth distribution
First Appearance: CBS Records released (White Man) in Hammersmith Palais as a single in June of 1978. The Clash recorded it during sessions for their second album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, but left it off the final release. The song also appeared on the 1979 modified American release of their debut album, The Clash.
#3 Get Up Stand Up by The Wailers (with Bob Marley)
About the Song: The brilliant thing about Get Up, Stand Up is that it can represent anyone, anywhere, at any given moment in time. The gentle reggae groove keeps you moving while the lyrics empower you to never give up. Bob Marley’s inspiration came from witnessing intense poverty in Haiti while he was on tour.
Marley and everyone in the Wailers were seasoned Jamaican musicians who grew up having to fight to be respected. He wanted peaceful change, and music was the way to get it.
Get up, stand up Stand up for your right Get up, stand up Don't give up the fight
First Appearance: If you had to choose one song which encapsulates activists of the 1970s, this is it. Bob Marley and Peter Tosh wrote it in early 1973 and released it on their last album together, Burnin’. Get Up, Stand Up remains one of the greatest anthems ever written.
#4 Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
About the Song: Neil Young wrote Ohio in direct response to the Kent State massacre on May 4, 1970. America was in the throws of the Vietnam War, backing its expansion into Cambodia. When 300 peaceful protesters gathered at Kent State University, Ohio called in the National Guard. Mayhem ensued, and the guardsmen opened fire, killing four and wounding nine more.
Neil Young and many other musicians blamed President Nixon’s corrupt system for the deadly event, which seemed to value power over human life.
Four dead in Ohio Gotta get down to it Soldiers are cutting us down Should have been done long ago
First Appearance: This counterculture anthem made its way to radio in June of 1970. Charting quickly on U.S. Billboard Hot 100, Ohio was included on several compilation albums through 2004. Kudos to the band for releasing this 1970s protest song so soon after the Kent State shootings.
#5 I Am Woman by Helen Reddy
About the Song: Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman was one of the first recorded songs that spoke so plainly about female empowerment. The simple lyrics gave way to plenty of teasing and loathing by men. But it arrived just in time to become the theme song for the feminist movement of the 1970s.
The tune is about equal rights for women. The story is told by one voice who stands for all willing to walk the long road to abolish sexism.
Yes, I am wise But it's wisdom born of pain Yes, I've paid the price But look how much I've gained
First Appearance: Reddy released I Am Woman in May 1971 as part of her album, I Don’t Know How to Love Him. Capitol Records re-recorded and re-released it as a single in May 1972. Later that year, it topped the charts in Australia, Canada, and the U.S.
The 1970s Proved a Need for Protest Songs
To get the gist of how activism in the 60s and 70s changed the world, just compare the mainstream culture of 1951 to 1981. It’s incredible if you think about it. Counterculture started in the 60s and never stopped. But the 1970s protest songs helped spread more information and concern about human rights than any other decade before. They were the messengers of great change.
What are some of your favorite protest songs from the 1970s? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!