Protest Songs or Peace Songs – which are more powerful?

When we examine protest songs, we realize there is a distinct difference between songs that rail against existing problems and more optimistic music that seeks to promote peace, call for freedom, or imagine a better world to come – peace songs. In addition to the lyrical differences, there is also a difference in tone, with some songs tending to be uplifting, such as Yusuf’s ‘Peace Train’ and John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, while others are distinctly jarring, like CSNY’s ‘OHIO’.

Such classification is arbitrary and perhaps unnecessary. Nevertheless when we set up the Great Protest Songs website we decided to create ‘peace songs‘ and ‘freedom songs’ categories and to include more positive music alongside protest songs and anti war songs. But which type of song is more powerful – is it better to inspire people to create a better world or protest against present injustices?

Mother Teresa, along with many other spiritual teachers, argued that it is far better to be for something than against it. She said that she would not fight against war but would campaign for peace. John Lennon seems to follow this guidance in his later work as with ‘Imagine’, when he describes his version of a utopian society. The banned anthem of the ANC, translated as ‘God Bless Africa’, is an uplifting positive anthem that is hard to recognize as a protest song if you were not aware of its politicized past. Likewise, Ed McCurdy’s, ‘Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream’, which dreams an agreement is made to put an end to war imagines a solution rather than opposing present problems. And it certainly seems to be the case that the best way to create a new paradigm is to imagine a new one rather than opposing the old

On the other hand, most of us are like Del Amitri’s ‘doped white mice in the college lab’, as we accept events, social structures and the decisions of political leaders largely without question. Consequently, songs like Billy Bragg’s ‘Days Like These’, which points out the iniquities of the 1980’s British Conservative party policies, and the apathy of the electorate, also seem relevant. In this song, Bragg rightly makes the point that the Conservative Party gained its electoral popularity through killing Argentineans in the Falklands War and through control of the media:

‘The Party that became so powerful by sinking foreign boats,

Is dreaming up new promises ‘cos promises win votes,

Being resolute in conference, the ad man’s expertise,

The majority by their silence shall pay for days like these.’

Such stark lyrics depicting the realities of the 1980s British political scene serve to question the dominant culture’s portrayal of events. Songs such as this carry news or at least a different perspective on events and so are like traditional folk songs. In contrast, peace songs often have a dream like, fictional quality as a picture is painted of a different world.

It seems to us that both types of protest songs are valuable and needed. Perhaps we need to be aware that we are imprisoned and also imagine what freedom might look like. Therefore we celebrate anti war songs and protest songs of all types that point to injustice and peace songs or freedom songs that create a positive vision of the future or speak to the longing for freedom that we all have.


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Robert Egan

Great Protest Songs

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