In a rare television interview, Jimi Hendrix appeared on a network talk show shortly after his historic performance at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. When host Dick Cavett asked the guitarist about the “controversy” surrounding his wild, feedback-saturated version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Hendrix gently demurred.
His performance wasn’t “unorthodox,” he protested. “I thought it was beautiful.”
But Hendrix’s ominous, bombs-bursting version of our national anthem, in fact, would be interpreted as a protest against the war in Vietnam. In a nation born in the spirit of protest, even the national anthem can be heard as a protest song.
With each new social movement of recent years–from Occupy Wall Street and the civil rights demonstrations in Ferguson to #MeToo and the Women’s March–some cultural observers inevitably wonder aloud where all the classic protest songs have gone. They’re thinking, no doubt, about the Civil Rights-era ubiquity of “We Shall Overcome,” or the inspirational, radio-friendly pledge that “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
In truth, for as long as people have been making music, we’ve been inspired by protest songs: songs that take a stand against war and violence, songs that call out the suppression of women, minorities, immigrants, and the working class, songs that lament our treatment of the environment and the self-destructive nature of humankind. Before the United States entered World War I, songwriters published a slew of popular anti-war songs. Kitty Wells became the “Queen of Country Music” after she challenged the sexual double standard with her classic “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels.” Whole genres have arisen out of the urge to push back, from the blues and hip-hop to punk and disco. (Yes, disco.)
Which Side Are You On? may be named for a folk protest song from the Depression era, but the question persists, through each generation and across every style of music. When the line gets drawn in the sand, which side are you on?
Featured image credit: The Obamas and the Bidens link arms and sing “We Shall Overcome”, 2011 by The White House from Washington, DC. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.