Yes It Is, It’s True: Protest songs dwell in the dust bin of history

“WAR! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.”

Edwin Starr’s No. 1 hit song iCountry Joe, Fishn late summer 1970 would not make the pop music charts today.

And it was almost 50 years ago that Barry McGuire hit No. 1 with “The Eve of Destruction.” Just like “War,” I submit it wouldn’t make the top tunes list in these modern times.

For all the faults of the 1960s and an era of rebellion, it did provide America with some semblance of freedom of speech in music, generating a spirited debate about critically important issues such as war and civil rights. I suspect those days of a free exchange of ideas are gone… perhaps forever.

The reason, as the late George Carlin would say, is that “the game is rigged.”

There was a time when artists were reasonably free to say what was on their minds and be critical of Mother America, its wars and its values. This showed up in the No. 1 hits by Starr and McGuire, even though McGuire’s records were burned and a group called the Spokesmen countered with “The Dawn of Correction.”

This seriousness also could be found easily in songs by Bob Dylan with “Blowin‘ in the Wind,” by the Beatles with “Nowhere Man,” the Rolling Stones with “Street Fightin’ Man,” the Buffalo Springfield with “For what It’s Worth,” Donovan with “Universal Soldier,” the Five-Man Electrical Band with “Signs,” Graham Nash with “Chicago” and even the Monkees with “Pleasant Valley Sunday.”

All made the top 40 charts and are well remembered today by Baby Boomers.

But rarely since those heady days have I heard from what was once known as the popular genre, “protest songs.” I honestly believe the powers that be in the entertainment industry, the moguls in the recording and radio businesses, slowly but surely put a quiet halt to allowing controversial protest songs to enter the public arena.

About the only time I’ve seen anything to the contrary in the last two decades is the infamous case of the Dixie Chicks. Natalie Mains, lead singer of the country group, made a horrible mistake by criticizing President George W. Bush and his war policies, prompting the group essentially to be blacklisted.

The Chicks up until then had been riding high in popularity, but they crashed and burned by speaking their minds. A couple of years later, they came out with an album acknowledging they were “Not Ready to Make Nice.” These days, I hear very little about what was once the most popular country girl band in the land.

I learned at a tender age that radio executives and their bosses made critical decisions about what gets air play and what does not. Rooming with a popular and venerable disc jockey in my college years opened mine eyes more than a wee bit in bygone days.

To be sure, there are some musicians who still make politically-charged songs, groups such as the Asylum Street Spankers, A Perfect Circle, Tool, Rage AgainstTroubling true stories_1 the Machine and Annie DeFranco, but they seem to be deliberately pushed to the background, just like some lesser known and even more dangerous groups had been in the Sixties.

One of the best examples of well-known songs and groups that never climbed into the top 40 list was Country Joe & the Fish’s legendary “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die.” The best-known lyrics, written and sung in 1968 by Country Joe McDonald:

“Come on all of you big strong men,

Uncle Sam needs your help again.

He’s gotten himself in a terrible jam,

Way down yonder in Vietnam.

So throw away your books and pick up a gun,

We’re gonna have a whole lot of fun…

And it’s one, two, three, what are we fightin’ for?

(Yipee) Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam.

And it’s five six, seven, open up the pearly gates.

No time now to wonder why, we’re all gonna die.”

That song today, in our era of corporate repression of free speech, wouldn’t even get a cursory hearing.

The late, great Frank Zappa used to say, “Kill ugly radio!” Maybe just substitute “radio” with “corporate executives.”


  • And probably the best of the protest songs – “Monster” by Steppenwolf. Protest songs of the 60’s – I can certainly agree with the author of this “rag” (his description, not mine).

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