Protest singers beware

Published 10:22 am Thursday, January 22, 2015

According to an essay published by New America Foundation (and reprinted on “Time” magazine’s website), protest songs are enjoying a resurgence, after falling below society’s radar for a few years.

I’m a natural to write about protest songs. My wife’s folksinger great-aunt Gladys was an acquaintance of Pete Seeger. My chiropractor introduced me to the topical music of Phil Ochs (1940-1976). When my son Gideon produced a book report in video form, we used “Eve of Destruction” for the soundtrack. I always assumed I would name the aforementioned son “Dylan,” until my wife went all Helen Reddy (“I am woman, hear me roar”) on me.

It’s heartening to see a new generation taking up the tradition of “Fortunate Son” and “War” (“What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!”) Some of the original standard bearers are getting a little long in the tooth (and fiber-challenged), muttering, “H*ll, no! We can’t go!” or replacing “The I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag” with “The I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Grant Medical Power of Attorney Rag.”

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The new songwriters are filled with urgency, because they see problems that will only get worse, because only passion will gain the attention of the public, because within another five years their anthems will be reduced to elevator music…

I am glad to see that music can still be used to illuminate, educate and invigorate; but I caution against unbridled exuberance. Going back centuries, there have always been protest songs that hit the target dead center — as well as protest songs that were misguided, intellectually dishonest, simplistic, impractical, shortsighted and unreasonable.

The majority of current protest songs focus on racial issues and shootings by police, but there is the danger of coming down too hard on too many people no matter what the topic. It’s as if the singers are joining hands to chant, “We shall overcompensate someday.”

Ironies abound. How can you call yourself a “movement” when you dismiss all progress and think it’s still 1957? And if you’re worried about authoritarianism, isn’t it the epitome of authoritarianism when you turn into your own parents and say, “Well, maybe you grand jurors didn’t really mess up this time, but this spanking is for all the times we didn’t catch you”?

Social media can accomplish wonders with dissemination of justice-seeking messages, but viral songs can degenerate into just a glorified version of “American Bandstand” (“It’s got a good beat, it’s easy to burn mom-and-pop businesses to.”)

Worthy causes exist. Violations of civil rights exist. But if you’re going to second-guess the split-second decisions of officers, it is counterproductive and hypocritical to “shoot first and ask questions later”. Sixties idealism has given way to “If I had a chip, I’d wear it on my shoulder…,” “My knee, it is a-jerking” and “All we are saying, is give cop-killer bullets a chance…”

Protest songs need emotion, but they also need truth. And if truth is swept away by tunnel vision, groupthink or mob mentality, that raw emotion can be a most dangerous force.

The self-righteous paranoia of seeing systemic racism, misogyny, evil rich people and police brutality behind every tree alternately spurs rash action or taints the cause with the appearance of “the boy who cried wolf.”

Perhaps it would help to paraphrase the words sung by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: “Choose…your battles well…”


Danny Tyree welcomes email responses at and visits to his Facebook fan page “Tyree’s Tyrades.” Danny’s’ weekly column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc. newspaper syndicate.