The 10 Greatest Protest Songs

To mark May Day on Monday a date synonymous with public demonstrations here is the list of 10 greatest protest songs of all time.

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To mark May Day on Monday a date synonymous with public demonstrations Gigwise.com is counting down the greatest protest songs of all time.

Below is the list of 10 anthems that rage against racism, war, society and, of course, the machine.

10. Creedence Clearwater Revival: "Fortunate Son" (Video)

John Fogerty wrote the song in 1969 in protest at the Vietnam war and took inspiration from the partnership of David Eisenhower (the grandson of President Eisenhower) and Julie Nixon (the daughter of President Nixon). The premise is that, unlike the impoverished narrator of the song who is being conscripted, "fortunate son" David Eisenhower gets to miss Vietnam. Four decades later on his 2007 album "Revival", Fogerty penned the song "I Can't Take It No More" about the Iraq War in which he labels then President George W Bush as "a fortunate son."

09. Edwin Starr: "War" (Video)

One of the most popular protest songs ever committed to plastic, the 1970 Motown smash hit is buoyed by the chorus "War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin'!" and attacks the Vietnam War with general distaste and venom. Praised by that other great anti-war song writer John Lennon, the track shot straight to number one in the Billboard charts upon release and was duly adopted by the anti-Vietnam War movement in the early 1970s.

08. Buffalo Springfield: "For What It's Worth" (Video)

One of two Stephen Stills entries on the list, while many musicians were embracing the hedonistic love of the sixties Stills was dealing with much grittier subject matter. Essentially an ode to the violence, social paranoia and brutalities of the Vietnam War, what differentiates "For What It's Worth" from the vast majority of other protest songs is it's overtly positive chorus - "stop killing, what's that sound? everyone look what's going down." If only the leaders of the world would pay notice.

07. Bob Dylan: "Blowin In The Wind" (Video)

One of Dylan's many timeless protest songs, the 1963 anthem poses a series of questions about war, freedom and peace, yet never really answers them. The chorus' famous refrain of "The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind" is wholly ambiguous either implying the answer is all around and obvious or as intangible as the wind. The track becmae a soundtrack of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and testament to its enduring legacy has been covered by everyone from Elvis Presley to Dolly Parton.

06. U2: "Sunday Bloody Sunday" (Video)

Opening with a military drumbeat, U2's highly political 1983 anthem soon turns into a heady protest at The Troubles in Northern Ireland - most notably the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry in January 1972 when British soldiers opened fire on protesters, killing 14 and injuring 29 more. Composed by The Edge, arguably the most hard-hitting moment of the song comes when Bono proclaims "I won't heed the battle call". An earlier version of the track interestingly featured the line "Don't talk to me about the rights of the IRA, UDA", but this was later removed as the band did not want to directly reference political groups.

05. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: "Ohio" (Video)

The timeless song was written in response to the Kent State Shootings of May 4, 1970 when the Ohio National Guard opened fire college students protesting against the American invasion of Cambodia which President Nixon had announced five days earlier. Four were killed and one left paralysed. Just like its subject matter, "Ohio" is brutal lyrically, referring to "four dead in Ohio" throughout and opening with the line "Tin soldiers and Nixon coming." Named as the 385th greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone magazine, really it should have been higher.

04. Barry McGuire: "Eve Of Destruction" (Video)

As the portentous title titillates, the song warns of an imminent apocalypse as it laments the ills of society. Almost Leonard Cohen-esque in the grave delivery, McGuire touches upon all of the political woes of the mid 1960s the Cold War, Vietnam, the nuclear arms race, inequality and civil rights. Inspired lines such as "You're old enough to kill, but not for votin'" make this easily one of the greatest protest songs of all time.

03. Plastic Ono Band: "Give Peace A Chance" (Video)

The phrase "Give Peace A Chance" was originally said by John Lennon to a journalist in an interview during his famous "Bed-In" with Yoko Ono. He liked the line so much he eventually went on to write the song. The anti-war anthem then gained fame when it was sung by half a million demonstrators in Washington at the 1969 Vietnam Moratorium Day. Alongside Lennon's other protest anthems "Imagine", "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" and "Power To The People", "Give Peace A Chance" is a defining protest song.

02. Billie Holiday: "Strange Fruit" (Video)

Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high school teacher from the Bronx, wrote the haunting song in response to the lynching of two black men Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in August 1930. Condemning American racism and the lynching of blacks in Southern states, in her inimitable voice Holiday opens with the incredibly evocative lines: "Southern trees bear strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black body swinging in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees."

01. Marvin Gaye: "What's Going On?" (Video)

Not just the greatest protest song, Marvin Gaye's 1971 classic is one of the greatest songs ever written. Co-songwriter Obie Benson initially started writing "What's Going On?" after witnessing anti-war protesters being beaten by cops hence the "picket lines and picket signs, don't punish me with brutality" lyrics. However with Al Cleveland and Gaye's input it became an anthem meditating on the troubles of the world as a whole and, given the context of the release date, the Vietnam War. Gorgeous musically, Gaye sounds concerned with the bleak subject matter, yet somehow there is also a glimmer of hope in his voice. Considering the current world climate, "What's Going On?" is as relevant as ever today.

Check out the full top 20 at Gigwise.com.

201 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Comeback Kiddd
    Beastie Boys' Fight For Your Right? Rage Against the Machine's Discography? where the f**k is John Lennon? this article is only a matter of opinion.
    guitarsftw
    jimmypagejunior wrote: Not band but I would've thrown "Revolution" by the Beatles in there. They were pretty much the first, or John Lennon was, to merge politics with rock and roll and this song stands out the most.
    If you looked at the whole list, you would see that it did make the list. Just not the top 10.
    guitarsftw
    Armed_Homeless wrote: how about every rage against the machine song and most system of a downs
    The cultural impact of most of RATM's and SOAD's music is very minimal compared to the songs on the list.
    Octavarium85
    I was hoping for P.L.U.C.K. by SOAD, but yeah in comparison to the other songs on the list it deals with a much smaller issue
    FloyDZeD
    I'm surprised 'All Along the Watchtower' isn't on the list. And LOL at the wrong lyrics on 'For What It's Worth.'
    guitarsftw
    Loganh wrote: Country joe and the fish anyone?
    Read through the comments, a lot of us are wondering the same thing.
    guitarsftw
    mulletman619 wrote: london calling by the clash. enough said.
    Made the top 20, not the top 10.
    m3tal_R3dn3ck wrote: I was hoping for Twisted Sister... "We're not gonna take it! No we aint gonna take it!"
    Raging at parents is not quite on the same level as protesting a war that many Americans found unjust.
    bf313
    RATM should be on here so should Anti flag and Beastie Boys but its nice to see U2 on here
    StewieSwan
    This would be so much better if it was a list of the 10 greatest Protest the Hero songs
    Larry Masterson
    (Walk Me Out In The) Morning Dew - Written by a Canadian named Bonnie Dobson in about 1961, but made popular by The Grateful Dead on their first album in 1967. Greatest protest ever, even all others mentioned deserve honorable mention!
    RageAgainstBuck
    One-Metallica should have been on that list! or ANYTHING by Rage Against the Machine, but other than that, a pretty decent list!
    guitarsftw
    RageAgainstBuck wrote: One-Metallica should have been on that list! or ANYTHING by Rage Against the Machine, but other than that, a pretty decent list!
    "One" isn't a protest song, it's a song that basically just summarizes the WWI book "Johnny Got His Gun".
    jimmypagejunior
    Not band but I would've thrown "Revolution" by the Beatles in there. They were pretty much the first, or John Lennon was, to merge politics with rock and roll and this song stands out the most. Glad to see Sunday Bloody Sunday on there. Very chilling version on Rattle and Hum DVD, "F*** the revolution..."
    kodadak
    ...besides this isnt a list of everyones favorite song about middle-class kids rebelling against their parents(ie sex pistols, and anti-flag references)
    While I can't speak for Anti-Flag, Sex Pistols were working class, not middle class, in 70s Britain, and if you know any basic history, you'll realize Johnny Rotten's anger was pretty justified.
    espChris93
    i would've liked to see alice in chains-rooster, metallica-disposable heroes, lamb of god-11th hour, and system of a down-boom. but everyones got a different opinion i guess
    californiacane
    wheres RAGE????? and even though i hate ANTI-FLAG, where are they on this list????? No where????? Wheres RISE AGAINST????? Wheres the hard-core punk that shouts rebellion?????
    rockchalk0607
    Maybe you all should click the link that goes to the actual list that Gigwise.com (not UG) made. RATM, Sex Pistols, and Sabbath all made it, stop bitching and moaning about how they didn't. SOAD definitely should have been on it though.
    kodadak
    Fight The Power by Public Enemy? All Along The Watchtower by Bob Dylan? Good List but somewhat lacking imo.
    Killzark
    I figured some RATM would be here, or Iron Maiden. Guess they just wanted to throw together a bunch of crappy old songs
    hudsonstradlin
    Blackwaterson89 wrote: They mainly did old songs. I guess lennon didnt maake the cut.
    Plastic Ono Band was his ****ing band. Read a goddamn book and stop watching MTV.
    masterp666
    blind willie jefferson - if i had my way id tear this building down. he didn't even mean to and incited a riot! that should be number 1.
    espChris93
    KnotParkDay wrote: The fact that Killing in the Name or Bulls on Parade aren't on here renders the whole list redundant
    haha do you know what the word redundant means? ...besides this isnt a list of everyones favorite song about middle-class kids rebelling against their parents(ie sex pistols, and anti-flag references) its a list about song that contain great lyrical power and are inspired by events or feelings that are more powerful than an angry teen punk song
    Blind Messiah
    Comeback Kiddd wrote: Beastie Boys' Fight For Your Right? Rage Against the Machine's Discography? where the f**k is John Lennon? this article is only a matter of opinion.
    Lennon? Plastic Ono Band
    A Rolling Stone
    Comeback Kiddd wrote: Beastie Boys' Fight For Your Right? Rage Against the Machine's Discography? where the f**k is John Lennon? this article is only a matter of opinion.
    Plastic Ono Band. Duh. Great ****in list.
    geekgangstaguy
    GrungeJunkie wrote: also, I think rage is a bit too violent to be on a list of anti war songs...
    Lol I bet people thought this music was violent back then, too.
    asmiff
    Comeback Kiddd wrote: Beastie Boys' Fight For Your Right? Rage Against the Machine's Discography? where the f**k is John Lennon? this article is only a matter of opinion.
    Agreed on the Rage, and John wrote "Give Peace a Chance", which is credited to the Plastic Ono Band in the article
    asmiff
    theczar wrote: I hate RATM. They bitch constantly about a country and a system that allows them to bitch about it! In some parts of the world they put u in jail(or execute you) simply for playing music or criticizing the government.And if they wanna free Mumia Abul Jamaal then they should spend some of their millions on good lawyers for him and just STFU.
    So you hate them because they exercise free speech?
    BrixDK
    Comeback Kiddd wrote: Beastie Boys' Fight For Your Right? Rage Against the Machine's Discography? where the f**k is John Lennon? this article is only a matter of opinion.
    John Lennon is in Plastic Ono Band and wrote "Give Peace a Chance", if you feel that strongly about his presumed absence you should know that. regarding Beastie Boys, it's a fun song, but that's pretty much it. It does'nt have any significant cultural impact like the song's on the list
    BrixDK
    ... And "Fight the Power" should've been on the list. Oh well
    luke_guitar
    Ok guys Lennon and Yoko Ono were part of the Plastic Ono Band. It was what he worked on after leaving the Beatles. Lennon and Ono's bed-in was where they stayed in bed for an entire day in protest, and the name caused a misinterpretation originally for the press, only feeding its publicity. Just to clear that up.
    highvoltage2739
    Its great to see U2 on there, its a shame that The Troubles largely go unnoticed to the majority of people. Ireland has been an extremely war torn country throughout the last century