The library of great protest songs is so vast, it’s difficult to do the topic the justice it deserves. Nevertheless, a number of protest songs have set themselves ahead of the rest for their enduring power, deep resonance, or both. These are the songs that have really made a mark on the modern spirit of rebellion: the 55 greatest protest songs of all time!
1. We Shall Overcome — Pete Seeger
Originating as a gospel song, We Shall Overcome made its true cultural debut as a protest song. It was first sung in protest by striking tobacco workers in Charleston, South Carolina in 1945. Lucille Simmons, a black worker and activist, led the picketers in singing the hymn. The song is perhaps most famously performed by Pete Seeger, who learned it from Simmons, in 1959.
2. Solidarity Forever — Utah Phillips
Written by Ralph Chaplin for the Industrial Workers of the World in 1915, Solidarity Forever went on to be adopted by countless other union movements. Chaplin wrote the song while working as a journalist covering the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike of 1912 in Kanawha County, West Virginia.
3. We Shall Not Be Moved — The Almanac Singers, Pete seeger & The Song Swappers
Originally an African-American spiritual composed by enslaved people as I Shall Not Be Moved, this song became a protest song as early as the 19th century. Scholars believe it was originally sung as a spiritual song during revivalist camp meetings. It gained notoriety in its modern form during the Civil Rights Movement.
4. Keep Your Hand on The Plow — Mahalia Jackson
Also known as Gospel Plow, a traditional African-American spiritual composed by enslaved people, this song became a major Labor and Civil Rights song in the 20th century. It has been performed by numerous artists including Bob Dylan in 1962, Screaming Trees, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Pete Seeger. The song is based on a reference from the Gospel of Luke 9:62.
5. War — Edwin Starr
One of the most influential songs of the counterculture movement, War was first recorded by Edwin Starr in 1970. The opening lines cut right to the chase, asking “War — what is it good for, Absolutely nothing.” The song was originally used to protest the Vietnam War; after 9/11, it was placed on a no-play list to discourage public sentiment against the Iraq War.
6. The Preacher and the Slave — Joe Glazer
Sometimes called Pie in the Sky, this Joe Hill song from 1911 is a parody of the old hymn In the Sweet By-and-By. The song significantly took the emotional and even spiritual resonance of the hymn but turned against religious and political conservatism. Hill initially wrote the parody to combat the Salvation Army — satirized as “the Starvation Army” — who he had first encountered as a child in Sweden.
7. Bread and Roses — John Denver
This song began as a political slogan based on a poem. Helen Todd, a women’s suffrage activist in the United States, gave a speech that included the line, “bread for all, and roses too!” This inspired James Oppenheim to write the poem, Bread and Roses, which was published in The American Magazine in 1911. The song appeals not only for just wages but dignified working conditions and time for leisure: not just bread, but roses, too.
8. Dump the Bosses Off Your Back — Anne Feeney
This brief labor hymn asks forlorn workers to consider their poverty in comparison to the mighty amassed treasury of the rich. Originating from an old labor slogan popular in mines, factories, and fields across the United States, this song shows the stark difference between poverty and wealth. Anne Feeney’s version brings the song into the modern age: “Did you find your pension looted, Are your buddies in Iraq, Then dump the bosses off your back!”
9. Union Maid — Woody Guthrie
This legendary labor protest song by Woody Guthrie honors the working women who upheld the American labor movement in the early 20th century. Women are still too often unsung, essential figures in the worldwide labor movement. The song praises a union woman who knows how company spies operate and isn’t afraid to strike.
10. Where Have All the Flowers Gone — Peter, Paul and Mary
This modern folk-style song was inspired by the traditional Cossack folk song, Koloda-Duda. Pete Seeger first borrowed the Irish melody and the first three verses in 1955. Joe Hickerson added more verses in 1960. The song rests firmly in the meditative tradition on death called “ubi sunt.” It asks, in turn, where the young women, men, soldiers, and others have gone. Upon discovering their captivity to war, the song asks, “When will they ever learn?”
11. If I Had a Hammer — Pete Seeger
This protest song, also called The Hammer Song, began as an anthem for the Progressive movement of the early 1950s. It was written by Seeger and folk singer Lee Hays. The song was first recorded by the folk music quarter the Weaves which included these two alongside Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert. Seeger and Hayes performed it at a testimonial dinner for leaders of the U.S. Communist Party.
12. Fuck tha Police — N.W.A.
Fuck tha Police is an infamous protest song that was debuted by hip hop group N.W.A. in their 1988 album, Straight Outta Compton. It protests police brutality and racial profiling in American law enforcement practices. It quickly became and remains a pop culture slogan appearing on T-shirts and political art. The song parodies court procedure by presenting Dr. Dre as the judge in a prosecution case of a police department.
13. Mississippi Goddam — Nina Simone
Written and performed by Nina Simone, who later declared it her first Civil Rights song, this song has become a racial justice anthem. First released in 1964, this song and its album Nina Simone in Concert were the artist’s more serious political transitions in her music. She composed the song in less than one hour, yet it remains her most famous protest song and self-written piece.
14. This is America — Childish Gambino
Actor Donald Glover broke into rap with his stage name Childish Gambino. He caught attention in 2018 when he released This is America. The song criticizes the widespread violence in American society, drawing attention to issues such as police violence, racial discrimination, and school shootings.
15. Killing in the Name — Rage Against The Machine
This famous protest song generated some controversy when it debuted in 1992. It was inspired by police brutality suffered by Rodney King and those in the subsequent Los Angeles uprising. It has gone on to become Rage Against The Machine’s signature song. The song includes the infamous line, “Some of those that work forces, Are the same that burn crosses!”
16. What’s Going On — Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye’s 11th studio album in 1971, What’s Going On, contained the titular song and global hit. Most songs in this concept album bleed into the next in what has been categorized as a classic song cycle. The album portrays the perspective of a returning Vietnam War veteran who witnesses hatred, injustice, and inexplicable suffering. The song explores poverty, drug abuse, and the traumas of war. Not only is this a famous protest song and album, it is also one of the most significant in 1970s soul music.
17. Blowin’ in the Wind — Bob Dylan
Arguably one of the most famous protest songs of all time, Blowin’ in the Wind was composed in response to the Vietnam War. The song asks the question: how many people need to die before we are satisfied? It offers no answers, saying that they are standing right before us if we only listen.
18. Sunday Bloody Sunday — U2
Sunday Bloody Sunday was composed in remembrance of Bloody Sunday, a 1972 tragedy where Catholic civil rights protestors were gunned down in Derry by British troops. However, the members of U2 clarified that the song was not intended to be a declaration of partisanship; rather, it is a protest against conflict and violence of all kinds.
19. The Timberbeast’s Lament — Utah Phillips
This folk song monologues from the point of view of a lumber worker in the early 20th century. It reflects on sparse possessions and rough conditions endured by the typical lumberjack. Despite the inarguable danger of timber work, these laborers experienced some of the most grueling conditions in U.S. history. These conditions led to a number of intense labor struggles in the 1910s and 20s that led to improved working conditions in the timber industry down to this day.
20. Mr. Block — Joe Glazer
Mr. Block begins his story as a comic strip character created by Ernest Riebe. The mythical figure was commemorated in a song by Joe Hill. Mr. Block is an amalgamation of various satirical portrayals of pro-war, pro-boss, and pro-status quo. The figure was a predecessor to more modern underground comix and debuted in the Spokane newspaper, Industrial Worker. He is often depicted wearing a hat “ten sizes too small” on one corner of his square head.
21. Casey Jones (the Union Scab) — Pete Seeger
While many renditions of Casey Jones are celebratory of the railroad figure, Joe Hill’s version portrays the engine driver as an infamous union scab. Despite his rail engine being in disrepair and unfit to run, Casey’s company loyalty leads him to drive on. He crashes from a bridge, dies, and goes to heaven, where St. Peter asks him to break an angels’ strike. He is then cast to hell by unionized angels and made to shovel sulfur “for scabbing” on the rail line workers.
22. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised — Gil Scott-Heron
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is a 1971 protest song that simultaneously calls for a better future while mocking the consumerist media of the era. The song includes lyrics that satirize popular commercials of the time, such as “The revolution will not go better with Coke.”
23. Masters of War — Bob Dylan
Dylan’s 1963 song debuted on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album. It was adapted from the traditional Nottamun Town, a traditional American folk song. The song focuses on the build-up of nuclear arsenals in the early 1960s. This song is one of the most potent ever recorded that reflects on the futility of Cold War mutually assured destruction and the inevitable destruction of human civilization in a nuclear war.
24. Strange Fruit — Billie Holiday
Recorded by Holiday in 1939, Strange Fruit is derived from one of Abel Meeropol’s poem from two years prior. It protests the lynching of African-Americans, comparing lynching victims to strange fruit hanging from trees. Lynchings of Black Americans had reached a peak at the time. The song was used as a protest song in New York City venues in the early 1930s. Many consider this song the musical “opening shot” of the American Civil Rights movement.
25. I Ain’t Marching Anymore — Phil Ochs
This protest classic hails from Phil Ochs and debuted in 1965. It was the title track and most notable song of his album of the same name. The album was an overall social and labor commentary that memorialized President John F. Kennedy shortly after his assassination and criticized American unions for excluding people of color. I Ain’t Marching Anymore is an anti-war protest song that pulls no punches with the military-industrial complex.
26. American Idiot — Green Day
Green Day’s American Idiot is the titular song from the 2004 album of the same name. It was released as a concept punk rock opera album following the story of Jesus of Suburbia. Jesus is a poor working-class teenage American anti-hero who grows disillusioned with the era following 9/11 and the Iraq War.
27. All Used Up — Utah Phillips
Utah Phillips’ All Used Up is an autobiographical folk song about finding futility in a long and supposedly fruitful career. After a lifetime of hard work, the singer finds they have almost nothing left. They live in a crummy motel and suffer from various physical ailments. The singer is haunted by dreams of sharing what’s left of their lives with young people to pass on what they’ve learned. The singer poses the question: What’s left when we’re all used up?
28. Revolution — The Beatles
The Beatles rarely got into politics during their time as a group, but 1968’s Revolution was an anomaly. The song drew on the social unrest of the late 1960s; the lyrics both express sympathy and decry violence, a sentiment that John Lennon would continue to express during his solo career.
29. Fortunate Son — Creedence Clearwater Revival
Fortunate Son was intended to be a commentary on class inequality in the U.S.; however, released in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War, it became a protest song for the anti-war movement, with people drawing comparisons to the sons of influential men being able to escape the forced draft.
30. A Change is Gonna Come — Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke released A Change is Gonna Come in 1964, in the early days of the Civil Rights movement. The song was written about his experiences with racism and discrimination as a black man. Sadly, Cooke never lived to see the change he wrote about, as he was murdered in December 1964.
31. Old Time Religion — Pete Seeger
Fully titled Give Me That Old Time Religion, this traditional gospel song dates back to at least 1873. It quickly became and remains a staple in many Protestant hymnals. However, the song was humorously parodied by Pete Seeger, full of lyrics referencing Druids, Greek gods, and the Iranian prophet Zarathustra. Seeger’s version makes a satirical appeal to the false nostalgia of “good old days” religiosity in the face of social change.
32. Love Me, I’m a Liberal — Phil Ochs
Phil Ochs excoriates the American liberal in this infamous song from 1966. It quickly became one of his most popular concert staples. Ochs’ major criticism of liberals was their tendency to profess all the right things while refusing to do anything meaningful to enact social change.
33. Joe Hill — Paul Robeson
Also known as I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night, this folk song originally began as a poem by Alfred Hayes in 1925. However, it’s Paul Robeson who takes the prize for the greatest cover of Joe Hill of all time. Indeed, Robeson’s version has gone on to become perhaps the best known and is the third-most requested song by British Labour politicians on Desert Island Discs.
34. Draft Dodger Rag — Phil Ochs
This light, bouncy “rag” centers on the Vietnam War-era draft dodger. This figure is shown as someone in complete favor of warfare as long as he isn’t required to fight in it. The singer’s excuses are seemingly limitless as he lists the many health, psychological, practical, and personal reasons he shouldn’t be sent to the front lines.
35. This Land is Your Land — Woody Guthrie
This is inarguably Woody Guthrie’s most famous song and arguably his most important. Guthrie was inspired to sing a song about the common people of America and their right to the country’s vast wealth. In a country and culture that has so often prized the isolated individual, Guthrie emphasizes the connectedness of all Americans’ fates.
36. Popular Wobbly — Pete Seeger
In the early days of the American labor movement, it was a big deal to be a unionist or union sympathizer. Popular Wobbly attests to a time when working people were quite often harassed and even jailed for their pro-labor activities. The singer describes how much trouble his union membership gets them into with the law, culminating in their imprisonment and judgment before the throne of God.
37. Starlight on the Rails — Utah Phillips
Utah Phillips’ classic Starlight on the Rails centers on the experience of the hobo or bum, who wanders from place to place. The song analyzes the hunger experienced by so many in America and the feeling of aimlessness punctuated by illicit railroad trips. The weary traveler looks back at the path behind him and reflects that the years roll by like a freight train – “cold as starlight on the rails.”
38. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall — Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan is undoubtedly a king of protest songs, particularly during the 1960s. During this time, his music loudly criticized the Vietnam War, racial segregation, materialism, and mainstream culture. Some have suggested that the lyrics “hard rain” refer to nuclear bombs, as the song was written around the time of the Cuban missile crisis. However, Dylan said it was more generally about the consequences of war and violence.
39. Fight The Power — Public Enemy
Fight The Power is a modern-day protest song, released by hip hop group Public Enemy in 1989. The song has been called one of the greatest protest songs of all time. The lyrics hotly criticize the abuse of power, particularly by law enforcement, and the notion of racial equality without the acknowledgment of black suppression in the United States.
40. The Red Flag — Billy Bragg
The Red Flag is the official song of the British Labour Party but has been adopted by socialist organizations around the world. The song was composed in the late 19th century; these days, it is best known for its 1990 cover by Scottish singer Billy Bragg.
41. We Have Fed You All A Thousand Years — Utah Phillips
This song is a testament to the people who make the world run. The song rails against the abuses of the rich and powerful. Its powerful lyrics like “From the days when you chained us in your fields, To the strike of a week ago” brings together the history of working people from centuries ago to today. It analyzes the fate of those destined to work while others have all the good things in life. The song goes on, “If blood be the price of your cursed wealth, Good God, we have paid in full!”
42. The Internationale — Billy Bragg
Perhaps the most infamous and radical protest song of all time, The Internationale is as “Red” as they get. It is the most notable left-wing anthem in modern history and has been a socialist standard for centuries. Written by Eugene Pottier, an anarchist, it was set to an original melody by Marxist, Pierre De Geyter. It remains one of the most universally translated songs in human history and serves as an anthem for socialists, anarchists, communists, and social democrats worldwide.
43. Hallelujah, I’m a Bum — Pete Seeger
This classic labor protest decries the conditions of those forced to beg for alms in the face of joblessness and inadequate housing conditions. It recounts the experience of “bummery” and being reliant on the unpredictable generosity of individuals to survive. The titular bum can’t find work and doesn’t seem to have many skills, so he’s left wandering and begging. He presses on despite challenges of selfishness, callousness, and plain bum luck– managing to find a certain happiness even in his despondency.
44. Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season) — The Byrds
Based on a passage from Ecclesiastes, this song reflects on the seasonality of human life. Each human life cycles between life and death, war and peace, gain and loss, love and hate. So does human civilization. Yet, there is “a time of peace — it’s not too late.” The song signifies that despite the rotation of human history, it’s not too late for each and all of us to decide to make something new.
45. Guantanamera — The Sandpipers
Guantanamera is Cuba’s most notable patriotic song and perhaps the island nation’s best-known song. It is based on the poetry of poet Jose Marti, though the lyrics were officially written by Joseito Fernandez. Fernandez first gained notoriety for singing the song on the radio in 1929, though the first record release was much later. The Sandpipers used an arrangement by The Weavers for their 1966 version, which went on to become an international sensation.
46. Southern Man — Neil Young
Southern Man comes from Neil Young’s 1970 album After the Gold Rush. It attacks the blatant racism of whites toward Black people in the American South. Young details a white man, who symbolizes the South, mistreating the Black people he has enslaved. He asks when this cruel man will finally realize the horror of his ways and make amends for his ill-gained wealth built off the backs of others.
47. To Be Young Gifted and Black — Nina Simone
Nina Simone’s 1969 song was part protest, part encouragement; the song is about how black youth should be proud of who they are and not try to hide their identity. The song has been widely sampled and covered, including by Aretha Franklin, Elton John, and many others.
48. Which Side Are You On? — The Almanac Singers
Written (and originally sung on the picket line) by Florence Reece in 1931, this classic workers’ protest song demands a choice. With references to Harlan County, Kansas, and the notoriously corrupt sheriff responsible for terrorizing striking workers, the singers ask which side the listener is on. The lyrics reference the singer’s father who “was a miner and I’m a miner’s son,” showing the intergenerational loyalty of the labor movement.
49. Banks of Marble — Fred Holstein
Banks of Marble was first performed in public by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays. It became a hit when performed by The Weavers. It was the B-side single released with If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song). Johnny Cash and his wife June Carter Cash released a harmony duet version in 1972, while Bruce Springsteen recorded a cover in 2004. Significantly, Leonard Nimoy also covered the song in 1968.
50. Step By Step — Pete Seeger
Step By Step is a brief poem set to music by Pete Seeger. It is a remarkably simple song that has become a staple of labor and community organizers. The song shortly and neatly emphasizes the slow, plodding progress of social change. It makes clear that the “longest march” on the path of social progress can be finished “step by step” so long as there is determination.
51. Down by the Riverside — Grandpa Elliott
Also widely known as either Ain’t Gonna Study War No More or Gonna Lay Down My Burden, this song began as an African-American spiritual from before the U.S. Civil War. It has long been an anti-war protest song because of its pacifistic lyrics, peaking during the Vietnam War protests. It features in a number of labor and socialist musical compilations, with at least 14 Black gospel recordings before the Second World War.
52. Hurricane — Bob Dylan
Hurricane was a protest song about the targeted profiling and arrest of black boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Dylan campaigned passionately for the retrial and release of Carter, believing him to have been a victim of racial discrimination. It would be almost 20 years before Carter was a free man.
53. Blackleg Miner — Offa Rex
Blackleg Miner originated as an English folk song in 19th-century Northumberland. The song references the English villages of Seghill and Seaton Delaval. It remains one of the most controversial English folk songs for its open advocacy of violence towards strikebreakers (colloquially known as “scabs”). While the song has been sung by many artists, Offa Rex’s modern rendition breathes new life into an old protest classic.
54. Where the Fraser River Flows — John McCutcheon
Where the Fraser River Flows is a lesser-known but classic song about community resilience in the face of exploitation. The Fraser River is the longest river in British Columbia, Canada. The song references the labor battles of workers there as they grappled with lawbreaking companies and corrupt authorities.
55. Ohio — Crosby, Stills and Nash
Ohio was recorded in 1970 in response to the shootings at Kent State University in Ohio. The song became a protest staple in the counterculture and anti-war movements; it was banned from playing on the radio because of its direct criticism of President Nixon. The song ends with the words “Four! Why? How many more?” in reference to the four victims of the incident.
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