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Music as a Tool for Social Change: Protest Song in Civil Right Movement in the US


Music is life. Music is everything we see around. It gives movements to motionless objects, and makes silence loud. Music is emotions and feelings that overpower us each second of our life, even in deep sleep. Each individual, animal, plant, or even stone, carries music through it. All what is needed is to learn how to listen to it. As Stuart Stotts shared, “Music has the power to bring people together, give strength, to lift spirits, to provide hope. People everywhere have always turned to music during times of trouble and triumph, despair and celebration. Some particularly powerful songs are sung again and again until they become permanent part of our history.”

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Music is different. Each song relates to its cultural background, historical period, and emotional state of the singer. One and the same song can sound differently for different people, as if presuming that it possesses some sort of individuality in it, which is perceived totally uniquely. On the other hand, similarly to living organisms, the same piece of music can sound differently, when performed by someone who has a certain baggage of experience behind his back: Such well-spread in his time, protest songs tell about bitterness with the bright smile across singers’ faces as well as beating on a merry tone (Phull, 2008).

This essay will tackle the problems of potential power of the music and its impact on various spheres of humans’ life. The particular focus will be on the protest songs, which represent an important aspect of community organizing and political expression. This essay will explore the role that Pete Seeger and the protest song has played in American culture through its lyrics, stories, performances, and communal participation, as the activist managed to prove the whole world that a single tune and apt lyrics can change the environment of the entire country by bringing into it those motivating elements that bring whole nations to stand out and raise their voice against those challenges that they have to face, due to the wrong-doings of the higher top.

Pete Seeger’s World-Affecting Protest Songs

Pete Seeger’s childhood never evoked a thought that he would become a songwriter and singer, as he longed for an occupation of a forest ranger, an Indian. He never seemed to be a goal-oriented person; having the opportunity to study sociology in Harvard, he left it after two years. He liked music but never showed up a great talent for it. Thus, the question is challenging: How could this controversial person change so much that he shook the whole world with his activities that brought fame not only to him, but also emphasized the unbreakable strength of music in changing political and social arena?

As Alec Wilkinson retells, in the period of World War II Seeger was already found to be a member of an interesting group with eloquent name “The Almanac Singers”, where Woody Guthrie’s presence was often noticed (Wilkinson, 2006, p. 44). After the group ceased its activities, Seeger went to the Weavers , which stopped playing in 1952, due to the secretive information that reached the House Un-American Activities Committee concerning the three of the four Weavers, who were considered to be Communists (Seeger was on the list, too).

“Seeger appeared on the radio in any town he was visiting, giving the concert overnight, and then vanishing before anyone who could be fast enough to protest”, mentions David Dunaway, the biographer (Dunaway et al, 2010). Despite the reunion of the Weavers in 1955, Pete Seeger never came back to them after leaving the band in1957.

The new album of Bruce Springsteen's “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions” has versions of Seeger’s folk songs. Springsteen’s admiration for Seeger’s music began in 1997. “We Shall Overcome” is a real tribute to the ethical musical impact with recognition of cultural significance, which folk music so aptly embodies (Vrabel, 2006). Despite all the lack of aspiration of Pete Seeger to go up the ladder of a singer career, as he recognized himself that he disliked for being so well-known (Kupfer, 2011), he always believed in the binding power of music.

During the 20th century, the singer changed. The political problems that shook his homeland made him over-think the potential he carried in his heart and mind. Two world wars, famines, the Great Depression as well as the impending threat of the Cold War, and devastating Vietnam War enshrouded the population of the entire world into constant sense of fear and insecurity (Zaroulis et al, 1989). Seeger sought for the sun ray, which would be stronger than the fear in the eyes of the possible nuclear destruction, and loss of hope for safe and happy future. He craved to give people this piece of hope he always had in his heart, as he knew that no matter what happened, there were things, which would never die, things (which were, in fact, far from being things at all) that were eternal. And he found his way of sharing his hope with the world – through music.

Moreover, Pete Seeger did more than any other performer to make people think of folk music during the 60s. On the other hand, he was not accepted equally in the same way by all people: A lot of them, especially purists, strongly criticized his activities and opposed to his growing influence. They were not satisfied with Seeger's overt support of Communism, which a vast majority of men and women across the country considered to be the evil that brought unhappiness to their families. However, despite the negativity, the positive activism of the singer over-went the traps that his almost enemies set out for him (Wilkinson, 2006, p. 44).

It is important to stress that Seeger’s perception of the social disposition was quite democratic and humanistic: Through application of music, he tried to promote equal rights for everyone, evoking the civil rights, and workers' rights movements, actions against the Vietnam War, as well as the ecological movement. At that time, Seeger could easily be called a socialist. However, the understanding came and Seeger gradually realized the falsity of the Communist ideals. He left the Party, and had to confront House Un-American Activities Committee, and spend some time in a jail, before he obtained the freedom of creation his music with those ideas, which came to him with bitter experience.

The Songs, the Style, and Their Influence on the Society

Music seems to be so easy to understand, so natural and common for those, who know how to listen to it, and where to do it. However, many people find it very difficult to percept music: They do not understand it; the tunes seem to bother them, and bring emotions, which they crave to avoid. Surprisingly, but music seems to influence those, who embrace the whole nations. As Andrew Young expressed, “Music is as versatile as people are, and if someone cannot understand the message it carries in it with logic, then these people should not argue what they hear but let it go by and carry them with the music as its power is smashing”.

Looking at a particular problem, Communism in the South failed, as they did not sing. It’s a simple statement, but such a lot of powerful meanings, which seem to be absurd at the beginning, gain more and more reasons, when pondering over them. As Dr. Bernard Lafayette noted during the outburst of the Civil Rights Movement, “Songs were very important. This was one of the ways to determine whether or not a community was ready for a movement. The singing was a form of Protest, but more than that as song was what you’d call healing for us because we suffered many wounds” (Arsenault, 2006).

Similarly, the politically-challenged situation in Cuba was depicted through music since 1959. Music there took on an autonomic attempt, which was helping the opposition to bring down the oppressive regime. It combined the outstanding idioms of the folk songs, as well as the politicized, progressive lyrics. Cuban songs are like Americans – revolutionary in its nature, as opposed to the lyrics of the Soviet Union and South Africa as it will be mentioned below (Moore, 2006).

The songs did an outstanding job in the Civil Rights Movements. The slogans and hopes were inbuilt into the lyrics, pulling people together, lighting them the way to freedom, democracy, and so long-for equal rights that were marked with blood so often. One song could make everything different. The African American singers, who were getting more popular, made a great step towards the obtaining of freedom for the black people. Singing blues, gospel, rock, and pop they brought their own world perception, cultural differences and similarities to the white people to help them to understand the erroneous treatment they were giving them. Racial discrimination started to fade away gradually under the strong voice and profound lyrics of Billy Preston, Ray Charles, Bobby Lewis, James Brown, Elvis Presley (he was white but attributing greatly to elimination of the racial inequality among American people), and many others (Lundberg, 2009).

The mild blues retold stories of the daily sorrows, showing people that their worries were common and shared by thousands of others, who had similar dreams of happiness. The gospel music’s measured pace and strong timbre, called for people to join the beat and make their emotions on the same wave, reminding the African national tunes that hypnotized people with its natural beauty, combined with the mystical secrecy. Such music gave people understanding the fact that they knew something, which only those who followed the beat might know. The uniting power of music cannot be undermined.

Traditionally, music has always accompanied movements for political and social change, serving as an effective tool that provides commentary on political and social issues, obtains emotion from listeners to provoke action in reaction to those challenges, and joins people in a certain political or social movement. After being involved into such a movement, the singer has the chance, thanks to the exceptional talents to survey the world, to lead that movement further with an inventive reaction to the situation in the world (Palmer, 2012).

There is such an effect principally because music, in opposition to other forms of art, has the mystical power to unite people, as aforementioned, to face a common challenge with joined forces. The common experience for all nations to sing a song in a group (for example, during demonstrations, marches, or concerts) leads to the strengthening of the social bond.

That bond grows even stronger, when people consider the music to be a method of reaching as many people as possible with an idea. The potential of one single song to influence entire generations promotes it as a precious tool of mobilization and education, especially among the youth (Palmer, 2012).

A great example of it would be the music of anti-apartheid movement, which was called for fighting with the legalized system of racial rights segregation that led to the deprivation of the black people of their citizenship, freedoms, and any human existence from 1948 to 1994. “Meadowlands” by Benedict Wallet Vilakazi, “Bring Him Back Home”, and “Toyi-toyi” chanting became the anthems of the movement.

If comparing American Civil Rights songs with anti-apartheid music, it will be easy to see one major difference: Africans vented their sorrows, miseries, and horrors on the lyrics and timbre of the songs, whereas Americans focused more on the achievement of freedom and peace, on the ways to make a necessary change. For example, “Soweto Blues” by Hugh Masekela mourns the fierce massacre of the Soweto riots during 1976 in South Africa (Eyerman, 1998).

American music seems to become the most progressing and powerful in the social rights rebels. Moreover, it encompasses much broader specter, including women’s rights, civil liberties, economic injustice, war and politics, slavery, abolition, poverty among the most sung about. On the Asian continent, this tradition is not so well-developed, and definitely did not have such a strong influence on the formation of the present-day states there. If taking into consideration the Soviet Union of the 60s, bards (local protest songs) (Walker et al, 2012) mostly described the sorrows and futility of war, similarly to the African anti-apartheid music. The totalitarian Communist regime was too strict to let any word against the ruling top spread, therefore, people had to make happy faces and show, how they enjoy the life, which gradually was killing them with its oppressions. “The Paper Soldier” by Bulat Okudzhava outlines a sad story of a soldier who does not understand, for what he is leading such a miserable life, shedding blood at wars for no clear reason (Fowke, 1973).

During one interview, Noel Stookey articulated that music does both: Inspires “a common experience of emotion,” as he calls it, and draws emotions from a listener at the same time uniting him or her with all the others, who experience that piece of music. Moreover, music also provides a potent learning and teaching experience, when lyrics convey thoughts coherently. Therefore, it is vital that the lyrics have a positive meaning, which is not inflicting any violent, abusive, depressive, or evil thoughts on its listeners that can evoke corresponding reaction (Lomax et al, 1999).

As a consequence, though listening to music provides for people’s unity emotionally, the words give listeners a fresh way of thinking. Musicians often have the kill to see those truths across the country, which other media neglect or cannot see, and, therefore, no response is given to often important changes in society.

Artists have an exact role “to transcend conventional wisdom, to transcend the word of the establishment, to transcend the orthodoxy, to go beyond and escape what is handed down by the government or what is said in the media,” according to Howard Zinn, the historian, who expresses himself through his collection of essays with eloquent name “Artists in Times of War”. In case, the musician reveals some truth, which was bluntly neglected by the traditional media means, he starts to “think, act, perform music, and write outside the framework that society has created” (Zinn, 2003).

A simple song has the power, as it can unite listeners for the common purpose – the protest against something and the support of the opposite serve as the best motivation, based on, first of all, emotions and then knowledge, in order to lead people to act in the interest of political or social change. Taking into consideration “Give Peace a Chance”, it united vast amounts of individuals through all the significant anti-war protests that shook the “60s,” helping to drive that movement further and centering on a single idea of peace.

Nonetheless, recognizing that different people react to some music more eagerly than to other, it is crucial to reflect on the force of common thinking that the genre of music for political or social change is, first of all, folk music. Songs for social or political change accurately surpass divisions among genres.

Music of conscience has been originated from the genres of soul, folk music, country, rock, hip hop, rap, reggae, punk rock, metal, jazz, blues – the list can be continued. Whereas Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, and Judy Collins are definitely activists of the folk genre, Bob Marley, Dar Williams, the Dixie Chicks, Anti-Flag, Emmanuel Jal, the Dead Kennedys, Joan Baez, Jackson Browne, The Clash, Rage Against the Machine Queen, Rise Against, Matisyahu, and Billie Holiday have also greatly contributed to the broader field of musical activism (Palmer, 2012).

Even though originating from different musical traditions and genres, any song, created by socially or politically conscious mind, and aiming at protesting and bringing change, is purely musical activism. Likewise, while popularity may signal the impact a certain album or song exerted, or still exerts, on the political and social consciousness of the movement, one cannot ignore the proof of musical activism, created by musicians without such exposure.

However, talking about the positive moments, one cannot leave aside the negative elements, which this field has lacked for a long time, namely that niche, where music for social or political change of all degrees of popularity and genres can be accumulated, to strengthen the existing, though presently separate,of groups of listeners and musicians into a whole that trespasses against all the limits, and survives solely on the longing for changing the world for the better (Pescatello, 1992).

One of the answers may become Music2Life, a new focal point of musical activism, which aims at becoming “the leading organization harnessing the power of music for social change – through technology, artist engagement, and education – for current and new generations of musicians, fans and causes.” (Palmer, 2012) The web-site will give visitors the opportunity to look for music for political or social change by genre as well as by cause, and enable visitors to accumulate the musical files on their own by uploading the proper songs to the website, due to the cause.

No wonder that one of the co-founders of the web-site is Elizabeth, the daughter of Paul from the aforementioned famous band of trio. She cited: “We want to bring heightened mainstream awareness and credibility to music for social change, to legitimize it as a genuine musical genre, so that it doesn’t become popular only in moments of crisis. Music of meaning has its own place and value, and we created Music2Life to leverage technology to give music for change more power – to revive the music and put it to work.” (Palmer, 2012)

The value of uniting music for political or social change beyond genres, and, in doing so, joining listeners by cause and not by genre, cannot be overestimated. The listeners by cause will not only be able to help to lead forward movements for political or social change, but listeners will also benefit greatly from having the chance of obtaining more knowledge of both the cause and the music (Karjala et al, 1983).

If people really care about a certain problem, they will try to collect as much information about it as they can find. Musicians, who compose songs with elements of social or political calls for change, first of all consider themselves to be conscious of the challenges that society currently faces. Otherwise, they may simply use songs to express their reaction to the political activities, no matter what genre the song may belong to, and no matter how famous they are, they promote their ideas by producing such songs, therefore, adding up to the social movements, which are not as acute as the Civil Rights movement in the 60s, but still no less important (Dunaway, 1987).


Music can be defined by many people as religion, which they are truly devoted to. It leads, it makes you feel strong emotions, it changes people and, therefore, the world around them, as each small change within, brings a corresponding change outside. However, music is that religion, which no one tries to disgrace, prove, protest to or blindly worship (Rodnitzky, 1974). Music is like an easy-going, understanding friend, who never pushes anyone but just inspires, never makes someone do things they do not like to do, but simply motivates their free will. Music drives, and this drive is most enthusiastically revealed, when the protest song comes into function: the protest against complicated social or tricky political challenges that can ruin nations but also build states with its potential power (Watkins, 2002).

Civil Right Movement in the United States proved that music can make a change in the entire world. Maybe someone will not notice this change, maybe someone will not recognize it, but if it exists in the consciousness of at least a person, the seed is planted, and one day the tree will grow, making everyone pay attention to it. Music has an unusual mystery in itself, however, each individual sees in it those features, which their heart and mind are most inclined to see according to their emotional state. The movements of the 60s were greatly driven by the musical activists, which, no matter how popular they were, were fighting with their own tools for the freedom, peace, and well-being of the nation. And their tools appeared to be very effective, keeping the whole nation together in pleasant accords of beautiful tunes.