Something to sing about

Song lyrics matter to me. I can really like a song purely for the way it sounds before I know what the lyrics are, but will be turned right off it upon discovery that its lyrics are “rubbish”.

My husband, who is far less “fussy” about a song’s lyrics, finds that a bit bizarre. He often seems to be far more hooked by the way the song sounds than what it has to say.

Music can sometimes elicit very powerful emotional responses from us.

Karen Schrock wrote in her article “Why Music Moves US” in Scientific American (July 15, 2009)

“Some scientists conclude that music’s influence over us may be a chance event, arising from its ability to hijack brain systems built for other purposes such as language, emotion and movement”.

So a song that has something to say can be a powerful tool of protest.

Because while a song – or a poem, or a book, or a film – can not change the world in and of itself, it can certainly help stir up strong feelings inside some of us. And help motivate us to put in some effort towards creating the changes we want to see. Or it can even become some kind of anthem to promote a bit of unity amongst the people who decide to dedicate themselves to such a task.

Here just a few iconic songs by artists who have helped to stir things up, and what motivated them to write them.

“Redemption Song” by Bob Marley (6/2/1945 – 11/5/1981)

“Redemption Song” is the final track on Bob Marley and the Wailers’ ninth album, “Uprising”. Some of the song’s key lyrics were derived from a speech given by the Pan-Africanist orator Marcus Garvey in 1937

“We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind. Mind is your only ruler, sovereign. The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind”

Bob Marley had been diagnosed with the cancer (in his toe) which later ended his life when he wrote the song in 1979. His widow Rita Marley has said “he was already secretly in a lot of pain and dealt with his own mortality, a feature that is clearly apparent in the album, particularly in this song”.

The song is considered one of Marley’s seminal works, with Rolling Stone having listed it as number 66 among The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and Bob Marley remains the most widely known and revered performer of reggae music, credited with helping to spread both Jamaican music and the Rastafari movement to a worldwide audience.

“The Times They Are a-Changin'” by Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan told Cameron Crowe in 1985 that he recalled writing “The Times They Are a-Changin'” as a deliberate attempt to create an anthem of change. “This was definitely a song with a purpose. It was influenced of course by the Irish and Scottish ballads …’Come All Ye Bold Highway Men’, ‘Come All Ye Tender Hearted Maidens’. I wanted to write a big song, with short concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way. The civil rights movement and the folk music movement were pretty close for a while and allied together at that time”

Less than a month after Dylan recorded the song, President John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. The following night, Dylan opened a concert with the song. He later told biographer Anthony Scaduto: “I thought, ‘Wow, how can I open with that song? I’ll get rocks thrown at me.’ But I had to sing it, my whole concert takes off from there. I know I had no understanding of anything. Something had just gone haywire in the country and they were applauding the song. And I couldn’t understand why they were clapping, or why I wrote the song. I couldn’t understand anything. For me, it was just insane.”

“Imagine” by John Lennon (9/10/ 1940 – 8/12/1980)

“Imagine” was a single released from John Lennon’s album of the same name in 1971.

He claimed that the song’s lyrics were inspired by “Cloud Piece”, a three-line instructional poem from Yoko Ono’s 1964 book Grapefruit.

Imagine the clouds dripping.
Dig a hole in your garden to
put them in.

1963 Spring

Lennon commented on the song’s message in an interview with David Sheff for Playboy magazine in the year he died, 1980

“It’s not a new message: “Give Peace a Chance” — we’re not being unreasonable. Just saying “give it a chance.” With “Imagine” we’re asking, “can you imagine a world without countries or religions?” It’s the same message over and over. And it’s positive.”

The song was ranked the 3rd greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone in its “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”, received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award and is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.

“People Have the Power” by Patti Smith

“People Have the Power” is a rock song written by Patti Smith along with her husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, and released as a lead single from her 1988 album “Dream of Life”.

The song has been used in various political campaigns and rallies in the US and Patti Smith performed the song at several of Ralph Nader’s rallies and “Democracy Rising” events, as she is a supporter of the Green Party.

Patti Smith is a legendary musician who helped to carve out a place for female involvement in the US Punk Rock Movement. Her music is very much tied to her political activism, and she has been actively involved in both (music and political activism) throughout her four decade career.

“To the Teeth” by Ani DiFranco

“To the Teeth” was Ani DiFranco’s response to the Columbine High School massacre.

Kim Ruehl wrote for the Guide “Ani DiFranco has long been an advocate of gun control, and this is undeniably her finest song on the matter. Inspired by a rash of school violence and the questions it raised in the media about who’s at fault when children lash out, this title track to her album To the Teeth spares no explanation and pulls no punches. It’s one of the boldest topical songs of her entire career”.

“What Have They Done to the Rain” performed by Joan Baez

“What Have They Done to the Rain” was written by Malvina Reynolds in 1962 and was originally called”Rain Song”. It was written as part of a campaign to stop nuclear testing in the atmosphere, which was producing fall-out. It has been performed by many different artists, most notably by highly renowned American folk singer, songwriter and musician Joan Baez, who has also long been a prominent activist in the fields of human rights, peace, and environmental justice.


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