The Power of Song

Woody Guthrie wrote the words “This guitar kills fascists” on his guitar. Victor Jara was murdered by the Chilean military authorities during the 1973 CIA-assisted coup in Chile; his hands were severed and then he was murdered. Phil Ochs, a folksinger and agitator for popular resistance to war and racism considered Jara his inspiration and hero. Tom Morello, the lead guitarist for Rage Against the Machine and other musical conglomerations has a modified version of Guthrie’s slogan on some of his instruments. All of these musicians are known for both their politics and their musical compositions and performance. The tradition they are part of is one that nowadays seems to be muted at best and non-existent at worst.

For those of us who gained some of out first political awareness that wasn’t provided by a parent, teacher, church or newspaper from a folk song, a rock song or a rap song, this dearth of politically radical tunes seems a real shame. No troubadour with the reach of Bob Dylan or rock band with the Top Ten power of Creedence Clearwater Revival reaches the airwaves today, no matter how one defines them—radio, tv, streaming device or other modern contraption. I can’t recall a song opposing the numerous wars of Empire reaching those who might very well be fighting one of them in the way Creedence’s “Fortunate Son” or Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” did fifty years ago. It seems fairly safe to assume that part of this lack is due to the understanding by those who profit from wars and the tools of war that musicians singing antiwar songs and young people listening to them is not the best way to run a war. In other words, music is a very effective means to get out a message.

It is in this spirit that author Brad Schreiber penned his most recent work. Titled Music is Power: Popular Songs, Social Justice and the Will to Change, this relatively short text (considering the volume of material out there to write about) is a survey of some of popular music’s most powerful messages of social change and those who delivered them. Schreiber discusses those artists whom one would expect to appear in such a book: Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, John Lennon, and Chuck D. More thought-provoking however, is his inclusion of artists such as Lesley Gore, Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd. Indeed, his discussion of Lesley Gore and her hit song “You Don’t Own Me” will open many reader’s eyes to the feminist side of a female artist more likely thought of in relation to her hit “It’s My Party.” Black Sabbath—best known for their hit songs “Iron Man” and “Paranoid”—actually wrote a couple of the most straightforward antiwar songs in rock history. The better known is “War Pigs,” which takes the sentiment of Dylan’s “Masters of War” to a level filled with even greater disgust than Dylan’s attack on the war machine and those who profit from death. Pink Floyd’s songs of alienation and the ever-expanding surveillance state designed by those who make war and those who live for profits are considered in what I would term a fresh and anti-authoritarian light that all too many of the band’s fans seem to miss—as witnessed by the negative reaction of the concertgoers who walked out of Pink Floyd composer Roger Waters recent set of US concerts angry because he attacked Trump and his fascist trappings.

Schreiber’s subject is broad. Inside these pages, he remembers the ill-fated life of songwriter P.F. Sloan, who penned the hit single “Eve of Destruction” for Barry McGuire and the equally unfortunate later years of jazz artist and composer Gil Scott Heron, whose songs “Winter in America,” “Johannesburg,” “We Almost Lost Detroit,” and “The Bottle” not only covered topics of the day, but continue to provide relevant commentary on the current situation. Indeed, even Scott Heron’s song about the Watergate scandal of Richard Nixon— “H2Ogate Blues”—provides insight into today’s impeachment drama. Schreiber similarly devotes a chapter to the ups and downs of the Godfather of Soul James Brown, whose “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” was a monster hit for him in 1968. Not only did the record sell hundreds of thousands of units, it became part of the soundtrack for the rapidly intensifying struggle for Black liberation. It also scared a lot of white people. By 1972, Brown was campaigning for Richard Nixon, who manipulated Brown and a few other African-American artists into championing his promise of Black capitalism. (I helped pass out leaflets against Brown’s support for Nixon at a concert he gave in Frankfurt am Main, Germany in 1972.) Meanwhile, the smooth voiced soul artist Marvin Gaye had bucked the big boss at his record company Motown and released an album of socially-conscious songs that forever changed his career and the nature of Motown’s music; the Temptations released a string of singles addressing numerous social issues that were quite successful.

After exploring these and numerous other popular artists from the twentieth century, Schreiber closes his book with a look at the state of protest/socially conscious music in the present day. He spends several paragraphs discussing the backlash to the Dixie Chicks opposition to the war in Iraq, pointing to the complete removal of their songs from country radio stations and the role in that ban that was played by the media conglomerate now known as iHeart Radio (formerly Clear Channel). Honestly enough, he notes that there is plenty of music addressing social issues today. Unfortunately, it seems to this reviewer and music afficionado that music and its message is severely diluted if for no other reason than the sheer volume of entertainment “products” out there.

This text is a fun read. It provides the old timer with a quick sail down the streams of memory and the younger reader with a useful and concise look at the music of the West that helped form the culture of today.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: