With the Election Day less than 24 hours away, what better time than now to look at some of the most memorable political songs. The Vietnam War really brought out the passion in musicians…
1. Bob Dylan – The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964)
It’s pretty easy to start this list with one of Dylan’s most popular songs. The title itself can pretty much apply to any election you’d want it to, but the song originally came during a major time in the civil rights movement. Recorded in 1963, “The Times They Are A-Changin'” had plenty of inspiration, specifically from The March on Washington which featured Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. With broad stroaks, such as “Come senators, congressmen / please heed the call / Don’t stand in the doorway / Don’t block up the hall,” Dylan’s song has musical and political immortality.
2. The Clash – The Guns of Brixton (1979)
There are plenty of songs to choose from from The Clash’s discography, including the titular track on London Calling. But the dark tones of “The Guns of Brixton” served as an omen for the tensions between police and the citizens of Lambeth, London. In a somewhat clairvoyant manner, bassist Paul Simonon encouraged listeners to stand up to police brutality and corruption. Just two years later, the “Bloody Saturday” 1981 riots in Lambeth broke out, fueled by racial tensions and a recession.
3. John Lennon – Give Peace a Chance (1969)
John Lennon’s anthem for the anti-Vietnam War movement continues the trend of obvious choices for this list. Released during the heat of the anti-war movement, “Give Peace a Chance,” was a pretty blunt song, but provided a universal slogan for protestors, as hundreds of thousands sung this together at the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. It’s a very heavy-handed song, and unlike “Imagine,” it certainly forced its message.
4. Bob Marley – Redemption Song (1980)
Released posthumously, “Redemption Song” served as Marley’s tribute to Jamaican political leader, Marcus Garvey. In fact, Marley takes a line directly from a Garvey speech, repeating it throughout the song—”emancipate ourselves from mental slavery.” Unlike the other songs mentioned so far, “Redemption Song” was not released during the time of its inspiration. Garvey’s was prominent 40 years prior to Marley’s release, but “Redemption Song’s” applications are still plentiful today.
5. Gil Scott-Heron – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (1971)
Scott-Heron’s initial release of this song, featured minimal instrumentation, backed solely by a pair of bongos and congas. However, it was re-released in 1971 with a full band on the album Piece of a Man. With impeccable pacing, Scott-Heron covers everything from President Nixon and Francis Scott Key to The Beverly Hillbillies and Johnny Cash. The song’s title itself has been worn down by countless people referencing it over the past four decades. Whether it’s truly honored or a cliche for wandering protestors, Gil Scott-Heron’s fiery tirade is the perfect song for keeping people politically active.
6. Edwin Starr – War (1970)
Like “Give Peace a Chance,” “War” doesn’t beat around the bush. Though the song may have lost some of its political heat via Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker’s rendition in Rush Hour, it was another major release during the anti-Vietnam War movement. Originally a Temptation’s single, Edwin Starr ramped up the fire on this more popular version. While The Clash and Gil Scott-Heron’s contribution to this list are to be taken seriously, “War” doesn’t quite have that edge, but it’s still certainly a fun song despite its now watered-down message.
7. Buffalo Springfield – For What It’s Worth (1967)
Originally, this song was meant to address the tensions between police and youth after the Sunset Strip riots, but eventually became another anthem for the anti-Vietnam War movement. Man, did this era put out some great songs. While lyrics like “there’s something happening here / what it is ain’t exactly clear,” originally meant a lingering unrest regarding police force, demonstrators eventually applied it to apply to the military strategy of the United States. The song was a huge hit, and has covers and samples ranging from Led Zeppelin and Ozzy Osborne to Public Enemy and the Dave Matthews Band.
8. Rage Against the Machine – Killing in the Name (1992)
The idea of moral gray areas involved with a chain of command have been observed and debated for decades, from the social psychological Milgram electroshock experiments to, say, Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name Of.” In particular, this Rage song speaks out against military action and police force and killing as an accepted end game. Frontman Zach De La Rocha’s never-turned-down vocals have always provided a voice for the modern revolutionist, and his comparisons between police force and the Klu Klux Klan are as passionately delivered as they are extreme.
9. Lupe Fiasco – Words I Never Said (2011)
“I think the war on terror is a bunch of bullshit.” Lupe really doesn’t hold back when it comes to his political opinions, and he really lets loose on this song. He caught Obama’s attention with the zinger, “Gaza Bomb getting bombed, Obama didn’t say shit / That’s why I didn’t vote for him, next one either / I’m a part of the problem, the problem is I’m peaceful.” No topic is off-limits here, including Glenn Beck and 9-11. I’m sure that when Skylar Grey was in recording studio some of Lupe’s comments made her uneasy. Oh well.
10. Ben Folds & Nick Hornby – Levi Johnston’s Blues (2010)
The hidden gem of this list is from the collaborative between the occasionally ironic Ben Folds and Fever Pitch author Nick Hornby. Using real-life material as their subject, Folds’ crooning details the difficult situation that Levi Johnston, aka the ex-Mr. Bristol Palin, found himself in. Aside from mentions of abortion and religion, what’s great about this particular song is that it doesn’t really have a political message and has the content of a feel-good country song. Really, this song is just pure fun.
From the most quoted Simpsons episode.