“I think we should consider protest songs as a form of journalism. They report events, document injustice, and prompt questions.”

From an essay by Dale Keiger on neimanstoryboard.org headlined “How protest songs echo—and sometimes lead—the stories of our times”:

On a warm spring night in 1974, I was an Ohio University student reporter amid a riot. Not a riot against repression or inequality or injustice or the Vietnam War, not that sort of riot. Rather, the sort of riot that results when a throng of restive, probably beered-up male undergraduates in the center of town grows in number until there’s sufficient mass to produce something stupid, like someone hurling bricks through a few shop windows, and the city authorities prove even dumber by deploying several dozen helmeted cops armed with tear gas and clubs so big they could lean on them. Witless boys instigated the vandalism. The police instigated the riot.

I have three vivid memories from that night. One is a wine bottle that tore the air between another reporter and me at eye level. (That would have hurt.) Another is the caustic nastiness of tear gas. (That did hurt.) The third is from several hours into the night after police had pushed the confrontation out of town and onto one of the dormitory quads. A line of students threw rocks and bottles while a line of cops dodged the brickbats and fired gas pellets. What I recall so clearly is a student in an upstairs dorm room who opened his window, propped a stereo speaker on the sill, and blared out the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young anti-anthem “Ohio.”. . .

People still write and perform protest songs, but it’s been a long time since they counted for much in popular culture. No, that’s not true — hip-hop and rap have produced any number of potent protests. . . .

I may be too much the skeptic, but I suspect the emblematic recordings of Dylan et al. rarely impelled anyone to man the barricades unless you count nudging the suggestible toward mild civil disobedience. That’s not what those songs were for; they weren’t triggers,  they were signifiers. They were sung to bond the faithful. It’s no accident that so many 1960s marches and rallies included somebody with a guitar and a conspicuously earnest vocal delivery. Protest songs reassured their audience that they were among like-minded, right-thinking people. You heard the song, you knew the song, you realized everyone around you knew the song, and now you felt safer and stronger. The ritual reassured that there were thousands like you: I’m with my people, and my people have an activated social conscience. We march and chant and protest, and we listen to protest songs from the stage between rousing and not-so-rousing speeches.

That’s not a bad use for music. But the noteworthy protest songs of the 1960s, when examined as communiques to the resistance, suffer from the same thing — a gentility that airs grievance in a vocabulary and syntax designed not to unnerve a white, educated, prosperous audience. Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” was clever and articulate. But it was as passive a bit of musing as “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The latter stands against the great evils plaguing 1960s America, war and racism, then delivers not a stirring call to action but a tepid lament: “The answer, my friends, is blowin’ in the wind.” Listen to the record, shrug sadly, and reach for a refill of Chardonnay. Subsequent songs would prove that Dylan reserved his passion and aggression for former friends and ex-lovers. His songs of social grievance never matched the indignant venom of his romantic grievances.

There’s a second kind of protest song, though. This one is not meant to make a room full of the converted feel better about themselves. This one is a cathartic blast of rage. Joan Baez’s crystalline voice reassured her audience that they were on the right side of the arc of history. Neil Young’s raw, ragged vocal on “Ohio” warned his audience that they had been declared outlaws and were caught in a conflict that could get them killed.

The story of the song is a story of passionate urgency. Young wrote it in a few hours, two weeks after the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four student protestors at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. The other members of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young hastily convened in a Los Angeles studio and recorded the song in only two or three takes. . . .

Despite the haste of its creation, “Ohio” is a masterpiece of concision and poetic nuance. The song has only four chords, and Stephen Stills, David Crosby, and Young tuned their guitars down to what’s known as D modal Celtic tuning, which naturally creates a dark droning quality. Young launches “Ohio” with an aggressive riff set to an ominous marching cadence. The first verse is a pair of alarming bulletins that bracket his response to the awful event: “Tin soldiers and Nixon comin’/We’re finally on our own/This summer I hear the drumming/Four dead in Ohio.”. . .

“Blowin’ in the Wind” voiced resignation. “Ohio” gives voice to rage. The first is a fine song. But the latter is a far better story.

I think we should consider protest songs as a form of journalism. Advocacy journalism, to be sure, with no use for neutrality, but journalism all the same. Protest songs report events, document injustice, and prompt questions. They comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Protest singers are muckrakers. They are not always fair, frequently overwrought and naive, and their stories don’t always stand up well to fact-checking. But the same can be said of a good bit of activist journalism. That doesn’t diminish its importance. The songs tell the stories of their time, and the true endure. I can barely remember a lyric from all that conscientious coffeehouse protest music. I will never forget, “Four dead in Ohio.”

Dale Keiger has been a scribbler-for-hire for more than 45 years. Most recently, he was editor of Johns Hopkins Magazine. His new project, Play This Record Loud, revisits the impact of 1960s music on a generation.

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