Jazz and blues have always attacked injustice, as in Billie Holiday‘s Strange Fruit, written in 1938 about the lynching of black Americans. But the pop protest song kicked off in the 1960s when artists like Bob Dylan began to write and sing songs like The Death Of Emmett Till about a race killing.
By the end of 1965, Protest Music was “in” and had become an accepted genre in commercial records. Scores of singles appeared, usually one-offs by artists jumping on the protest bandwagon.
Protest songs actually became so trendy at one point that there was a backlash. Merle Haggard‘s Okie From Muskogee (“we don’t smoke marijuana”) was a minor US hit in 1969, but by the 1970s pop was reflecting America’s turmoil over Vietnam in songs like Edwin Starr‘s War (What Is It Good For?).
In the UK Labi Siffre was often the solemn guest on The Two Ronnies television show, but his songs – especially (Something Inside) So Strong – protested against apartheid and inequality.
The Jam hit out at racism with their first hit, Down In The Tube Station At Midnight in 1978, and at the turn of the 1980s The Specials‘ anger fuelled Ghost Town, Too Much Too Young and (as Special AKA) Nelson Mandela.
Billy Bragg and Elvis Costello both dwelt on social inequality, and CND got a surprising plug from Frankie Goes To Hollywood with their hit single Two Tribes, while vegetarianism was in vogue in the mid-1980s with The Smiths‘ album Meat Is Murder.