Radical Music

 Paul Robeson with shipyard workers/ National Archives

“Which music influenced your development of a radical political orientation?” Democratic Left decided to ask some DSA activists to answer that question by giving us their top choices for certain decades. The answers follow.—Eds.

The Forties

Artist: Paul Robeson (written by Abel Meeropol, writing as Lewis Allen)

Song: “The House I Live In” (1945)

Years ago, I felt after first hearing Robeson’s version of “The House I Live In” that it should be our national anthem.  The song reminds us of our need to fulfill democracy, remember our founding fathers, appreciate our diversity, and believe in our collective.  It’s more secular than “God Bless America” and acknowledges war without glorifying it like “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  Still, what moves me the most is Robeson’s deep bass voice ringing “but especially the people…that’s America to me.”

David Duhalde

Artists: The Almanac Singers

Song: “Talking Union”

Duane Campbell

The Fifties and After

From the 1950s and well into the 1970s, the most radical songs were rarely Top 40. When it came to protest music, the 1950s were a joke. If any popular song had a political edge, it was Carl Perkins’ 1956 crossover “Blue Suede Shoes,” with the classic possessive individualist/consumerist complaint, “You can do anything but lay off of my blue suede shoes.”
Cashbox magazine put it on the best-selling singles list for 16 weeks.

Within 10 years, in the wake of civil rights murders and an expanding war in Vietnam, Barry McGuire was singing P.F. Sloan’s hard-edged “The Eve of Destruction,” ranked 29th for the year, which opens with:

“The eastern world, it is explodin’,
Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’
You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’.”

Not bad for AM radio. The year’s #1 hit was “Wooley Bully.”

But perhaps the best pop protest song about class privilege, war, and inequality was Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1969 “Fortunate Son,” with raspy-voiced John Fogerty singing:

It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no millionaire’s son, no, no
It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one, no

It was a B-side release and still made it to #14 on Billboard’s weekly chart.

Michael Hirsch

More From the Sixties

Artist: Phil Ochs.  Album: Tape from California.

Songs: “White Boots Marching Through a Yellow Land.”

            “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.”

            “The War is Over”

Artist: Country Joe (at Woodstock)

Song: “The Fixin’ to Die Rag.” (1,2,3, What are we fighting for?)

Important songs of the anti war movement.

Duane Campbell


Artist: Buffy St. Marie

Songs: “My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying”

            “Now that the Buffalo’s Gone

A Cree from Canada brought up in the United States who became our best-known American Indian singer-songwriter.

Barbara Joye


Artist: Nina Simone

Song: “Mississippi Goddamn”

The title says it all.

Barbara Joye


The Seventies

Artist: Jimmy Cliff

Album: The Harder They Come (1972)

Song: “You Can Get It If You Really Want,”

As a stretch, this song embodies Antonio Gramsci’s charge, “Optimism of the will; pessimism of the intellect.” It’s great reggae from the 1972 breakout Jamaican film about exploitation. Cliff sings, “Got your mind set on a dream/You can get it though hard it may seem now.”

Bill Barclay & Peg Strobel


Artist: Bob Marley and the Wailers

Album: Burnin’ (1973)

Song: “Get Up, Stand Up”

This song speaks directly to basic human rights and the will to fight for them: “Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight.”

Simone Morgen


Artist: The Clash

Album: The Clash (1977)

Song: “I’m So Bored With The U.S.A.”

The Clash was the most overtly socialist of the first wave of British punk rock bands, and there was no mistaking singer/lyricist Joe Strummer’s hatred of U.S. support for foreign dictators and Nixon-era political corruption. This wouldn’t matter much if the band’s performance didn’t match the words, but like everything else on the album, “I’m So Bored” is delivered with a furious, vehement snarl that will never sound dated.

Jason Schulman 


Artist: Joan Baez; lyrics by Woody Guthrie (1941)

Song: “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos” (1978)


Artists: Luis Valdez, Los Lobos and the Salas Brothers of Tierra

Album:  Si Se Puede !  (1976) (Proceeds from this album went to the United Farm Workers of America. –  Eds.)

Songs: “Huelga en General”

            “Mañana is Now”

            “No Nos Moveran” (traditional)

 The emergence of the United Farmworker Movement created an almost new political movement in the U.S. and changed labor and Latino history.

Duane Campbell


Artists: Inti Illimani

Song: El Pueblo Unido jamas sera vencido !


Artist: Victor Jara 

Album:  El Canto Libre de Victor Jara (1970)

Songs: Chile Vencera

            El dercho de Vivir in Paz

Songs of the Chilean revolution.  See http://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/sep/18/victor-jara-pinochet-chile-rocks-backpages


Artist: Luis E. Mejîa Godoy

Album: Un son para mi pueblo (1979)

Songs: Un Gigante Que Despierta

            Un Nuevo Amanecer

            Pan Con Dignidad

Several of the major songs of the Nicaraguan revolution.

Revolutions in Latin America and solidarity work in the U.S. contributed a new genre (for the U.S.), Nueva Cançión (new song)

Duane Campbell


The Eighties

Artists: Dead Kennedys

Album: Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (1980)

Song: “Kill the Poor”

Though not my favorite song today, in the 1980s, this song exposed me to the Dead Kennedys, a group whose politically charged music was partly responsible for introducing me to radical thought. Though my musical tastes have matured, my political ideals largely have not, so I occasionally find myself still referencing the DK’s music as a source of inspiration for the world we should have.

Michael D. Baker


Artists: Public Enemy

Song: “Fight the Power”

First released on the soundtrack for Spike Lee’s film “Do the Right Thing” (1989).

Barbara Joye


We invite readers to suggest their favorite radical songs in the comment section below. —Eds