How did the protest songs of the 1960s and 1970s change society?

icône de pdf

The 1960s and 1970s were a period of great social, economic and political changes. At that time, a powerful musical movement started in the USA and the UK and developed in the western world, turning a generation away from traditional values and norms.

I The Times They Are a-Changin’ (Bob Dylan, 1964)

1 Reasons to protest

The 1960s were a decade of great tension and fear with a concentration of political and social issues: the Cold War and the development of nuclear weapons, the assassination of President Kennedy (1963), the Civil Rights movement and the murderous and unpopular Vietnam War.

The hippie movement emerged in that context as a form of counterculture. It opposed the prevailing traditional values and lifestyles and proposed new ones based on freedom, equality, peace and love. Its main concerns were the fight against racial segregation and the protest against the American military involvement in Vietnam, with such slogans as “Make love, not war”, “Power to the people” or “Give peace a chance” (from a John Lennon song).

2 What protest songs questioned and advocated

In the field of music, this was a period of great creativity. Protest singers used their music and lyrics to question the world they lived in and to spread the message of peace in the world. Their songs were an efficient means of protest which appealed to the listeners’ thoughts and emotions at the same time.

Many protest songs supported the Civil Rights Movement: We Shall Overcome, sung by Joan Baez on the day of the famous March on Washington in August 1963, became an anthem of the movement. In 1965, Nina Simone sang Billie Holiday’s already well-known song Strange Fruit to express her rage about the situation of Black Americans in the South.


to appeal to: plaire à

an anthem: un hymne

scathing: très critique, cinglant, acerbe

There were also lots of anti-Vietnam war protest songs: for instance, Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction (1965) with its scathing lyrics “You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’” or Pete Seeger’s obvious message in Bring em Home (1966).

In Blowin’ in the Wind (1963), Bob Dylan asks questions about war (among other issues), that he leaves unanswered: “how many deaths will it take till he [= a man] knows that too many people have died?”

Learn more about Dylan’s songs here:

II The impact of protest songs

1 The Woodstock festival (1969)

The Woodstock Music and Arts Fair showed the tremendous impact protest music had on young people in the 1960s. It is considered the emblem of protest songs and of the counterculture generation and has become a legendary event in the history of rock music.

The festival promised “3 days of peace and music”. It gathered many protest singers of the 1960s such as Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, The Who, or Jimi Hendrix. But most of all, it attracted an incredibly huge audience of almost half a million people.

2 Iconic protest songs that still resonate today

Some of the protest singers of the time have become emblematic figures in the history of music and arts. Jimi Hendrix, for example, is still regarded as the greatest electric guitar player in the history of music: he is associated with his unforgettable rendition of the American anthem which he transformed into an anti-Vietnam War song at Woodstock.

Many of the protest songs of that era still have an impact today. For instance, We shall overcome has been adopted by many groups and movements for its universal message of justice. John Lennon’s Imagine (1971) has achieved a similar status: it has become an anthem for peace throughout the world.