When the recent U.S. presidential election occurred, I was on tour in Paris, and I stayed up all night following the results and texting with my mother in Baltimore.
I had been in the UK and France already for more than a month, and had spent more than half of the past year in London. Having just traveled the entire U.S. on a summer tour, I was well aware of the possibility of such an outcome in a way that many on the coasts could not have been. Often during the campaign, overwhelmed by all of the cognitive dissonance and obvious discord in the States, obsessively scrolling the news and following the increasing fractured opinions and distorted information, I flirted with the idea of not even returning to the USA.
In a psychological state quite similar to mourning, I was inspired and comforted watching from afar on social media as friends and family joined hundreds of thousands of others in the streets and wished I could be there with them to say NO to hatred and regression and YES to love and continued communal progress.
While in Amsterdam a few days later, the idea for this song (“Not Gonna Say Your Name” ) came to me; I was writing a lot of angry words and I was desperately trying to figure out how to say something positive, to make some kind of contribution and offer a different way of thinking about the situation instead of just complaining and fixating on this person that so many of us can’t help but despise.
I was sitting in a hotel lobby on a rainy day and writing, and I overheard a conversation in which a group of young people, apparently from many different European countries, were talking about how they were now afraid to come to the USA. Would they be welcome? They were joking but it had an undertone of tragic sadness.
Nobody mentioned the name of the President-elect or even the election, but it was understood what they were talking about. Then the idea clicked for the chorus of the song: “I’m not gonna say your name.”
I realized that we were going to have to come together to fight this negative agenda in so many ways, but that a part of the problem has been our continued willingness to give airtime to the things we oppose, to keep repeating the name of this figurehead of dark forces who thrives on attention whether it’s negative or positive. So, the song came together quickly.
Originally, I was writing to the melody of “Amazing Grace” and I performed it at my next show in London. As soon as I got back to LA, I started organizing a recording session with Hale May and Lael Neale, two amazing vocalists that also sang on my new record that is coming out next month. It was important to have these powerful female voices carrying the song because the message is that we are united in our defense of all the vulnerable people in this country and this world, and women’s rights are threatened by this incoming regime.
Buy ‘Not Gonna Say Your Name’ here. All proceeds go to Planned Parenthood.
Planned Parenthood was an obvious choice to support with the proceeds because their funding is under attack and they provide so many important health services for women, many of whom are going to have a much harder time getting the care that they need if PP isn’t there to help them.
I could go on and on about what I personally oppose about this new government that is about to assume power, but I feel better about recognizing what I can do to help and doing it, rather than getting bogged down in fear or complaints. Above all, I hope the song speaks to the hearts of people who feel the same way and gives some inspiration or comfort, because we have a long battle ahead and we need strength and we need love and we need each other. Below, I share some of my favorite protest songs. Enjoy!
“A Change Is Gonna Come” – Sam Cooke
This beautiful and poignant song was partially inspired by Sam and his entourage being turned away from a motel for the color of their skin at a time when he was one of the most famous entertainers in America. It’s the first song on this list because it achieves a rare and full synthesis of the personal, the political and the spiritual. It’s so sad and so hopeful at the same time, reflecting an emotion that is so relevant today. While the song is considered one of the greatest songs of modern times, it also hopes for a change that continues to elude us and serves as a much needed rallying cry now more than ever.
“The Partisan” – Leonard Cohen
I’ve always been haunted by this anthem of the French Underground Resistance to fascism during WWII. Leonard’s version is so sparse and eerie, and the women singing in French with him at the end evokes the romantic courage of those who gave up everything, often including their lives, to stop fascism from taking over the world. We should be looking to their example.
“People Has It Hard” – Coleman Family
This homespun gospel song carries a simple message: the world is in trouble and everyone is having a hard time. I love the way it sounds and the way it makes me feel; it may not have been intended as a protest song but it seems like one to me. It’s a reminder to be compassionate toward everyone as we try to make the world better.
“Mississippi Goddam” – Nina Simone
This is Nina Simone at her best, a song she wrote in less than an hour in response to the insane violence of the South against the Civil Rights Movement, including the killing of Medgar Evers and the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four black children. She rails against the idea of “going slow” in pursuit of Civil Rights. The song was banned in several Southern states, and she performed in in front of an audience of 10,000 people at the end of the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.
“Masters of War” – Staple Singers (written by Bob Dylan)
Hearing the original version of this when I was a teenager was definitely one of the things that made me want to be a songwriter; years later when I discovered this tribal gospel version by the Staples, I came to prefer it. My favorite line in the song is, “I just want you to know I can see through your masks.” That part has always cut through.
“Better World A-Coming” – Woody Guthrie
Woody Guthrie wrote all kinds songs but is best known for his topical material. I like this song in particular because it fills me with a feeling of excitement and joy, and reminds us that the change we seek is inevitable; it’s coming, we just have to work for it and fight for it.
“Docta King” – Nancy Dupree (and her students)
This gem is from a record called Ghetto Reality by a Rochester, New York, schoolteacher named Nancy Dupree. Originally released in 1969 by Folkways, and re-issued more recently on vinyl by Mississippi Records, the whole album is full of uplifting and raw performances of socially conscious songs composed by Nancy and her students in class. This particular song with the refrain of “Docta King” and “they murdered him” is especially poignant as today is Martin Luther King day.
“Apache Tears” – Johnny Cash
Not many people seem to know about this intense album of Native American themed songs by Johnny Cash: Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, released in 1964. Johnny co-wrote a lot of the songs with Native American activist Peter La Farge and the whole thing is powerful and inspiring. I just started listening to it again recently as the protests at Standing Rock were getting a lot of attention; many people are still camped out there in the snow, still trying to block the pipeline.
“Plutonium” – Malvina Reynolds
I wanted to put another song by Malvina, called “Bitter Rain,” on the playlist, but it’s not on Spotify. Malvina Reynolds is one of my favorite topical folk singers, and the message in this song is prescient today: corporations will do whatever they can to make money, even if it means destroying the earth and all human life, unless we stand up and say no.
“Bella Ciao” – Marisa Anderson (traditional)
This song was an anthem of the Italian anti-Fascist movement of the ’40s, and even without the lyrics you can hear that spirit, channeled here by my friend Marisa Anderson for her brilliant album Traditional and Public Domain Songs. The lyrics tell the story of a young man saying goodbye to a lover and heading off to fight the fascists. Knowing that he very well might die, the protagonist imagines the flower that will grow from his dead body, which everyone will know is the flower of freedom.
“Strange Fruit” – Billie Holiday (written by Abel Meeropol)
This song was in the news recently. When British singer Rebecca Ferguson was asked to sing at the upcoming inauguration, she replied: “If you allow me to sing ‘Strange Fruit,’ a song that has huge historical importance, a song that was blacklisted in the United States for being too controversial. A song that speaks to all the disregarded and down-trodden black people in the United States. A song that is a reminder of how love is the only thing that will conquer all the hatred in this world, then I will graciously accept your invitation and see you in Washington.”
Written by Abel Meeropol, a communist schoolteacher from the Bronx, under his stage name Lewis Allan, the song is most well known as a centerpiece of Billie’s repertoire, and has also been recorded by Nina Simone. It remains a relevant piece of high art, showing the transcendent power of a song to distill and amplify social consciousness.
“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” – Nina Simone
Written by Billy Taylor and recorded here by Nina Simone, this song is more of a metaphysical protest song, expressing a desire for liberation and, at least in Nina’s version, achieving that liberated state within the act of singing. Thus it was an anthem of the civil rights movement without specifically referring to any political issues. It’s one of my favorite songs of all time, suffused with a spiritual energy that is at once defiant and humble.
“This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst” – Rodriguez
Also known as “The Establishment Blues,” this is one of many songs on Cold Fact by Rodriguez that explores themes of social decay and rebellion from a wise “street poet” perspective. I love the way he explores awareness of what’s going on around him with such a cool, non-plussed attitude. The words, “Public gets irate but forget the vote date,” and the sound of this track capture another moment in time, yet paint a picture of a world not so different from the one we’re dealing with today.
“Suicide Is Painless” – Johnny Mandel
This was the theme song to the film and the TV show MASH, and I’ve always considered it a protest song. The lyrics were written by fourteen-year-old Mike Altman, the director’s son, and supposedly he finished the words in under five minutes. The haunting melody was composed by Johnny Mandel. While the context for the song is the Korean War as depicted in MASH, the Vietnam War was clearly being invoked when the film was released in 1970, and nowadays the song speaks to the high suicide rate and PTSD suffered by so many soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Nine Month Blues” – Peggy Seeger
Peggy explores the subject of a woman’s right to choose in this song, which I chose from among her many worthy topical songs because I’m raising money for Planned Parenthood. I like the way she personalizes the issue, telling the complicated story from a woman’s perspective. So much debate on the issue of choice for women is being carried out by men, and is often so simplified and lacking the personal details that help this song bring the question to life.
“Bradley Manning” – Cass McCombs
This is the most recent track on the playlist. Released in 2011 by my friend Cass McCombs, it is super relevant right now. Bradley Manning, now known as Chelsea Manning, is on Obama’s shortlist for commuted sentences; there are only a matter of days left for Chelsea to have her sentence reduced, and there’s a large movement of support for her release.
A courageous whistleblower, Chelsea is in military prison for leaking details and footage about some horrific military massacres to WikiLeaks. If you’re not familiar with the case I’d highly recommend reading up about it and joining the call for Chelsea’s freedom! I love to imagine Chelsea hearing the song, and the final line: “Know you’ve got friends, though you’re locked in there.”
“1913 Massacre” – Woody Guthrie
This plain and mournful ballad by Woody, recorded in 1941, describes the sad story of a group of striking copper miners who died on Christmas Eve 1913 in Calumet, Michigan, when the mining company dispatched bullies to attack their party. Seventy-three people died, fifty-nine of them children, because the copper company’s thugs shouted “Fire!!” and caused everyone inside the Italian Hall to trample each other trying to escape, while the security guards blocked the door. There was no actual fire. The melody was recycled in Bob Dylan’s “Song to Woody.” The last line is scathing: “See what your greed for money has done.”
“Philosophy of the World” – Shaggs
I’ve always thought of this as a protest song, although I can’t imagine the Shaggs would have thought of it that way. The chaotic feeling of the song goes so well with what the lyrics describe: a world in which everyone always wants what others have and nobody is ever satisfied. In some strange way, it’s a spiritual indictment of our modern society by a legendary outsider group of sisters. I think this is the most “punk” song on the playlist, because the Shaggs could barely play their instruments, but they sound so confident and free.
“Better Change Your Mind” – William Onyeabor
William Onyeabor from Nigeria has a lot of great songs, but this one from the late ’70s has become somewhat of an underground hit in recent years, as has his other most well-known track “Atomic Bomb.” Over an irresistible electro-funk beat, he asks everyone in the world (America, Cuba, Russia, China, President, white man, black man), “Do you ever think this world is yours?” In the end, he pronounces, as a kind of warning: “If you are thinking so, my friends/Better change your mind/Because there is no other one, except God/who owns this world.”
“Star Spangled Banner” – Jimi Hendrix
This acid-drenched, feedback-soaked wall of bliss can be interpreted in so many ways. I always think of Jimi as someone who was very patriotic; he was in the Army and he had his own take on things, whether spiritual, or cosmic, or political. In a way, what he seems to be protesting with this performance is the anti-American sentiments of his audience, as if to say: this country is all about freedom, and your privilege to be here at this festival and basically do whatever you want is because of your rights as Americans, rights that he had fought to defend. That’s my take on it, anyway.
(Photo credit: Amanda Charchian)