The Social Justice Top 40

The Social Justice Top 40--Charles J. Brown, President & CEO

Although on the surface "St. James" is  about lost love, it also captures the hopes and fears of the African American community in 1920s New Orleans. Anachronistically, it also can be read as a lament for New Orleans herself in the aftermath of the Bush Administration's disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina.

Perhaps the best-known song in the blues canon, "Cross Roads" manages to incorporate multiple narratives, including the loss of innocence, the loss of love, and the loss of identity under Jim Crow. Dozens of bands have covered it, but none have come close to capturing the power and violence of Johnson's original.

Written in response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," Guthrie's best-known song is both a celebration of America's beauty and a subversive call for a better world. The fifth and sixth verses--which Guthrie himself never recorded--envision a world where "This Land" belongs to more than the rich.

Clocking in at little over a minute, this song about how hate has to be learned is as explosive now as it was when first performed. Oscar Hammerstein, the librettist responsible was one of the founders of the World Federalist Association--one of's two predecessor organizations.

Although it was not the first song Elvis recorded, "Mystery Train" was perhaps the finest of his career and has been called by more than one critic the founding song of rock music. Not a protest song per se, it is hard to imagine anything that came later without it.

A hilariously scathing indictment of our behavior told by humanity's allegedly inferior cousins. It also happens to be one of the finest examples of early New Orleans R&B.

I had a hard time picking just one Dylan tune for this list; in fact, it would have been far easier to draw up a list made up only of Dylan songs. So I went for my favorite: the devastating tale of the death of an African American barmaid at the hands of a white patrician in 1960s Baltimore. It may not be as well known as "Masters of War," "The Times They Are A-Changin'," or "Blowin' in the Wind," but it still brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it.

Written by Cooke, who died shortly after recording it, as a companion to Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," It is perhaps the most beautiful and moving song ever written. I've always been surprised that no candidate for President has ever used it--it remains perfect summation of what we need right now.

The spiritual godfather of punk, with perhaps the most famous line in rock history: "Hope I die before I grow old." It also proves that attitude can matter as much as lyrical content when it comes to changing the way people think.

There are other songs in the Cash canon that are more explicitly about social justice, but none hits home quite as hard. I've picked the version Cash recorded inside Folsom Prison (rather than the original on Sun Records), largely because of the inmates' cheer in response to Johnny singing "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die."

Not the best known anti-war song of the Vietnam era, but perhaps the one most embraced by the troops sent there. John Fogerty captures the injustice of a draft system that sent the poor to fight while their wealthy brethren enjoyed the privilege of protesting from the safety of college campuses.

The first and arguably the finest song written about the environment. Gaye ushered in a new generation of songs that went beyond war, race, and class to look at some of the country's most vexing problems.

Originally a throw-away cut on one of the Temptations' albums, Starr's version became a huge hit thanks not only to a great performance but also one of the best single line critiques ever: "War: What is it good for? Absolutely Nothing!"

The song that helped generate an entire counter-subculture -- angry white male backlash rock (Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" was written as an answer to this song) -- Young tells of the end of Jim Crow and the rise of the civil rights era.

The theme song to the best known of the "blaxploitation" films, "Freddie's Dead" also is one of the best songs ever written about the ravages drugs wrought on America's inner cities. An unjustly forgotten gem.

This song has been overplayed so much that its original power can be easily overlooked. But go back and listen again to the lyrics (and please don't even bother with Eric Clapton's vastly inferior cover)--this is the story of a man unjustly framed who knows his days are numbered.

One long, loud, angry scream -- few songs have ever angered so many. The Pistols may have been more about provocation than performance, but there's no denying the power of their performance--or the way their message resonated with British youth.

Like Dylan, it's hard to pick just one song from the most politically aware band to emerge from punk, so I took the easy way out. Using post-apocalyptic imagery to describe a city under siege, it warns of the consequences of a "nuclear error." And it ends with a guitar barking out an S.O.S.

Another musician with a wealth of protest songs, so it is no small irony that I chose one of the few songs from early in his career that he didn't write (it was penned by Nick Lowe). A wonderfully rousing call to peace from punk's greatest troubadour.

Although he went on to write and/or perform much more explicitly political songs later in his career, Springsteen's best social justice songs are from his earlier years, when he let the song tell the story of those forgotten, frozen out, or pushed aside. When Springsteen sings, "Then I got Mary pregnant and man that was all she wrote/For my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat," you know that for many in this country, the American dream has died.

At the time it came out, this bitterly ironic screed was mistaken as anti-military. It was intended more as a scathing commentary on limited economic opportunity: "To have ambition was my ambition...The good life was so elusive/The handouts they got me down." Sadly, the original, far superior version of this is not available via iTunes; this is the band's own remake, released nearly twenty-five years later.

A superb protest song that also happened to be responsible for the mainstreaming of hip-hop. It also harkens back to a time when rappers were more concerned with social justice than with bling (and yes, I know a few like Common and Mos Def have continued the tradition). I've included the superior 12" remix.

The Ramones were always more about attitude than action, but on occasion they could blast hypocrites with the best of them. Here they take on Ronald Reagan for his unbelievably ill-advised decision to go to a German war cemetery where senior Nazis were buried: "It really makes me sick when our President hides behind politics." It makes you wonder what the late great Joey Ramone would make of the current office-holder.

I have to admit that when it came out, I wasn't the biggest fan of this song's message--I didn't agree with either its explicit violence or its implied anti-Americanism in response to Reagan's policies in Central America. In retrospect, I can see both its power and its prophecy, even if I continue to disagree with its means.

The Heads produced more explicitly political songs than this danceable vision of a future war, but no other song anticipated better the dark days of the War on Terror: "I've got three passports, a couple of visas, I don't even know my real name." I've chosen the live version from Stop Making Sense, which includes two verses cut from the original.

This song is in many ways the mirror image of CCR's "Fortunate Son," telling the story of the wealthy politicians who pretend to be of the people. And like "Life during Wartime," it has taken on an additional, admittedly anachronistic, meaning, as it could have been written about our current President. From the band that invented alt-country before it had a name.

Bruce Springsteen may have been more famous, but neither he nor any of the other singer-songwriters of the 1980s did the protest song better than John Mellencamp. "Scarecrow" inspired a decade of Farm Aid concerts but sadly did little to prevent the demise of the family farm. Full disclosure: John was a customer of mine in the years I ran that record store in Bloomington, Indiana.

I don't know why, but Joe Jackson has largely disappeared from the history of rock, despite the fact that he once rivaled Elvis Costello for the title of "angriest (and most talented) non-punk rocker mistakenly identified as a punk." Best known for "Is She Really Going out with Him," Jackson's best work was far more political. Perhaps one of the best songs ever written about the Cold War, the basic message of "Right" still resonates in this era of terror and counter-terror. It also happens to be the best song from his most overlooked album.

Don't mistake this for Australia's national song: it actually is one of the most devastating anti-war songs ever written, using its more familiar cousin as a frame to tell the story of the Battle of Gallipoli in the First World War. Don't miss the end section, which speaks of what it was like to be a disabled veteran at a time when such people were shunned, not honored.

For those who only know Flava-Flav as a TV clown and Chuck D as a radio talk show host, listen to this song--the closest thing hip-hop has produced to the fury of "God Save the Queen." Bitter, almost scabrous anger set to a James Brown beat and Maceo Parker's horn.

Proof that those who sing about injustice aren't always idealistic. Reed's picture of life in the Bronx in 1980s New York is brutish, nasty, and ultimately deeply pessimistic. Yet it captures the class and ethnic divisions that still affect the city.

Arrested Development was an attempt to create a new Sly and the Family Stone in a hip-hop setting. Their first album was a huge success, but they never were able to replicate its success and broke up a few years later. Their biggest hit, "Tennessee," is a prayer for a better world--and a conscious attempt to counter Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" with a more positive vision.

I could have picked almost any song off this soundtrack, which features a who's who of rock "singing out" against the death penalty. But no other song is as powerful as this one, in which Earle uses the nightmares of a prison guard to frame the argument.

Another protest powerhouse, Browne has been challenging the powers-that-be for nearly thirty years now --check out the interview with him in the fortieth anniversary issue of Rolling Stone. I ultimately picked this song because it's what he performed a few weeks ago when I had the chance to sit with him at a dinner for Death Penalty Focus. A powerful call to action set to a hypnotic trip-hop beat and a very cool fuzzed-out trumpet.

Another (unfortunately) one-album wonder. One-third of the Fugees, Hill's first solo effort was one of the finest and most beautiful albums of the decade. And while much of the album is dedicated to the power and true meaning of love, several songs, including "Everything," tackle political issues as well.

Better known for their comic songs, the Offspring surprised many with this, a play on the Who's classic "The Kids Are Alright." A brilliant portrayal of a community in collapse.

Leave it to Billie Joe Armstrong and company to decide that the most punk thing they could do in a new century would be to put together a concept album that included not one, but two nine-minute-long song medleys. And while it was tempting to choose one of those, it is "Holiday" that best captures the rage of the rest of the album--and the anger many feel over the current Administration's policies. Much as "Fortunate Son" was adopted by our troops in Vietnam, "Holiday" has become a favorite among our troops in Iraq.

Reminiscent of Talking Heads' "Big Country," "Windowsill" is one of a raft of new songs that do not so much protest the Bush Administration as reject the United States: "I don't wanna live in my father's house no more. I don't wanna fight in a holy war. I don't wanna live in America no more."

England's newest bad boys mix ambient sounds and post-punk to paint a picture of McCarthyism and paranoia in post 9/11 London. Best line: "All reasonable thought is being drowned out/By the non-stop baying, baying for blood."

Clocking at a mere 37 seconds, this ring-tone by alternative music's reigning court jesters manages to capture the futility and absurdity of the Bush Administration's domestic spying program: "Call connected through the NSA/Call connected through the NSA/Suspending your rights/For the duration of the permanent war."


All thse songs are old. What about the Flobots? What about Raine Maida and Our Lady Peace? Is there nothing left to protest? Are there no modern prophets. Post something contemporary.

Fantastic list - all the way from Robert Johnson to Grandmaster Flash to They Might Be Giants, spanning a multitude of genres. In terms of classical music, even Beethoven's Ode to Joy fits the bill. I will certainly reference this list for my students to get to know.

Thank you very much.


How can one humbly suggest that folks might want to listen to own's own original social justice music? I guess, that may be impossible. So, let me say that I have had a long and prolific career writing social justice music. I come from the perspective of a street level grass roots activist that just happens to also be very good at writing lyrics and managed to get acceptably good at writing music and pickin' a guitar. You can find much of my social justice music (free to stream or download) at
Patrick Dodd

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the official policy of Citizens for Global Solutions.

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