THE BLOG
06/24/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Saga Of The Protest Song

About a month ago, while running some errands in the car with my nephew, we were listening to one of several interchangeable Clear Channel stations and by about the fifth song, I was amazed at how much this "rock" did not. Whatever, I remained smiley and quiet so the young'un could enjoy his ride but predictably, by the next guitar-driven slice of angst, I could no longer contain myself and proceeded to abuse it with fervor. Being a good sport, my nephew joined-in, but quickly surfed for a neutral station.

He found some classic rock, his education of the genre the result of guitar lessons from his 48-year-old teacher and songs featured on his favorite show, Supernatural. All was well until two songs later when it was HIS turn to abuse the music, pointing out many undeniable Spinal Tap moments. But then the next song played--CCR's "Fortunate Son." Though I knew he was familiar with the recording, this time, something was different. I caught my nephew focusing intensely on the song. His being 15, I figured maybe the song's rebellious tone had gotten his attention. But it was something more...he was asking questions about its political lyrics and theme.

Realizing I was witnessing his possible political awakening, I began what we dubbed "Mike's Eternal Saga Of The Protest Song" in which I detailed the concept. I told him folkies, singer-songwriters, soul artists, rockers and many popsters used their records for spreading socially-conscious messages, especially during the '60s and '70s. I touched on the turbulence of those times, eras filled with Kennedy assassinations, Martin Luther King, Nixon, the Vietnam war, Woodstock, Kent State, and so much more. Having heard "What's Goin' On," "Blowin' In The Wind," "Big Yellow Taxi," "Get Together," "For What It's Worth," "Ohio" and "Teach Your Children" throughout his young life, he was no stranger to the genre, though he now was fascinated with how artists could be the "voice of the people," an empowering concept for a 15-year-old would-be guitar hero.

A week later, his musical education continued during a visit, his attention sometimes wandering when I rambled on about Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary, Simon & Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young... To keep his interest, I broke out old records and downloaded examples of vintage recordings I didn't own. When he drifted again, I immediately jumped to the late '70s where I moved on to Patti Smith punk and Grandmaster Flash who delivered a more aggressive and rebellious anthem than their more polite predecessors. I outlined the state of the world at the end of that decade: the recession, gas lines, 52 American hostages in Iran, and an open-minded nation that began shutting down.

Then I moved on to the '80s, that strange decade filled with Iran Contra, the trickle-down theory, skyrocketing credit card debt and ketchup being classified a vegetable in the public school system. I evoked Joni Mitchell's brave chronicle of our fall from Woodstock, the album Dog Eat Dog, and Joni's fellow waterbearer, Jackson Browne, who evolved from "Running On Empty" to singing "For America." And speaking of Jackson and over a dozen of his musical pals, I brought up the No Nukes concerts at Madison Square Garden. We talked about the world theater, how the Clash's "Rock The Casbah" cleverly encapsulated the era's complicated politics in a stadium shout-out complete with dance beat, and U2's recordings whose US relevance existed beneath their Eurolayers.

I mentioned how The Boss' "Born In The U.S.A." initially was misinterpreted as the exact opposite of its intent. I played him snippets of songs by a few poppy upstartists such as Simply Red whose cover of "Money's Too Tight To Mention" took Reaganomics to task. I played The Hooters' "Satellite" that called-out phony televangelists; and we listened to Phil Collins' "Another Day In Paradise" without comment.

My nephew identified with the post-Public Enemy's "Fight The Power" '90s. I played him some grunge that featured anti-establishment or anti-status quo themes. He already was familiar with Rage Against The Machine and a lot of rap, though he and his friends preferred Snoop Dogg. When his mother arrived, we stopped at just the right spot. As he left with his mom and a stack of my CDs and LPs that I was sure I'd never again see in their original condition, I threatened that next time, we would pick up where we left off and he was ok with that.

My nephew is due to return next week after his final exams, but I'm not sure how to continue this saga. Though I feel strongly that this nation's last 8 years were a disaster, I have to be careful not to ignite cynicism. Where his generation should never have known war, suffering, hunger, prejudice, homelessness, etc., his century is already littered with 9/11, an endless and bloody Iraq occupation, Katrina, and an exaggerated climate of fear where all dissent once was branded as anti-American. Sadly, this list could go on for pages and pages.

Maybe my nephew and I should simply talk about the musical side of things. We can chat about the Dixie Chicks, U2 and Green Day who used their art and a healthy does of belligerence to counter the toxic atmosphere created by fear-mongering and Freedom Fries. Maybe I'll leave out that last part. I can play him Neil Young's "Let's Impeach The President" for a laugh, John Mayer's "Waiting For The World To Change," and even Pink's duet with the Indigo Girls, "Mr. President," that is possibly the most earnest challenge to the bully pulpit ever.

Actually, he needs to hear the whole saga, good and bad. Then it'll be his turn to speak. For all I know, he one day could write the next great consciousness-raising anthem, and God knows we need them. But isn't it heart-breaking that, after all these decades of protest songs, even one more has to be written?

Subscribe to the Entertainment email.
Home to your favorite fan theories and the best movie recs.