Blue Notes

We Insist! Jazz's Five Greatest Protest Songs

The writer and journalist Harriet Martineau said, "If a test of civilization be sought, none can be so sure as the condition of that half of society over which the other half has power." That same test, if applied today, would reveal certain improvements in American society. Yet, based on the recent turbulent events in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., much remains to be done to rectify the present injustices forged upon America's most marginalized.

The seeds of protest due to grave miscarriages of justice for those in pursuit of the same happiness promised by our Declaration of Independence sprung from the soil that yielded the only exclusively American art form, jazz. In the 1950s and 1960s, jazz musicians began eagerly addressing inequality and bigotry, bringing to the foreground the sounds and images of the struggle for equal rights. Max Roach and Charlie Mingus confronted specific incidents head on while Billie Holiday transformed a song composed by a white school teacher horrified by the mass lynchings in the South.

Jazz, at the time America's most widely popular music, listened to by blacks and whites alike, felt the urgency to speak for those yelling from outside of the margins, for those who wanted nothing more than the decency that should be afforded to all men regardless of skin color.

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Stephan Wyatt