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Power To The People

Protest songs about financial inequality and abuse of power from the oldies era

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Most protest songs from the '50s, '60s, and '70s dealt, when they made it on the radio at all, with racism and war. But poverty was also a huge issue, and the economic inequality America suffered under even then was seen as a byproduct of government inaction, abuse of power, misguided spending, and class warfare. Sound familiar? Whatever your idea of economic justice, you can probably find some revolutionary sentiment to hold on to in these ten classic oldies, all of which protested the power government holds on the people.

1. "You Haven't Done Nothin'," Stevie Wonder

Possibly Stevie Wonder's hardest funk number -- a fact that is incredibly impressive all on its own -- this bitter protest was specifically addressed at US President Richard Nixon and his failure, after nearly two terms in office, to address the economic injustice still suffered by blacks (despite the best efforts of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement). Nixon was removed from office just two weeks later thanks to the Watergate scandal, but this hard-charging stomp still works as a general attack on economically apathetic government leaders. Especially with the added emotional boost of The Jackson 5, backing Stevie up in the chorus! Dooly wop!

2. "(For God's Sake) Give More Power to the People," The Chi-Lites

They're best known to pop audiences for their ballads, sweet pseudo-Philly soul classics like "Oh Girl" and "Have You Seen Her?" Yet this vocal group had a funky side, too, and a political one, which is why this smooth, psychedelic soul song rocketed to #3 on the R&B charts. Mission statement: "There's some people up there hogging everything... if they're gonna throw it away, might as well give some to me." In just a few verses, this anthem manages to show how poverty breeds crime, how the middle class is bought off, and how the system, despite what we're told, may be set up to destroy social mobility.

3. "Power to the People," John Lennon

Though not generally considered his finest work, this ex-Beatle's 1972-1974 period of intense social activism occasionally produced some stirring music, including "Power To The People," which Lennon intended to be sung my marchers in the street, much as he envisioned with "Give Peace A Chance." This retro rocker has more form than that earlier singalong, as well as a glossy yet thick Phil Spector production that doesn't intrude on the sentiment. But despite lines like "A million workers working for nothing / You better give 'em what they really own" and a verse that looks at the movement's own treatment of women as second-class citizens, "Peace" seems to be history's favorite.

4. "Fight the Power," The Isley Brothers

The phrase "fight the power" is better known to music aficionados these days through a Public Enemy song, since the pioneering hip-hop group created a huge hit in 1989 merely by lifting the phrase "we gotta fight the powers that be." This Isley Brothers number works better on the dance floor, though, with its light, breezy funk. It also looks (well, glances) at the dilemma faced by musicians who become aware of economic inequality but feel straitjacketed by their coporate owners... and also vaguely suggests that lifestyle choices may be in their bosses' potential sights as well.

5. "Impeach the President," The Honeydrippers

No matter what President you're trying to remove from office -- and the polls suggest many people now see no difference between them -- this legendary slice of funk, endlessly sampled in hip-hop and '90s dance music, can serve as the anthem. Written, once again, about Nixon and his criminal charges, it announces hat the group "just got back from Washington DC" and wants the Commander in Chief out of there, regardless of what any jury says. Fortunately for us all, it never got that far.

6. "Get Up, Stand Up," Bob Marley and the Wailers

What could arguably be called the Wailers' signature song was racial, directed squarely at European Christianity and its vision of future heaven, vs. Rastafari, its living leader Haile Selassie, and its vision of heaven on earth. But there is, by necessity, a strong anti-colonialism streak running through the song as subtext; for a rasta, his religion is as inextricable from his people's struggles as is the faith of Jews or Muslims or Christians. In the Wailers' eyes, Western theology and economic slavery are considered one and the same.

7. "The Times They Are a-Changin'," Bob Dylan

The list of Bob Dylan protest songs in his back catalog stretches out longer than his "endless" road itinerary; it's what made him a household name. But as weighty and poignant as they are, they're mostly tied into a specific time and place. "Changin'" is one of the few protest songs that can be said to be truly timeless, due to the sheer poetic weight of its message, adaptable to any cause where a new band of rebels takes on an established old guard. Its Biblical clothing ("For him that are first now will later be last") and the gentle Irish lilt of its melody make it especially venerable, as if it had been discovered rather than written. As Dylan himself has stated, "It's not a statement. It's a feeling."

8. "Take This Job and Shove It," Johnny Paycheck

David Allan Coe, no stranger to the lunchpail-and-hardhat crowd, penned this 1978 smash as a typical country hard-luck tale: the singer only finds the nerve to quit his miserable low-paying job because his wife has left him, and he has no one to provide for. (Remember, this was 1978.) The reason that aspect of the song is often forgotten is because of what comes next -- not just the singalong hook, but the verses where singer Johnny Paycheck grumbles about his supervisors and watches his coworkers get old and die poor. The lyrics struck such a chord with the working class, the hit became a major Hollywood movie!

9. "Funky President (People It's Bad)," James Brown

More lighthearted than many of these other entries on the list, even nimble, what with James Brown (and what sounds like a female appreciation society) going on about how great it would be if he got the chance to become the Hardest Working Man in Washington. But listen closer, and you hear Brown rap about some home truths, truths which sound far too much like our present predicament: "Stock market going up, jobs goin' down," "Let's get together, get some land / raise our food like the Man," "Taxes keep going up / Changed from a glass / now I drink from a paper cup / It's gettin' bad."

10. "Fortunate Son," Creedence Clearwater Revival

Tax loopholes. Wealthy draft dodgers. Expensive wars. It's pretty depressing that the same problems John Fogerty so expertly grumbled about in 1969 could be affecting the republic some 40 years later. One of rock and roll's most celebrated protest songs, Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" manages, in the middle of a turbulent Americana jam, to tag money as the main corrupter of America, the main culprit in keeping the poor locked into an existence that was (and arguably is) dangerous, oppressive, and ridiculous. The best thing about the raveup, however, is how John turns "It ain't me," his admission of poverty and lack of station, into a rallying cry. Class warfare? Maybe -- but according to John, the other side fired the first shot. Literally.
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