10 Influential Political and Protest Folk Music Artists

Young man clapping in night music festival
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A Powerful Tool

Singers protesting Vietnam
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Music is a powerful tool that many singers, songwriters, organizers, and activists have used as a means of protest. From Woody Guthrie to Nina Simone and Dan Bern to Ani DiFranco, American history is filled with incredible activist musicians.

These artists sang for the Civil Rights, feminist, and peace movements. They have also taken a stand for the environment, LGBT rights, and other causes important to people everywhere. 

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Phil Ochs

Phil Ochs Live in Concert at the Newport Folk Festival
Best Political/Protest Singers Phil Ochs. © Robert Corwin, courtesy Sonny Ochs

When it comes to writing protest songs, Phil Ochs had it down to an art. In his unfortunately abbreviated career, Ochs managed to record numerous albums, all of which were rich with protest songs.

Tunes like "Love Me, I'm a Liberal," "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore," and "Is There Anybody Here?" have proven timeless. Despite that, Ochs hardly received the approval he arguably should have in his lifetime.

Talking Blues Protest Songs

Ochs' lyrics spared no person and no subject. His talkin' blues tunes ("Talking Vietnam," "Talking Cuban Crisis," etc.) are among some of the best in the style. During his lifetime, Ochs was instrumental in forming the Youth International Party (aka the "Yippies"), and was involved in a presidential campaign for a pig -- because, why not nominate an actual pig for president?

The War is Over

Indeed, it was often Ochs' sense of humor and no-holds-barred wit that set him apart from his contemporaries. While others tended to keep an eye on their reputations, Ochs came across more concerned with the War is Over movement than anything else. For this, he's named our Best Ever Protest Singer.

Great Albums by Phil Ochs

  • "All the News That's Fit to Sing"
  • "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore"
  • "There But For Fortune"
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Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie - The Asch Recordings CD Cover
Best Political/Protest Singers Woody Guthrie - The Asch Recordings. © Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

Woody Guthrie comes in a close second to Phil Ochs. That is only because Guthrie wrote just as many nonsenses, love, and children's songs as he did songs of protest.

What Guthrie was particularly great at were not even necessarily protest or political songs. His songs were more often just observations on things he saw along his travels. It just happened that stories like "Pretty Boy Floyd" or "Jesus Christ" depicted clear injustices.

Matter-of-Fact Stories

Woody Guthrie's songs didn't serve as a call to action, but instead were simply statements of the truth as he saw it: "This land was made for you and me," "Some men will rob you ... with a fountain pen," etc.

In contrast to the work of Ochs and others, Woody's tunes are less satirical than they are matter-of-fact. As a result, somehow even songs like "Roll On, Columbia," one of Woody's many tributes to the Columbia River, came across as political statements.

Woody Guthrie's Influence

It's the opinion of many people that Guthrie never set out to protest anything, at least not in the sense that many modern protest singers do. His intention was to spark up a conversation, to point out a few things you may not have noticed otherwise, and to raise a few questions.

His style of songwriting was so effective that songwriters that came after him have done what they could to emulate it. While his influence reaches many musical corners, we can certainly see it in the likes of Bob DylanBruce Springsteen, Dan Bern, and others.

Great Albums by Woody Guthrie

  • "Dust Bowl Ballads"
  • "The Columbia River Collection"
  • "The Asch Recordings, Vol. 1: This Land is Your Land "
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Joan Baez

Best Political/Protest Singers Joan Baez. © Dana Tynan

Folksinger Joan Baez has long been an advocate for a number of causes, both in her personal and her professional life.

Her childhood in the Middle East and throughout the world (her father's job kept the family mobile) instilled in her a sense of social justice and the importance of equality and human rights. As a result, Joan quickly opted to use her celebrity to help the Civil Rights movement and later lent her voice to the peace movement to end the war in Vietnam.

Human Rights

Since then, she has sung out, spoken out, and acted out to protect human rights around the globe. She has also been active in the environmental movement and other vital issues. Joan's version of Phil Ochs' "There But For Fortune" can best stand for her values as a protest singer.

Civil Rights

On the morning of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington D.C., it was Joan Baez who started the events of the day. She performed "Oh Freedom"—"Before I'll be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave ... oh freedom over me."

Great Albums by Joan Baez

  • "Bowery Songs"
  • "Diamonds & Rust"
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Holly Near

Protest Folk Singer/Songwriter Holly Near
Best Political/Protest Singers Holly Near. © Pat Hunt

Holly Near may have begun her career as an actor on TV shows like "The Mod Squad," but her most notable work has been that of humanitarian.

In addition to her countless original protest songs, Holly is an extraordinary advocate for both the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Organization of Women (NOW). She was nominated one of 1000 women for the Nobel Peace Prize.

A good portion of Near's website is dedicated to activist resources and information about her humanitarian work.

The Peace Movement

One of Holly's earliest performances was at a VFW-sponsored event. By the time she was in high school, she was singing with the Freedom Singers, a group of folk singers inspired by The Weavers. She toured the Pacific with Jane Fonda in 1971, supporting the movement of GIs against the war.

By the mid-70s, Holly was touring the country, singing in union halls and performing her feminist and anti-war folk songs. She also recorded these on her own independent record label.

People's Rights

Well before the women's singer/songwriter boom of the 1990s, Holly Near was singing out for women's rights, civil rights, the rights of the American worker and farmer, LGBT rights, and peace in the face of an unpopular war.

Great Albums by Holly Near

  • "Early Warnings"
  • "Show Up"
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Pete Seeger

Activist Singer/Songwriter Pete Seeger
Best Political/Protest Singers Pete Seeger. © Sony, 1963

Pete Seeger is, without question, one of America's best protest singers and songwriters. If anyone picked up the torch where Woody Guthrie left off -- writing simple, matter-of-fact protest songs -- Pete Seeger is definitely the man.

Human and Civil Rights

When he was called before the Committee on UnAmerican Activities during the McCarthy Era, Seeger invoked the First Amendment's freedom to associate with any person or group, even if they are communists. He was blacklisted, of course, as a result, but it didn't hurt his career much.

Seeger managed to go on writing and finding great American protest songs. Among his many achievements, he popularized great spirituals like "We Shall Overcome" to motivate the Civil Rights movement and peace songs like "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" to motivate the anti-Vietnam War movement. Seeger's more recent efforts to preserve the Hudson River were just as notable.

It is undoubted that Pete Seeger's life and career have been dedicated to peace and social justice.

The Environment

Even more so than being a great song-finder, songwriter, and storyteller, Pete Seeger does a remarkable job at getting people to sing along with him. It can even be argued that great movements have been made through sing-along protests, and Seeger's contribution to this is immeasurable.

Up until his death in 2014, Seeger continued to speak out for peace and human rights. Yet, his later efforts primarily focused on environmental preservation near his home in Upstate New York. His annual Clearwater Music Festival is run on green power and the proceeds go to cleaning up the Hudson River Valley.

Great Albums by Pete Seeger

  • "We Shall Overcome - Complete Carnegie Hall"
  • "American Industrial Ballads"
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Utah Phillips

Utah Phillips CD Cover
Best Political/Protest Singers Utah Phillips. © Daemon Records

Utah Phillips is, like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, part protest singer, part storyteller and poet, and part folklorist. He has always been a bit of a character and certainly led an eventful life.

Phillips spent many of his teenage years riding the rails and eventually defected during his time as a soldier in the Korean War. He also ran for the U.S. Senate and spent many of his later years as a traveling folk singer before his death in 2008.

The Labor Movement

His songs and stories bring together his outstandingly entertaining sense of humor with his gut-level desire for social justice. Phillips (whose "real" name is Bruce) has particularly been a champion and vibrant activist for the labor movement.

He resurrected many of the songs from the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, a.k.a. Wobblies) songbook and kept alive the stories about working class heroes like Mother Jones and Joe Hill.

Great Albums by Utah Phillips

  • "We Have Fed You All a Thousand Year"
  • "The Moscow Hold and Other Stories"
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Dan Bern

Singer/Songwriter Dan Bern Live in Concert in Seattle
Best Political/Protest Singers Dan Bern Live in Concert in Seattle. courtesy Messenger Records

When Dan Bern burst onto the scene in 1997, his debut album was part Bob Dylan, part Lenny Bruce, but not so much full of protest music. Then, after 9/11 and the ensuing wars, Bern started releasing album after album of protest songs.

His 2004 in-time-for-elections album "Anthems" may not have succeeded in getting George W. Bush voted out of office, but it was, arguably, some of Bern's best work to date.

"Bush Must Be Defeated"

Employing the standards of great protest singers who came before him, Dan took the protest song a bit further. He made a blatant call to action with tunes like "Bush Must Be Defeated" and "Revolution Begins in the Basement."

Statements and Observations

Bern's 2006 effort, "Breathe" may be more overtly personal than political, but the basic intention is still there. Even in his most personal moments, Bern is still more reporter than love song singer.

Bern is more of a natural poet and approaches his political tunes with the eye of a painter. Picking up where Guthrie and others left off, Bern's songs have evolved into statements about what he sees around him. More often than not, these depict as much beauty worth preserving as injustices worth correcting.

In his subsequent albums, Bern has not dropped the political or social commentary. Album titles like "​Adderal Holiday" and "Hoody" speak volumes to the type of songwriting he continues to do.

Great Albums by Dan Bern

  • "New American Language"
  • "My Country II"
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Ani Difranco

Ani Difranco Live at Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons, CO, 2006
Best Political/Protest Singers Ani Difranco Live at Rocky Mountain Folks Festival—Lyons, CO, 2006. © Kim Ruehl, licensed to About.com

When Ani Difranco released her debut album in 1990, there was no mistaking her mission. From the beginning, Ani has focused on feminism and social justice, although in more recent years, she's also developed a strong environmentalist bent.

Her hugely successful independent record label is considerably active in Buffalo, New York. They assist local small businesses and other causes important to the community.

Environmentalist

Even when it comes to the packaging for her CDs and the merchandise she sells at her shows, Difranco has taken an environmentalist path. She uses renewable resources for packaging and supports printers who use biodegradable inks.

Feminist

DiFranco was also honored in 2006 by the National Organization of Women for her efforts in furthering the feminist movement. Aside from her work as a devout activist for the environment, civil rights, feminism and LGBT rights, she's also focused on all these things in her songwriting.

A consummate poet, songwriter, activist, and artist, Difranco has rarely, if ever, distinguished her personal politics from her professional path. As a result, she's managed to inspire a slew of young girls to action.

Great Albums by Ani Difranco

  • "Not So Soft"
  • "To the Teeth"
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Steve Earle

Steve Earle Live at Camp Casey
Best Political/Protest Singers Steve Earle Live at Camp Casey. © Jeff Paterson

Steve Earle's career really began when he was hanging out with the late, great Townes Van Zandt, who became a mentor. Earle would later run into a battle with drugs and alcohol and a stint in the slammer. Yet, upon his return to music, Earle cleaned up and started releasing protest albums.

Becoming a Protest Singer

Earle had, for quite some time, been a vocal advocate for a moratorium on the death penalty and began working his politics into his music. While there are some decidedly pointed tunes on his records, Earle's main focus has been on generic social justice: human rights, peace, civil rights, etc.

Ending the War in Iraq

In 2005, he joined Joan Baez and others who trekked to Texas to support the protest of Cindy Sheehan. Her son had been killed in the Iraq War and she was camping outside George W. Bush's ranch hoping that he would eventually meet with her (he didn't).

Earle's vocal opposition to the Iraq War is no secret, and it falls in line with the rest of his body of work over the past several years. His 2004 release, "​The Revolution Starts ... Now," was one of many efforts by many artists to motivate people who opposed the Bush Administration policies on Iraq and other issues to get out the vote.

Great Albums by Steve Earle

  • "The Revolution Starts ... Now"
  • "Jerusalem"