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Inspirational and Political Music Anthems That Brought People Together

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Billy Holiday recording live at Columbia Records in 1957. Photo credit: Ed Hunstein.

The Covid – 19 Global pandemic, along with the social distancing recommendations from the CDC has affected all of our lives drastically. It has been absolutely devastating for the music industry as a whole. It has instantly put a stop to all tours, festivals and live concerts throughout the world.

 Still… Many bands and performers such as, The Dropkick Murphy’sReverend Horton Heat and many more are finding creative ways to keep on entertaining us with live streaming. Music has always succeeded in giving us hope and has helped to create unity and understanding during the darkest of times. Here are ten of the greatest music anthems ever…

1. Billie Holiday - "Strange Fruit"

“Strange Fruit” is considered to be one of the most prolific and greatest anthems of all time. It started out as a poem, written by Abel Meeropol in 1939. Meeropol was Jewish and also considered to be a radical, as he was a member a member of the American Communist party.  Former Senator, Joseph McCarthy and his assistants were hunting down people, who subscribed to this political party like witches in the U.S.A. during that era.

This haunting and beautiful song, sung by the legendary, Billie Holiday juxtaposes images of the beautiful North American southern landscapes, along with dead black corpses hanging a from tree branches. Holiday’s version of this song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It is also included as a part of the “Songs of the Century,” which was recorded by National Endowment of the Arts, (NEA) and the American Recording Industry. Many performers have covered this tune. These include, Nina Simone, UB40 and Siouxsie and The Banshees

2. "For What Its Worth" - Buffalo Springfield

The song “For What Its Worth” was written by Stephen Stills, while he was a member of the band, Buffalo Springfield. Stills, a highly gifted singer, songwriter went on to become a member of the band, Crosby, Stills Nash and Young. He has generated over $30 million dollars in record sales during the course of his career.

On the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, Ca., some owners and locals, who lived near or operated near live music venues such as The Whiskey A Go – Go became annoyed by crowds, who loitered outside before and after live performances. These people obtained a small victory, in getting a petition to stop the crowds from gathering. At least for a short while…

However, many music enthusiasts were not happy about this. They believed it was a violation of their civil rights. So much so, that on November 12, 1966 a protest occurred in front of the Pandora’s Box Social Club. Several people, who were at the protest wound up being arrested, including actors, Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson. This Buffalo Springfield song become one of the most popular counter culture and anti war anthems ever recorded.

A picture from the November 12th protest in  front of Pandora’s box in Los Angeles, Ca. In 1966. Photo Credit: The Los Angeles Times Newspaper.

“For What Its Worth” was recorded at ATCO studios in 1966 and  went straight to #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1967. In fact, many people believe that the song was written about the Kent State massacre. But, this song was actually recorded before this event took place. In addition to this, the song is almost an expected tune for any popular period film about the war in Vietnam. It was featured in the movies, Born on the 4th of July and Forrest Gump.

3. "Sunday Bloody Sunday" - U2

The band originally from Ireland, U2 in 1983. From left to right: Bono – lead vocalist, The Edge – guitarist, Adam Clayton – bassist, Larry Mullen Jr. – drummer. Photo Credit: Paul Slattery

What has become known simply as “the troubles,” has been causing death, war and destruction between England and N. Ireland for centuries. The event that has become immortalized in rock music and popular culture known as “Bloody Sunday,” occurred in Derry, Ireland in January of 1972.

British soldiers shot 28 unarmed people, who were attending a protest. Many of the victims, were shot point blank in the head. The band U2 recorded the song eleven years later on their album “War,” released in 1972. When lead vocalist Bono asks, “how long, how long must we sing this song?” He is referring to the reactions of the Northern Irish people against the British soldiers, who participated  murdering innocent civilians. Later on in the song, Bono also makes reference to a boy, who is waving a bloody hankerchief. 

4. "99 Luftballoons" - Nena

Promotional picture of the music group Nena – circa 1984. From Left to right: Jürgen Dehmel – bassist, Rolf Brendel – Drummer, Jörn – Uwe Fahrenkrog – keyboardist, Carlo Karges – guitarist. Nena (Gabrielle Suzanne Kerner) – lead vocalist.  Photo Credit: Wikipedia

In this clever, creative song, with the light and whimsical progression, there is A LOT more going on… Nena describes the excitement she experiences, when she purchases 99 red balloons. She takes them and lets them go up into the sky. However, the balloons wind up being detected on Doplar radar and the situation nearly winds up provoking a nuclear war.

Guitarist, Carlos Karges recalls how he acquired inspiration for the song when he saw red balloons being released into the sky at a Rolling Stones concert. This song has became a political anthem, which addressed the complex array of emotions between the Russian and American people during the Cold War.

 Also, it is a reflection of the state of mind of the German people, post WWII. Although Germany was in shambles, the hopes in dreams of the people were the red balloons that Nena was referring to in this song never died… This song appears frequently on rock music greatest hits from the 1980’s.

5. "Ohio" - Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

The musical super group C.S.N.&Y. live in concert – circa 1970’s. From left to right: Stephen Stills – guitarist vocalist / songwriter, David Crosby – guitarist, vocalist / songwriter, Graham Nash – vocalist, Neil Young – guitarist, vocalist / songwriter. Photo credit: John McGinnis

There are not too many people raised in the western world, who have not seen the Life Magazine Cover photo of the Kent State massacre. The award winning picture was taken by John Filo. The image shows 14 year old, Mary Vecchio, who is crouched down beside the dead body of Jeff Miller. 

Miller was fatally shot in the mouth by the Ohio National Guard during a what was supposed to be a peaceful, anti – war protest in 1970. The students and people at Kent State that were there that fateful day were protesting the Nixon Administration’s decision to invade Cambodia during the Vietnam – USA conflict.

Image of student, Mary Vecchio crouched beside the dead body of Jeff Miller as a result of the Kent State massacre. Interesting to note: Ms. Vecchio is wearing a t – shirt with the word slave on it…

One person, who was shocked and appalled by the massacre was Canadian born singer, songwriter, multi – instrumentalist, Neil Young. He instantly wrote the song and played it for the rest of the band. 

The song is a direct response to the Nixon Administration and how unhappy Americans, who  belonged to the counter culture were with this former President and his cabinet members. This song is considered by many to be one of the greatest political anthems of all time for popular music.

6. "Ball of Confusion" Love and Rockets

The Love and Rockets cover of “Ball of Confusion,” released in 1985. Lead vocalist / guitarist – Daniel Ash, David J. – bassist, Kevin Haskins – drummer.

The original version of this song was written and performed by The Temptations in 1970. It was produced by Norman Whitfield. The lyrics are written in a stream of consciousness format. When perforned, it creates a layered, collage effect over a music progression that is linear in structure.

The lyrical content address a variety of topics including, the Vietnam War, segregation, white night, drug abuse, corrupt politicians and many more. However… There is not a diffinitive point of view politically with the lyrics of the song.That was a deliberate decision made by Barry Gordy, C.E.O. of Motown Records. He did not want to risk alienating any potential conservative listeners. 

In 1985, the rock and roll power trio, Love and Rockets created a cover version of the song. The song was released in 1986. Daniel Ash, David J. and Kevin Haskins are all former members of the legendary Gothic Rock band, Bauhaus. This song is on their first album, Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven. Upon it’s release, the song immediately went to number 18 on the Canadian rock music charts.

7. "Fight The Power" - Public Enemy

Public Enemy, Hip Hop – Rap group, circa mid 1980’s. Photo Credit: Kevin Shung /

 In 1989, the Hip – Hop rap group, Public Enemy, hit a nerve by capturing “the sounds of the street…” The song was specifically written for the highly anticipated film, “Do the Right Thing,” directed by Spike Lee. It can be found on the group’s album, “Fear of a Black Planet.” Lead Rapper in the group, Chuck D. addressed the psychological and emotional struggles of the black community in America. Particularly black males, who were accosted by the police. Also, Chuck D talks about how when he did not group up with an abundance of black role models,

“Cuz I’m black and I’m proud and I’m hyped, plus I’m amped. Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps…” 

This song was automatically embraced and became one of the most popular and recognizable hip  hop songs of all time. It also succeeded in “crossing over” musical genres and was appreciated by musical enthusiasts, who were not just specifically into Hip – Hop music. As a single, “Fight the Power” reached number one on Hot Rap Singles. It also landed on #20 on the Hot R&B Singles. It was called the best single of 1989 by the Village Voice.

8. "The Revolution Will Not be Televised" / Gil Scott - Heron

Gil Scott – Heron was a respected author, poet, musician and composer. He also became highly interested in the art form of Spoken Word and is considered one of the founding father’s of – Slam poetry.

In the song, the reason Scott – Heron believes that the revolution is something that will never be televised is because it will take place inside of peoples minds…The song was written in 1971 and is on Scott – Heron’s album, “Small Talk on 125 and Lennox.” 

Scott – Heron takes on the role of commentator over a groovy, R&B progression, accompanied by conga drums. He also displayed his sense of humor as a lyricist in the song. This is demonstrated by lines such as, “the revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal…” The song was inducted into the National Recording Registry in 2005.               

9. "Do They Know It's Christmas?" - Band Aid

Not many events have brought the world together like the world concert Live Aid in 1984. When it was over, it had been watched by over a billion people that were spread out over 125 nations. 

The music for this song was written and performed by the band, Ultravox. The lyrics were written by Live Aid event organizer, Bob Geldof. The whole song, sung by a multitude of different vocalists – musicians was recorded in just 24 hours. 

Not everyone was a fan of the song. Morrissey, the often controversial, former lead vocalist for the band, The Smiths had this to say, “it’s the most self righteous platform ever in the history of popular music…”

This single raised over $14 million dollars for famine relief in Africa. The Irish are not eligible to receive a knighthood from The Queen. However, Bob Geldof did wind up receiving a KBE, which the Irish equivalent of knighthood. He is known now as Sir or St. Bob. The Live Aid concert successfully raised over $127 million dollars in famine relief funding.

10. "Imagine" - John Lennon

Initially, what was thought of by some to be a sappy, hippie song about peace has actually got some quite radical, powerful undertones, if you take the time to analyze the lyrics. John Lennon recorded this song live in 1971 in his home studio in Tittenhurst Park in England. The final master overdubs were recorded at The Power Plant in NYC. When the song was released as a single in the USA it went straight to number three, on the Billboard Hot 100 list.

 Tragically, nine years later, Lennon was returning to a different home one evening. The Dakota Building in Manhattan,  NYC when he was assassinated by a diabolical, Mark David Chapman. His wife, artist and poet, songwriter and creative collaborator, Yoko Ono was by his side when he died from four fatal gun shot wounds. Not many people know that Ono actually co – wrote this song with her husband.

In the song, Lennon dares the listener to think about a world without religion, without the trappings of social constructs, morals and values that people in the Western World are raised with. Lennon asks the listener to imagine further. A world with no countries, boundaries and “nothing to kill or die for…”

Like the song “Sweet Fruit” this song was inducted into The Grammy Hall of Fame, under the 500 Songs That Shaped the World Category. The Guinness World Records British Hit Singles Book named it the second best single of all time. Former US President, Jimmy Carter had this to say about “Imagine.” 

“In many countries around the world – my wife and I have visited about 125 countries – you hear John Lennon’s song, “Imagine” used almost equally with national anthems…”

Article by Ash Andersen

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